When the uprisings started in Syria, just over a year ago, the regime denied that any such movement had started to swell up amongst the ranks of the Syrian people. It was easy to see why they would be in denial; between Bashar Al Assad’s slow moving reforms, an attempt to placate a population so often restless under his father’s rule, and the unrelenting comprehensive system of torture employed against any dissidents, those who were not so enamoured with their leader were at least fearful of voicing their opinions against him.
The outside world, too, for a time believed that the uprisings were nothing more than a faded mirror image of what was happening in the rest of the Arab world – a few isolated groupings trying to seize the regional momentum to push personal agendas. For state leaders in the United States, the UK and across Europe, their involvement in Libya meant that accepting that the uprising was factional, regional, and minor fitted better with their strategic military capabilities – with active engagement in two conflicts, in Afghanistan and Libya, they were not able to, nor were they prepared to, stretch themselves any further than they already had. The result was that the international community, its eyes turned towards its interests in Libya and elsewhere, largely ignored the increasingly bloody violence that was smouldering in Syria’s cities and the outskirts of Damascus.
When it did finally wake up to the fact that the conflict in Syria was not only more serious than they had first anticipated, but that it was also fragmenting along sectarian lines, there was a timid showing from the Arab League who made statements against Assad, and sent observers to the country, before trying to persuade the United Nations Security Council to step in and take action. But even then only in the form of selective sanctions.
By this time thousands of Syrians – military personnel, civilians, men, women, children and the aged – had lost their lives through gun battles which would erupt spontaneously in a suburb of Damascus, in the centre of Homs or Hama or Daraa, or through the torture and imprisonment dealt out by the Mukhabarat (Assad’s Secret Police) by anyone who voiced disagreement with the regime – notably this also includes children from the age of ten.
The regime weren’t even trying particularly hard to cover up the fact that the violence was happening, noting that the deaths had occurred, but asserting that it was limited to the suppression of extremist Islamist rebels. Throughout this time, and right up until Libya found closure with the death of Muammar Gaddafi, it didn’t really matter what Assad said – no journalists were in the country and, again, no one was really listening.
Then, towards the end of last year and after Gaddafi’s death – recorded as so much of that conflict was by crude camera phone video – the world finally woke up to the fact that Syria’s internal conflict was spiralling out of control. As already highlighted above, the response was still tepid, but as action started to slow in Libya US, UK and French rhetoric in particular started to acquire the sharp tones of impatience with the slow moving international efforts. The Arab League’s insistence that the UN acted in this matter, possibly out of concern for the impact on their own domestic situations just as much as the civilians suffering the brutal force of Assad’s military outfits, was not enough to get the gears in motion – however – as they ground to a halt with Russian and Chinese spanners thrown into works.
Now, as it stands, the international community are toothless – sanctions without Russia (Syria’s chief source of weaponry) and China (where Syria acquires the majority of its imported non-military goods) are a waste of time, and a military solution in a region that is currently chaotic in some corners, petrified of revolution in others, and has Israel and Iran staring at each other over nuclear potential, is simply not viable without creating a perfect storm for widespread and enduring sectarian conflict. What is more, there is not even a truly identifiable opposition with which to negotiate, to recognise, or even to support – with many different factions battling each other as much as they are battling the military mechanisms of Assad’s regime. For this to change, and it must change soon, a number of things have to happen.
First, the anti government forces in Syria need to form a single viable council or leadership group that acts as an umbrella group for all the disparate groupings that currently fight in amongst each other as much as they fight regime forces. This will not be easy, and it must find common ground and a common idea of what comes after the regime, not simply a path to its downfall, to avoid the country falling into chaos if the Assad regime does fall. This will provide a diplomatic core for the opposition which will offer an alternative instrument of government for the international community to back and rally around, but it will also ensure that grievances by and against opposition troops are addressed.
Second, once this entity has been forged, Russia and China must recognise that it is important to make new ties with the new representative body – in a similar way the international community did with Libya’s NTC – and resist blocking any movement in the United Nations. If they do not, it may be that frustrated members start acting outside of the organisation and end up risking a polarising of more than just Syria’s domestic situation. Worse, however, is if they do not act without the United Nations, and stand back to let the situation unfold by itself. The violence and torture against Assad’s opponents has increased dramatically since the failed UN resolution was vetoed, and the longer the international community stands by the more Assad will feel he can act with impunity.