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Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Why Foreign Intervention Is Not Welcome In Syria
Syrians are well versed in the history of foreign occupation and interference, and do not trust the west's motives
By Chris Doyle
Syrian internally displaced persons arrive to a makeshift camp in the northern city of Idlib, near the Turkish village of Guvecci in Hatay. Photograph: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
To intervene or not to intervene? Having watched the Assad regime kill more than 1,400 Syrians, arrest tens of thousands, use helicopter gunships and tanks on its own population, reportedly abuse and kill children, many are asking why, if action was deemed necessary for Libya, it is not for Syria. The Syrian regime has behaved little better than its Gaddafi counterpart and yet the west does not know what to do to, how to do it and with whom, and above all has not been invited to intervene. There is a famous Syrian proverb: "The ziwan (rye grass) of your own country is better than the wheat of the stranger." In other words, Syrians may prefer the worst of the regime to the best foreigners would offer.
For all the daily brutality, there seems to be little appetite to open the doors for foreign action. Syrians are well versed in the history of foreign occupation and interference. The French colonial period saw their country fragmented, one piece carved off for Lebanon, Alexandretta given away to Turkey and the setting up of quasi-independent areas for the Alawis and the Druzes.
Syrians also tend to be unimpressed by Nato's actions in Libya. They have generally supported their regime's foreign policy but despaired of it domestically.
For these reasons, Syrian opponents of the regime are intensely nervous of collaborating with external actors. Very few opponents of the regime have called for the UN to take action. A leading Syrian writer and former political prisoner, Louay Hussein, told me from Damascus:
"We have to distinguish between foreign intervention and foreign pressure. We oppose foreign intervention but we would like to have foreign pressure based on support for human rights, not the support of a particular party against the other according to their own self-interest."
The lack of enthusiasm in Syria is matched internationally. A very senior British official confirmed to me that there are few options over Syria. Russia, China, Brazil and others are strongly opposed to any action, even to limited UN sanctions.
UN sanctions would have limited impact. The US and the EU have already imposed sanctions so what more the UN can do is unclear. As Iraq showed, broad scale sanctions hit the people much harder then the regime. If UN sanctions appear improbable, military action is even more so. Donald Rumsfeld famously said Iraq was "winnable and doable" – a mistake his successors will live with for years.
While Syria, armed with ageing Soviet weaponry, may not be a formidable military power, the absence of any real partner on the ground, the delicate sectarian and ethnic mix and the volatile neighbourhood means that, like Iraq, it is very losable.
Louay Hussein pointed out that "any foreign intervention with such diverse social structure, may lead us to a scenario similar to what happened in Iraq – we all know the outcome of such scenario." There is a risk of not just a civil war but a regional conflict. Any US-led intervention moreover, would be perceived in Syria and regionally as driven mainly by Israeli interests.
Turkey, too, has historical baggage. The Turkish prime minister, Recep Erdogan, has accused the regime of "not acting in a humane manner" but regime apologists have responded by referring to the Turks as "Ottomans" – a reference to the Ottoman control over Syria.
A no-fly zone or protection zone would be massively problematic to implement. The costs would be financially prohibitive in the current climate and Nato's military assets are suffering from massive overstretch. Outside forces could support opposition groups. But one thing that has kept many Syrians from joining their countrymen on the streets is the fear that there is no viable alternative.
As with Iraq, the risk is that outside powers would sustain groups that have no credibility on the ground. Farid Ghadry is the Syrian version of Ahmed Chalabi – a US-backed regime opponent and a warm supporter of Israel who is disliked by most Syrians. The only genuinely organised movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, is largely external and is remembered for having killed scores of Syrians in the early 1980s, in actions sponsored by Saddam Hussein.
The regime's ex-insiders have their small groups too, including the president's uncle, Rifat Assad and his smooth-talking son, Ribal, plus former vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam. Both camps are detested. The situation in Syria will only get worse in the coming weeks, with further demonstrations and killings, increased economic hardship as vital tourism and foreign investment drops away, increasing the pressure on the international community to act. Chaos in Syria will be almost impossible to contain. Turkey is faced with a refugee crisis on its southern border and may even create a buffer zone inside Syria.
Many Syrians have fled into Lebanon, a country heavily dependent on Syria for its imports. Israel is also worried. Rami Makhlouf, the president's notoriously corrupt cousin, threatened in the New York Times that "If there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel." This warning was given substance on 5 June when protesters, no doubt encouraged by the regime, attempted to breach the armistice fence with Israel on the occupied Golan Heights. Israeli forces reportedly killed around 20 people.
There is also a Palestinian dimension with 450,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria, and clashes in the largest refugee camp at Yarmouk left up to 20 dead. Most Palestinians are terrified of being sucked into this crisis, and the PLO is barely making a comment. At best, the international response will be to isolate the regime further and to contain the impact, a damning indictment not just of its consistently inconsistent position towards the Arab Spring but also of the declining influence in the region of the United States and its allies, perhaps an irreversible process.
But the west has only itself to blame. It is the inconsistency of its policies and the failure to root its actions legally and ethically over decades – not least over Iraq, Palestine and cosying up to the most dictatorial of regimes – that has led to the lack of trust in its motives and the dilemmas it faces now.
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 14/06/2011