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Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Who Broke Syria?
Bashar al-Assad did. But the international community and the media
made things worse.
BY JAMES HARKIN
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
than a week into a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Syria, the arrangement is already
looking pretty shaky. The Syrian government has promised to pull its army back
from major cities, but now seems to be reneging on that deal. But rather than
castigating its motives, perhaps it might be a good time now to take a fresh
look what exactly has been accomplished by the internationalization of the
been going to Syria for some years now, both as a journalist and an ordinary
citizen, and it's been inspiring to see how the country has changed. Some of my
friends are ordinary civilians; others are now involved in the motley
collection of opposition groups that have emerged since the uprising began in
March of last year. What's often lost in the account of crisis given by
po-faced humanitarians, with their pictures of dead bodies and tales of
indecipherable evil, is how inspiring the revolt originally was for many
ordinary Syrians. Virtually all the people I know in Syria have changed their
opinions radically in the last year, and their demands have grown bolder and
spring 2011 gave way to summer and fall and the flagging Baathist regime moved
to snuff out dissent, some opposition groups looked to the force of arms to
protect their demonstrations and their communities. At around the same time,
international efforts to apply pressure to the regime led to sanctions that
virtually no one in Syria wants (even the Free Syrian Army), an ill-fated
mission by Arab monitors that disappointed everyone, and now a U.N. initiative
that has initially stemmed the daily round of killings, but failed to satisfy
either the government or the opposition.
what's going wrong? The problem, in my view, is that the tools of international
law are a very blunt instrument with which to solve real problems of civil
strife. In November, for example, I smuggled myself into Homs as the desperate
opposition movement was beginning to turn to the Arab League to mediate in its
conflict with an increasingly brutal regime. As the situation worsened, the
daily demonstrations (I could still hear them breaking out in November along
with the occasional crackle of sniper fire) were joined by armed militias that
grew up to protect Sunni areas of the city. Then the geopoliticking began.
December, the Syrian National Council seems to have made an orchestrated effort
to turn Homs into a Syrian Benghazi -- the eastern Libyan city whose imminent
destruction by Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces provided the catalyst that sparked
the international intervention in Libya last year. The council spread stories
in the international media, for example, suggesting that the Syrian Army had
moved up reinforcements with which to strike the city, and that it had given
the rebellious Homsies 72 hours to lay down their weapons or be killed. When I
phoned a respected veteran activist in Homs, he told me that the charge simply
wasn't true. Things were bad enough, he said, without having to make up scary
stories. In retrospect, by leaning on precedents within international law
rather than the force of its own movement, the exiled Syrian opposition seems
to have aimed to exaggerate the civilian losses in the city into the claim of
genocide in order to push buttons within the international community.
United Nations bought it. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human
Rights, said that "many voices are warning that a major assault" on
Homs is about to begin, that a further military buildup had already begun.
"I am not in a position to confirm those reports," she said,
"but the prospect of such an attack is extremely alarming."
there was a strategy to internationalize the conflict, however, it failed. The
United Nations could do nothing, but the promise that it might may have put
ordinary activists and Free Syrian Army rebels in the city at even greater
risk. Many were led to believe that help was coming, when it most definitely
history of most humanitarian interventions in the last 15 years has been
similar: By promising more safety than it can credibly deliver, the United
Nations has often put the lives of those on the receiving end of its efforts in
even greater danger, everywhere from Srebrenica to South Lebanon. By changing
the incentives facing both parties to the conflict, the United Nations, at its
worst, only makes their incentives more perverse -- and their negotiating
positions even more intractable.
the same applies to the international media. Beginning in late December,
Western journalists fanned out, under the coat-tails of Arab League observers,
to find the "war story." They duly met members of the Free Syrian
Army, and came back pleased as punch with pictures of masked,
professional-looking soldiers wielding rocket-propelled grenades. In the short
term, the result was a propaganda coup for both the journalists and the Free
Syrian Army. As soon as the media departed, however, the government forces
moved in to kill or capture many of these guerrilla fighters, whose implicit
claim that they could control territory for any length of time turned out to be
was then. As the situation has ground toward a temporary stalemate, everyone in
the opposition now realizes that NATO has neither the mettle nor the resources
for another Libya. That kind of organized military intervention is simply not
going to happen. But the next phase of diplomacy is in danger of making matters
substantially worse. The remaining carrots offered to Bashar Al-Assad's regime
are now being matched by thinly veiled sticks whereby the international
community promises to turn a blind eye to Saudi and Qatari efforts to back the
military opposition with force of arms.
internationalization of the conflict has been met by ordinary Syrians with a
mixture of incredulity and opportunism. Driving around the center of Homs at
the end of February (until I was picked up by the Syrian Army and sent back to
Damascus), I stopped a group of old men in the center of town and asked for
directions. "Are you Russian?" was their first question. Probably
government supporters, and quite possibly Alawites, they knew that the only
foreigners they really wanted to talk to were Russian, Moscow being the Assad
regime's most outspoken defender on the international stage.
the catastrophic decline of their economic fortunes, many Syrians are rather
proud to be center of this international attention; at least, they say, their
country is not being ignored or forgotten about. But they're also deeply
patriotic and understandably proud of their country's fragile ethnic and
religious mosaic. As several Syrian teenagers pointed out to me, the same
Qatari government that has been moving to protect the human rights of Syrians
has been denying them visas to visit Qatar. Nor is it lost on them that Qatar
and Saudi Arabia are so democratically backward as to make the Syrian
government look like a hippie commune. The SNC's apparent decision to accept
money from the Gulf States to pay salaries to Free Syrian Army guerrillas
sounded breathtakingly arrogant, and makes for shockingly bad politics. Not
only does lend credence to the conspiracy theories peddled by the government
that the uprising is the handiwork of foreign agitators; it risks splitting the
indigenous opposition movement and empowering exactly the kind of Sunni
extremist groups who are most likely to stoke sectarian tensions.
of this is to argue that Syrians should not take matters into their own hands.
After more than a year of grueling state violence, there are very few absolute
pacifists among the Syrian opposition. Just about everyone I met in Syria was
caught between the terrible foreboding that things will -- must -- get
substantially worse before they get better, and not wishing any violence upon
their fellow countrymen. But if the Saudis and the Qataris are allowed to
funnel unlimited cash and weapons through the country's traditional smuggling
routes, the likely result will be to empower a crooked new class of
arms-dealing middle men and the kind of fringe Salafist groups that are quite
happy to turn themselves and everyone else into martyrs for the cause.
the Syrian government now says, the influence of these extremist Sunni factions
is currently marginal, even inside the Free Syrian Army. Most of the military
defectors are simply conservative Sunnis from farming communities. But Syria is
currently exhibiting a brand new irony of our post-war-on-terror era. The
secular Syrian liberals and leftist groups that have most in common in Western
values don't want NATO intervention, while it's exactly the kind of people who
don't much like us -- the aging remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as
the newer, more radical Sunni salafists -- who are begging for our help.
knows: If the unthinking drift toward creating neo-mujahideen in Syria and Iran
(a strategy advocated by Foreign Policy's own James Traub) continues, following
a decade in which radical Sunnis became America's Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin
Laden might have to be posthumously converted back into the freedom fighter
America saw him as in the 1980s, marching into battle to drive out one of the
last vestiges of godlessness in the Middle East.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 17/04/2012
-James Harkin is an Irish, London-based writer and social analyst. His latest
book is Niche: The Missing Middle and Why Businesses Need to Specialise to