The news from Syria is really bad these days. And bad stuff in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria – though Syrian civilians are paying by far the biggest price. With outside governments calling the shots in a civil war, arming both sides, and motivated less by concern for civilians than by their own narrow national interests, we’ve got serious trouble.
And right now unfortunately, that outside super-power game remains dominant. Syria has become the crucible for a number of separate wars, battles for power and influence, for regional resources and access, for strategic location and military expansion. These wars pit regional contenders of the Arab Gulf states and Turkey against Syria and Iran. They set the terms of the rising sectarian battle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Qatar vs. Shi’a power in Syria, Iraq and Iran. They shape the Middle East competition between the U.S. and Russia for global military/strategic power. And crucially, of course, Syria is a central component of the U.S., Israeli and western campaign against Iran.
Even UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon, who usually reflects Washington’s positions, acknowledged that the Syrian conflict has become a “proxy war.” He called on the major powers to overcome their rivalries to figure out how to stop the violence. So far, no such move is underway. It should not be forgotten that Moscow's implacable hold on its naval base at Tartus, on Syria's southern Mediterranean coast, matches perfectly Washington's commitment to the Bahrain port that hosts the Pentagon's 5th fleet. Russia will fight for its Tartus base to the last Syrian – just as the U.S. will do anything, including supporting a Saudi military intervention to suppress peaceful Bahraini protesters, to keep the 5th fleet in port.
And none of those players have any interest in what happens to the Syrian people.
Syria's Democratic Opposition Alive but "Drowned Out in the Cacophony of Artillery and Rifle Fire"
The little bit of good news, such as it is, is that the original democratic, largely non-violent Syrian movement that rose defiantly in early 2011 as part of the Arab Spring, has not entirely disappeared. Former ABC News chief in the Middle East and long-time Syria hand Charlie Glass described:
"the people who actually started this, people who had done time in prison over the years, who were prisoners of the Assad regime who wanted popular demonstrations, who wanted civil disobedience, who wanted negotiations with the regime, to have a transition — a peaceful transition — in which they would ultimately be freed elections by which the regime could would lose, those people’s voices are being drowned out in the cacophony of artillery and rifle fire all around Syria at this time. These people, I think, are disenchanted with the United States. …[T]hose people in the peaceful opposition do not want to become pawns in a super power game."
Charlie Glass is right. In the United States at least, we do not hear those voices. The opposition voices we hear are those the U.S. has embraced as its own – the widely disparate, disconnected, mostly unaccountable militias of the Free Syrian Army, and the exile-based and badly divided political forces grouped in the National Syrian Council. All those groups are being strengthened with money, new weapons, and crucially, political endorsement from the U.S., Europe and their regional allies. They clearly have some level of support inside Syria, as does the regime itself, but it’s far from clear just whom the western-backed armed opposition really represent.
The internal opposition remains – holding on to political mobilization, remaining committed to non-violence as much as possible, and opposing U.S. or other international involvement in the military struggle.
But in the meantime, there are deadly battles raging in the ancient city of Aleppo and in parts of Damascus itself, as well as in towns across the country. The government military has escalated its attacks, though it faces serious challenges in personnel and especially in equipment, helicopter gunships and other weapons unable to cope with the blistering heat and sand of a Syrian summer. The opposition military forces appear to be stronger, with access to tanks and other heavy equipment either captured from government bases or brought over with defecting soldiers. Unlike much of the internal democratic, non-violent opposition, the NSC and the FSA completely reject any negotiations or political settlement supported by many Syrians inside. But there can and will be no military solution to the Syria crisis.
The role of outside forces reinforcing either side’s military serves only to expand the fighting. The weakening of either military force could reduce the brutal cycle of fighting. The government military appears to be facing new military challenges from equipment degradation and through defections, which could help reduce the fighting. But the rising sectarianism of the Syrian conflict remains dangerous. The flight of high-ranking government officials from inside the Syrian regime, such as the recent defection of Prime Minister Riad Hijab, represents a powerful attack on the regime’s legitimacy. But almost all of the most senior defectors are from the few non-Alawites among the top echelons of Syria’s military and political elites. Hijab, for example, is a Sunni. So the Alawite identity of the Syrian government’s remaining power center is stronger than ever. The Syrian military could be reduced to essentially an Alawite militia, with the regime left intact but forced to retreat to an isolated Alawite redoubt. A divided, balkanized Syria looms as a dangerous possibility.
Increasing the militarization of the conflict – including by repairing or replacing the regime’s weapons, or sending more, better, heavier arms to the opposition – will not end the killing, it will lead to more.
At the moment the Obama administration seems clear it does not want or intend to join the fighting in Syria – certainly not with ground troops, and for now not with warplanes or bombs either. The most important reason is that the Syria military, especially its anti-aircraft defense system, is one of the strongest in the region. A U.S. bombing campaign in Syria, unlike in Libya, would not simply end when the pilots turned their planes around and flew home.
As then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates reminded us last year while discussing Libya, establishing a no-fly zone "begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That's the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts." That was Libya –which had virtually no anti-aircraft defense system. This is Syria. If they bomb Syria, U.S. planes will be shot down. Pilots will almost certainly be killed or captured. That puts the U.S. right into the war, not as supporters of one side, but as participants on the ground. Because even if you didn’t intend to send in ground troops, when the first pilot is shot down, his boots will be on the ground. And that means other troops – probably special forces – will be sent in to rescue the pilot, and some of them get captured or killed, and Syria starts to look much more like Iraq than Libya.
Kofi Annan Resigns
On the United Nations and international diplomatic front, there are two new developments: Kofi Annan's resignation and the Security Council's inability to agree on a resolution that might help end the fighting in Syria.
Given the primacy of outside actors, and despite the escalation of the war, the former secretary general’s decision to resign from his post as UN (and officially, Arab League) envoy on Syria was certainly understandable, absolutely reasonable, and maybe inevitable. Annan was not even close to success in achieving a ceasefire, the starting point of his six-point peace plan. But his resignation reflects two stark realities. First, that as is always the case, outside players – most especially the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Russia, Iran – are operating solely for the own narrow strategic interests, not for the interests of the Syrian people. And second, the UN Security Council and its member states provided no support for any potential political solution, acting instead to strengthen the military forces on both sides.
It is telling that Annan directly criticized the Council and its members, especially the five permanent members – Britain, China, France, Russia, U.K., U.S. – known as the Perm Five. While the Council had endorsed the Annan plan early on, there was never any real support for it or for the work of the UN observer team in Syria. The three U.S.-British-French resolutions called for harsh UN sanctions and a range of other economic and diplomatic pressures on the Syrian regime. They were all vetoed by Russia and China. The U.S. and its allies maintained (and for the moment, probably truthfully) that it had no intention of engaging directly in the military battle against the Syrian government. But the three insisted all of those resolutions be taken under Chapter VII of the UN Charter – the same precondition required to authorize the use of force.
The resolutions might well have set the political stage for direct U.S./European/NATO participation in the fighting. Looking at the precedent of last year’s Council vote on Libya, when the Council-authorized “no-fly zone” was immediately transformed into an all-out U.S./NATO air war, that kind of escalation was a reasonable assumption.
We’ll never know whether, for instance, Russia might have accepted resolutions calling for pressure, even perhaps including an arms embargo (prohibiting military sales, assistance, repairs or anything else) to both sides – if they were not based on Chapter VII. That might have actually had some value. Instead the resolutions failed.
But is the UN paralyzed, or is it actually doing its job?
Ironically enough, the great divide between the Perm Three (the U.S., Britain and France) and the Perm Two (Russia and China), that stalemated the chance of a Chapter VII authorization, actually allowed the Council to follow its Charter obligation to prevent the “scourge of war” from spreading further. In other words, if the Council had agreed on a Chapter VII resolution, there would have been a greater likelihood of escalation and more violence, than of bringing a quick end to the war.
There is a kind of revisionist history of the United Nations. The terrible legacy of the “humanitarian interventions” of the 1990s and the Iraq War of 2003 means the UN is considered a failure when it rejects participation in military action, rather than being recognized as a failure when it joins the war train. We should remember that one of the greatest achievements of the UN was the refusal of the Security Council to endorse George W. Bush’s war on Iraq in 2002-03. The eight months of UN resistance brought the global institution into partnership with the extraordinary global peace movement of that period – the moment when “the world said no to war.” That should be a moment to reclaim, not to reject.
One of Syria’s non-violent resistance leaders, Michel Kilo, was part of the opposition delegation that travelled to Moscow, meeting with Russian officials to try to figure out a strategy to end the fighting. "If this destruction goes on and the ruling regime wins, it will rule over ruin and thus suffer a strategic defeat. If the opposition wins, it will inherit the country in an unmanageable condition. In any case, it is necessary to stop this violence, stop this bloodshed."