Reacting to the Escalating Crackdown in Syria
Previously published on Jun 16, 2011
The increasingly violent crackdown against the populous uprisings in Syria and the failure of the International Community to offer an adequate response demonstrates the gap between the desire of the International Community to believe in humanitarian principles and the ability to achieve those aspirations. While powerful world leaders may condemn the Bashar al-Assad regime, the modern global order only affords us the capacity to watch as events unfold. Outside pressure may help prevent full blown genocide, but elements of the Syrian government and military must either seize power for their People or protestors must be prepared to pursue a long-term rebellion.
The trouble with authoritarian regimes is their use of suppressive tactics leaves their leaders unable to freely embrace reforms. President al-Assad, who studied medicine in London, may well be unable to defy far darker elements within his government, so pressuring him will do little good. Since outside intervention is lacking, the most promising developments are mounting defections within the military and government. This means changes can only come about through unrelenting pressure on and by fracturing elements within his regime. Given Iran is bolstering the current government, international pressure led by Turkey offers support to the People, especially potential defectors.
Regrettably, the International Community will not come to the rescue of the Syrian People. Militarily, the only country capable of extending overwhelming assets against the Syrian military, aside from perhaps Russia, is the United State, which is already over committed, while the Syrian state is a far greater tactical challenge than Libya. Unfortunately, this means Syria can outright commit mass atrocities without fear of an immediate, credible international military strike. On the other hand, Syria may face a greater risk of armed intervention once the Libyan conflict transitions into a reconstruction phase.
Looking at the long-term solution of sanctions, Russia has been a major roadblock for strong, meaningful measures. This is so because Russia has strategic diplomatic ties with Syria while Moscow does not wish to invite criticism of its own internal policy toward unrest nor does the Russian government desire to see America dominate global politics. In addition, the Russians may well feel the best way to manage mass unrest in the Middle East is to encourage stability through the use of crackdowns. Ultimately, such a path can only work as a short-term solution that leads to ongoing unrest. Consequently, Russia and other global players are resisting further intervention in the Middle East.
Regrettably, Syria's fairly isolated status as a rogue state means the West has little influence over it. By avoiding strong language against the al-Assad government's behavior until lately, the Obama Administration was rightfully giving the protestors' cause breathing room, so the crackdown could not be justified as a reaction to US intervention. Given the escalating nature of the crackdown, the International Community, including the United States, needs to do far more to punish the regime for its conduct as a group and as individual countries. Western nations must, therefore, work through their relations with countries like Russia in the UN and Turkey on the ground to force somewhat meaningful interventions.
Unfortunately, democratic uprisings in the Middle East may fail due to brutal crackdowns, such as the one seen in Syria, in the short run, but the new dynamic in the region means mass protests will likely become a more cyclical phenomenon. Should the Syrian crackdown succeed, Syria will face greater instability over time. It is becoming more obvious the al-Assad regime cannot usher in democratic or any other meaningful reforms. Change must come from internal pressure through the defection of military and political officials while a far stronger response from the International Community supporting the Syrian People is necessary as Turkey and others play the role of facilitator.