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Published on February 26th, 2012 | by David Christie
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="180" caption="A Syrian government propaganda poster portraying Bashar al-Assad. Image from copepodo's photostream"]A Syrian government propaganda poster portraying Bashar al-Assad.  Image from copepodo's photostream[/caption] With the Friends of Syria conference still underway in Tunis, this is an opportune moment to examine the possible ways of removing the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  With the regime causing immense suffering for the Syrian people, many Syrians are actively calling for armed intervention.  However, despite the strong moral argument in favour of it, there are plenty of obstacles which could make a successful intervention very difficult to achieve in practice.  Therefore the participants at the Tunis conference have been concentrating on other measures, such as formally recognising the SNC (the Syrian National Council, which is the main opposition group), calling on the government to allow humanitarian access to the areas which are worst hit by government attacks, implementing more sanctions and talking about the possibility of arming the rebels. In favour of military intervention, there is the precedent set by the relatively successful operation in Libya.  There is also the fact that many Arab countries, as well as Turkey, stand alongside the US and Europeans in condemning Assad’s regime.  This helps to refute the accusation that intervention in Syria would be an expression of western imperialism (to a certain extent, Turkey may be intervening already: the Free Syrian Army is allowed to operate on Turkish territory).  But the practical obstacles and political risks of intervention are huge.  Firstly, Syria’s geographical position and mountainous terrain makes it difficult to operate a no-fly zone or a ground invasion.  Secondly, the Syrian army is much stronger and more organised than Gaddafi’s forces were. Thirdly, there is the risk of inflaming sectarian tensions.  The opposition consists mostly of Sunni Muslims, whereas the the Alawites (a Shia Muslim sect) and Christians, who together make up about 20-30% of the population, seem to have thrown in their lot with Assad (who is an Alawite), for fear of what might happen if the Sunni majority gain the ascendency.  Next, this sectarian element could draw in other key players in the region, such as Iran and Hezbollah (who are both Shia, and allies of Assad’s regime), thus turning a civil war into a messy regional conflict.  Finally, Russia and China, having blocked the earlier attempt at the UN to condemn the actions of the Syrian government, will surely block any further UN resolution on the issue, meaning that any intervention that does takes place will go ahead without UN backing. Therefore direct military action does not seem to be likely at the moment.  So what else can be done?  The economic sanctions which are already in place could eventually strangle Assad’s regime by causing the Syrian economy to collapse, the middle class to desert him and more and more soldiers to defect to the opposition.  There is also the possibility of arming the rebels.  The US were initially against this idea, perhaps in the belief that the Syrian opposition were not organised or trustworthy enough (unlike the Libyan rebels during their uprising, the Syrian opposition only hold territory in small pockets, and do not have a large base), but the US view seems to have shifted since the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.  These options offer hope that it will be possible to topple Assad without military intervention. But Assad seems to be determined to bomb and torture his way out of this crisis, and has powerful friends in Russia and China, who might somehow enable him to cling on to power.  If he does hold on to power, then military intervention will be the only option left for removing him.  Then the Friends of Syria will have to make a choice: either they intervene, with all the terrible risks that this would entail, or stand aside and do nothing, while Assad re-establishes his brutal regime and unleashes savage reprisals on those who disobeyed him.  Either choice will involve much violence and bloodshed, so they will have to decide which is the least worst option.  It will be a very difficult decision to make.

4

Syria – can Assad be toppled without military intervention?

A Syrian government propaganda poster portraying Bashar al-Assad.  Image from copepodo's photostream

A Syrian government propaganda poster portraying Bashar al-Assad. Image from copepodo's photostream

With the Friends of Syria conference still underway in Tunis, this is an opportune moment to examine the possible ways of removing the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  With the regime causing immense suffering for the Syrian people, many Syrians are actively calling for armed intervention.  However, despite the strong moral argument in favour of it, there are plenty of obstacles which could make a successful intervention very difficult to achieve in practice.  Therefore the participants at the Tunis conference have been concentrating on other measures, such as formally recognising the SNC (the Syrian National Council, which is the main opposition group), calling on the government to allow humanitarian access to the areas which are worst hit by government attacks, implementing more sanctions and talking about the possibility of arming the rebels.

In favour of military intervention, there is the precedent set by the relatively successful operation in Libya.  There is also the fact that many Arab countries, as well as Turkey, stand alongside the US and Europeans in condemning Assad’s regime.  This helps to refute the accusation that intervention in Syria would be an expression of western imperialism (to a certain extent, Turkey may be intervening already: the Free Syrian Army is allowed to operate on Turkish territory).  But the practical obstacles and political risks of intervention are huge.  Firstly, Syria’s geographical position and mountainous terrain makes it difficult to operate a no-fly zone or a ground invasion.  Secondly, the Syrian army is much stronger and more organised than Gaddafi’s forces were.

Thirdly, there is the risk of inflaming sectarian tensions.  The opposition consists mostly of Sunni Muslims, whereas the the Alawites (a Shia Muslim sect) and Christians, who together make up about 20-30% of the population, seem to have thrown in their lot with Assad (who is an Alawite), for fear of what might happen if the Sunni majority gain the ascendency.  Next, this sectarian element could draw in other key players in the region, such as Iran and Hezbollah (who are both Shia, and allies of Assad’s regime), thus turning a civil war into a messy regional conflict.  Finally, Russia and China, having blocked the earlier attempt at the UN to condemn the actions of the Syrian government, will surely block any further UN resolution on the issue, meaning that any intervention that does takes place will go ahead without UN backing.

Therefore direct military action does not seem to be likely at the moment.  So what else can be done?  The economic sanctions which are already in place could eventually strangle Assad’s regime by causing the Syrian economy to collapse, the middle class to desert him and more and more soldiers to defect to the opposition.  There is also the possibility of arming the rebels.  The US were initially against this idea, perhaps in the belief that the Syrian opposition were not organised or trustworthy enough (unlike the Libyan rebels during their uprising, the Syrian opposition only hold territory in small pockets, and do not have a large base), but the US view seems to have shifted since the deaths of Marie Colvin and Remi Ochlik.  These options offer hope that it will be possible to topple Assad without military intervention.

But Assad seems to be determined to bomb and torture his way out of this crisis, and has powerful friends in Russia and China, who might somehow enable him to cling on to power.  If he does hold on to power, then military intervention will be the only option left for removing him.  Then the Friends of Syria will have to make a choice: either they intervene, with all the terrible risks that this would entail, or stand aside and do nothing, while Assad re-establishes his brutal regime and unleashes savage reprisals on those who disobeyed him.  Either choice will involve much violence and bloodshed, so they will have to decide which is the least worst option.  It will be a very difficult decision to make.

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  • anniedemer

    Hi David, thanks for this article, I found it really interesting.

    I'm left wondering whether there could be any other options when the time comes for the Syrain people to make a stand; anything other than a military intervention, or being left alone, that is. Quite a scary thought.

    Also, can you add a few more links next time – I would have loved to see your sources/inspiration at moments like: 'despite the strong moral argument in favour of [military intervention]' or 'the US view seems to have shifted', for instance. Huge, interesting claims, but I'd like to see the evidence behind them.

    I know, I know, I'm just being greedy 🙂

    Annie

  • David Christie

    Hi Annie

    Perhaps the only thing left for the Syrian opposition to do would be to try to establish an enclave near the Turkish border. This is what the Kurds did in 1991 after the uprising in Iraq which took place after the first Gulf War. Saddam never regained control of the north of the country, so the Kurds had effectively broken free of his rule.

    About the 'strong moral argument' – yes perhaps I should have elaborated on that. I regard the argument for intervention in Syria as strong because many Syrians are actually demanding it. This is in contrast to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the US simply decided to intervene whether the people there wanted it or not.

    About the US view shifting – there's a quote in the Guardian article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/24/saudi-arabia-backs-arming-syrian-opposition) where President Obama says the US and its allies would use 'every tool available' to stop the slaughter of innocent people.

    I should probably have also provided a link to this Huffington Post article as well – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/21/us-hints

    David

  • anniedemer

    Excellent response, those thinks are really useful. Thanks muchly 🙂 I really need to do some more reading on the issue, so I'll probably be back to pester you for information later!

    Annie

  • anniedemer

    *links (stupid predictive Blackberry)

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