The brave, nonviolent Syrian challenge to a brutal dictatorship emerged as part of the Arab risings across the region. But that short Syrian spring of 2011 has long since morphed into an escalation of militarization and death. The International Committee of the Red Cross acknowledged what many already recognized: Syria is immersed in full-scale civil war. As is true in every civil war, civilian casualties are horrific and rising.
Certainly the regime has carried out brutal acts against civilians, including war crimes. The armed opposition is also responsible for attacks leading to the deaths of civilians. Indications are growing of outside terrorist forces operating in Syria as well.
Of course the normal human reaction is “we’ve got to do something!” But however dire the situation facing Syrian civilians, the likelihood that any outside military attacks would actually help the situation is very remote. Despite defections, Syria’s military, especially its air force, remains one of the strongest in the Arab world, and direct outside military involvement, especially by the United States, NATO, or other longstanding opponents of Syria would inevitably mean even greater carnage. U.S.-NATO military intervention didn’t bring stability, democracy, or security to Libya, and it certainly is not going to do so in Syria.
Syria’s war is erupting in a region still seething in the aftermath of the U.S. war in Iraq and the sectarian legacies it left behind. The fighting is also now taking on an increasingly sectarian form — and the danger is rising of Syria becoming the center of an expanded regional war pitting Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Shia-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq.
Iran is the most important reason for U.S. interest in Syria. With continuing U.S.-EU sanctions on Iran, and Israeli threats of military attack, Syria remains a tempting proxy target. Damascus’s longstanding economic, political, and military ties with Tehran mean that efforts to undermine Syria are widely understood to be at least partly aimed at undermining Iran.
Certainly the United States, the EU, and the U.S.-backed Arab monarchies would prefer a more anti-Iranian, less resistance-oriented government in Syria, which borders key countries of U.S. interest including Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey. They would also prefer a less repressive government, since brutality brings protesters out into the streets, threatening instability.
But as has virtually always been the case, a U.S. decision to send fighter jets or bombers or even ground troops to Syria won’t be because Washington is suddenly worried about Syrian civilians. The Assad regime has brutalized civilians for years, but it has been way too useful for Washington to worry about such things. Damascus accepted U.S. detainees for interrogation and torture in the so-called global war on terror, it sent warplanes to join the U.S. Gulf War coalition attacking Iraq in 1991, it kept the occupied Golan Heights and the Israeli border largely pacified… and human rights violations were never a problem for the United States. As State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland admitted, “We are not always consistent.”
Whatever our humanitarian concerns might be, real decisions about direct military intervention will be made with little regard for Syrian civilians, Syrian civil society, or Syria’s national survival — all of which will suffer consequences that could last a generation or more. A U.S.-NATO air war against Syria would likely not end like Libya’s — with no Western casualties and a quick exit. Given Syria’s military, especially air capacity, it will look far more like Iraq than Libya.
Diplomacy is the only way this war will be ended. Accountability for war crimes, whether in national or international jurisdictions, is crucial — but stopping the current escalation of war must come first.
The U.N. may be able to facilitate that process. The U.N. observer mission has been a political football, with the United States demanding the Security Council vote under Chapter VII, setting the stage for military intervention. Russia, determined to protect its naval base on the Syrian coast, rejected Chapter VII. A compromise allowed a 30-day extension, but the real goal should be expansion of both the deployment and its mandate, from observation alone to attempts at political negotiation.
The head of the U.N. observer mission, Norwegian Gen. Robert Mood, described his team’s success in some areas “to facilitate local dialogues between the parties as they seek to find a step by step way to build confidence and stop the negative spiral of violence. … We observe a significant reduction of violence and growing confidence in a possible step by step approach to stop the violence. … [T]he political dialogue has to be brought inside Syria. … Through that dialogue, and lifting it to the national level, we will then achieve a cessation of violence.”
That kind of bottom-up ceasefire effort, moving from the local to the national level, may offer the best chance to re-engage the nonviolent core of the Syrian uprising and those opposition forces inside who are prepared to negotiate, bringing some hope that the U.N. team on the ground may be able to bring about what the Security Council has so far failed to achieve: a real ceasefire. Then the work to achieve the Syrian spring’s goals of democracy and human rights may have a chance.
Originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.