Among the explanations given for why the West intervened in Libya but has thus far stayed out of the far greater crisis in Syria has been the lack of regional support for action. That excuse appears to be nearing its expiration date.
Britain and France have been approached by senior Arab League officials about taking the lead in a Libya-style contact group which would coordinate the next phases of action against President Bashar al-Assad, and plan for what many regard as his inevitable departure from power.
It is widely believed that the approach to Britain and France has considerable support within the Arab League with many states feeling that the Europeans’ proximity to the Middle East and their greater understanding of its complexities would make them better leaders of such a contact group than the United States. King Abdullah of Jordan presented the case to British Prime Minister David Cameron during talks on Tuesday.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe appeared to take France’s first steps toward assuming a leadership position by calling on the UN Security Council to take action against Syria after meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Friday.
One senior Arab diplomatic source told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday that Syria’s neighbors held too many different views to coordinate action effectively and that the West had to take the lead in formulating a robust international response should Syria collapse. “Leaving it all up to us, you are going to get a lot of shenanigans,” the source is quoted as saying. “If you need a team captain on this you have got to go to the West.”
Now, the report goes on to note,
[T]there appears to be little desire among Arab or Western states to push for any military involvement – at least at this stage.
“The intervention in Libya proved controversial in the Arab world as the limited initial UN mandate was far exceeded by NATO’s subsequent intervention,” [Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East and North Africa expert at the London School of Economics] said. “This placed its Arab supporters in a difficult position although subsequent developments allowed Qatar and the UAE to position themselves to play a major role in post-conflict reconstruction and recovery.”
Should the Syrian regime escalate its response by using air power against its own people, calls for a Libya-style no-fly zone to protect civilians may reach fever pitch among Arab nations. “And who would enforce a no-fly zone? It would be the UN or NATO,” the senior Arab diplomatic source was quoted as saying by the Telegraph.
Any military intervention in Syria could act as a catalyst for a wider conflagration in a volatile region already primed to explode, with al-Assad’s main ally Iran under increased pressure from the West over its nuclear program and under threat from an Israeli administration which appears to be preparing to take matters into its own hands.
Not only would Western-led intervention in a major Arab state threaten to plunge the Middle East into a wider regional conflict, it would also ratchet up the tensions between the West and Syria’s powerful allies in Russia.
Russia, a long-term supporter of the Syrian regime and one which maintains a naval base in the country, has already accused Western countries of inciting opposition to al-Assad’s rule, as well as condemning the Arab League’s decision to suspend Syria. Moscow, in tandem with China, also blocked a UN Security Council motion last month to bring sanctions against Syria.
It’s incredibly unlikely that Russia would intervene militarily on behalf of Syria. But, certainly, it’s unlikely to go along in with action in the Security Council, as it did by abstaining on the enabling resolution for Libya. And, given that there’s little appetite among Western publics for yet another war, the lack of a legitimating UN imprimatur may well be sufficient cover for refusing to act.
But the alternative choice appears to be to allow a full-scale civil war to break out, with massive civilian casualties sure to result. Hannah Allam for McClatchy:
“When you see what’s going on in Syria now, you see a civil war in the future,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The Syrian regime keeps killing people and no one’s protecting these people. In the end, the people have to protect themselves.”
The United Nations says that pro-regime forces have killed more than 3,500 protesters since mid-March. Last weekend, the Arab League suspended Syria’s participation over the crackdown and has demanded that government forces stop their attacks on peaceful demonstrators by this weekend.
Analysts and activists, however, said those threats are empty and the Arab League’s proposal dead on arrival. Without a diplomatic miracle or foreign intervention, they said, Syria is on track for a bloody civil war with the potential for disastrous regional consequences.
Syria shares borders with five nations of strategic importance to U.S. interests in the region: Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
The Atlantic‘s Max Fisher argues, though, that Western choices are far harder than they were in Libya.
The biggest reason that Syria has looked so hopeless is that there’s little the outside world can do. The U.S. and European Union already had strong sanctions in place, and while the new sanctions are collapsing Syria’s economy, the regime only needs pennies on the dollar to keep sending tanks and helicopters against protesters. So the West can’t do much — except make it easier for other Middle Eastern states to follow the West and turn against Assad. Today’s Arab League condemnation is not immediately very meaningful — the Arab League has few real tools here except to call for United Nations Security Council action, and their statement insisted they won’t support intervention. Still, their turn against Assad — something that would have likely been impossible only a few years ago — suggests that Arab leaders are more responsive to public opinion, which has also turned sharply against Assad.
Even if the world still has few options for tipping the balance against Assad, regional and global leaders have clearly announced they won’t be helping Assad, either, something that’s unlikely to change with Arab public opinion so hostile toward the Syrian leader. Jordan’s king called on him to step down, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal Al Saud argued resignation was Assad’s only choice, and Turkey’s diplomats are getting so aggressive with Assad that they’ve suggested they might cut off electricity to the country. Even Iran, his most important ally, is allegedly meeting with Syrian opposition leaders (although the Iranian embassy in Syria denies this). Assad is all alone. This means that if his military turns against him or refuses orders to continue shooting civilians, his rule will collapse.
Assad’s backers in the government, the Syrian military, and in Syrian society must now all understand this new reality. That’s going to make them less likely to continue abetting the regime’s atrocities and more likely to jump ship. This is how an autocratic government collapse can be like a bank run: the more likely regime collapse looks, the greater incentive that supporters and officials have for defecting, which in turn increases the chance of collapse. This may be why military defections seem to be increasing, a process that could accelerate in the coming weeks.
There is little reason to believe that Assad or his military leadership, galvanized against surrender by hostile neighbors and the awful death of Muammar Qaddafi, will stop firing on protesters or that the world will intervene militarily in Syria. An intervention would require an Iraq-style ground invasion; unlike in Libya, where the desert geography made an air campaign relatively easy and low-risk, Syria’s fighting is mostly in dense urban areas. Senior military leaders are unlikely to attempt a coup as they must understand that their role in the crackdown so far means that neither protesters nor neighboring states would tolerate them in power. So the only foreseeable way for this conflict to end (other than an outright victory by Assad, which is sadly plausible) would be for mid- and low-level military defectors to lead an armed rebellion against the regime. And that’s beginning to happen.
So, things are coming to a head. The level of violence has reached a level that’s impossible to ignore, arguments for why the vaunted Responsibility to Protect doctrine don’t apply are wearing thin, and the regional powers that be are on the verge of asking the West to live up to its stated principles. And, unlike Libya, there’s a very real argument that American national interests are actually at stake here.
Yet everything else conspires against action. The West is in the midst of the greatest economic crisis in generations and cutting spending to the bone. A decade of fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere have left all concerned weary of war and, in many cases, severely under resourced. Oh, and there are elections coming up in Italy, France, and the United States.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.