15 Mar 2012

The politics of non-intervention in Syria

The visit of the UN envoy Kofi Annan to Damascus this week underscored international concern about the horror being visited on civilians, but no-one, it seems, has an easy way of resolving the deeper issues.

One year ago, a group of Syrian schoolchildren scribbled the graffiti “The people demand the fall of the regime” on a wall in their hometown of Deraa. They were arrested and tortured. That was the start of the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al Assad, and the brutal response.

Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photographer who escaped from Homs after his colleague Marie Colvin was killed, said from his hospital bed: “It’s systematic slaughter, not a war. It’s a massacre and the world sits by and watches. Someone has to break the geopolitical stalemate that is allowing this regime to crush the humanity out of Syria.”

It wouldn’t be difficult for the Syrian government to stop targeting civilians and to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross into Babr Amr and other places. They could just do it. But it’s much harder to unlock the “geopolitical stalemate” and get to the root of the problem.

The intervention in Libya had little impact beyond its borders. Syria is different, because everything that happens there affects neighbouring countries. If western governments intervened as they did in Libya, to tip the balance in the rebels’ favour, it might lead to prolonged civil war and the destabilisation of the whole region.

Religious roots

The roots of the conflict in Syria are partially religious – the Assad family comes from the minority Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. As a minority themselves, the Alawites have protected the rights of other minorities including Christians. The majority of Syrians are Sunnis, and they are now rebelling, partly because of the repression carried out by the government over many decades, but also for religious reasons. Some rebels are Islamists – Sunni extremists.

Syria is a pivot country, and its conflict is becoming a proxy war between Shi’a Iran, which backs the Syrian regime, and Sunni Gulf countries led by Saudi Arabia and including Turkey, who back the rebels. The major powers are lining up behind their allies to give this an old Cold war feel – Russia and China are backing Iran and the Syrian government, while the US and EU support the Gulf countries and the rebels. This is a re-emergence of old loyalties and links. Gulf countries are believed to be arming the Syrian rebels. Iran and Russia are arming the Syrian government.

This in turn feeds into the current tension between the West and Iran. If Iran developed a nuclear weapon, the Gulf countries would also try to get one. This would mean a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which Western counties say must be averted.

Lebanon, where the government is to a large extent controlled by President Assad, is also divided on sectarian lines and could plunge into a similar conflict. There have already been clashes. Neighbouring Iraq, with a significant Sunni minority, has a Shi’a government that is leaning towards Iran. Sunni rebels, some connected to Al Qaeda, have recently stepped up attacks.

Impact on Israel

For the first time in many years, Israel is not the centre of the argument. But it is affected nonetheless because the loyalties of its enemies are shifting. Hamas, which controls Gaza, used to be funded and armed by Iran and have its leadership based in Damascus – this was a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” as they were united simply by their enmity towards Israel.

Now, Hamas leaders have left Syria for Qatar and are loosening ties with Tehran. This is because Hamas is Sunni, and an off-shoot of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, which is now in the ascendant in post Arab Spring Egypt. Hezbollah, a Shi’a group based in southern Lebanon which would like to destroy Israel, has weighed in behind the Assad regime and Iran. So there’s a split between the anti-Israel militants in the region.

One of the most difficult problems for the west is the nature of its new friends. The Al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, has come out in favour of the Syrian rebels. This is because Al Qaeda is militantly Sunni. But it means that Al Qaeda and the US are on the same side in this conflict.

“Something must be done.” In Baba Amro, in Homs, Syrian regime thugs are reported to have gone house to house, murdering any male over the age of 11. Similar atrocities may be occurring in Idlib, now back in government hands. There is little doubt that appalling human rights abuse is continuing, and no-one is doing anything to stop it. The visit of the UN envoy Kofi Annan to Damascus this week underscored international concern about the horror being visited on civilians, but no-one, it seems, has an easy way of resolving the deeper issues.

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