Unpleasant Options in Syria

BARIN KAYAOĞLU

27 February 2012

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“Syrian blood” kicked around by foreign countries. The international community should be careful to prevent that image from becoming a reality.

In the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the United Nations Security Council, many Western countries and their Middle Eastern allies are looking for new ways to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The “Friends of Syria” meeting held in Tunisia last week aimed to remake the Syrian National Council – a coalition comprising dozens of different opposition groups – into a more cohesive front. Foreign governments are probably laying the groundwork to recognize the Council as a “government-in-exile” in the near future. But Syria’s friends have a long way to go before they have a shot at ousting Assad.

Beyond giving political backing to the Syrian National Council, arming the Free Syrian Army seems as a more realistic option. The FSA, a militia group primarily composed of soldiers who have deserted Assad’s army, is already using Turkish territory for its activities. Thus, the Turkish government’s threats against Assad that “all options are on the table” should be read as an intention to establish “safe areas” and perhaps more.

There is no question that the international community has to do something about the tragedy in Syria. It’s been a year and over 8,000 dead Syrians since the uprisings have begun. But the countries backing anti-Assad forces in Syria would be fooling themselves if they think “safe areas” or giving more arms and ammo to the FSA will accomplish anything. Humanitarian missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda in the 1990s amply demonstrated that “safe areas” are half-hearted attempts that do not succeed. More important, the absence of a strong international force only emboldens the aggressor to kill more – something that the international community is supposed to prevent.

The international community should also think whether it should and could make peace through a full-scale military intervention in Syria because talking the talk of military intervention is easier than walking the walk. Russia and China have already demonstrated that they do not want Western countries, Turkey, and the Arab League in Syria. It is almost certain that Iran will mobilize its resources and assets (read: Hezbollah) to shore up its allies in Damascus. It is also certain that public opinion in the West, Turkey, and Arab countries will not support military action against Syria.

If the anti-Assad groups and their international supporters are really determined to overthrow the Baath regime, they have to see the biggest risk about post-Assad Syria: given its multi-confessional nature, foreign intervention may very well exacerbate religious discord (à la Iraq). That will put the people of Syria in a situation even worse than the present.

Half-hearted political talk will certainly not solve Syria’s tragedy. But military action does not look like the answer either.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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