Civil War in Syria: The High Price of Hesitation

A Commentary by Christoph Reuter

The West has been hesitant to intervene in Syria despite the regime's brutality against the rebels. But the longer the international community waits, the further the country slides into civil war. It may soon prove impossible to stop the cycle of violence.

Syrian rebels stand on a picture of President Bashar Assad in the northern city of Aleppo. Zoom
AFP

Syrian rebels stand on a picture of President Bashar Assad in the northern city of Aleppo.

It's not about morality, at least not about ours. Instead it's about how confusion and delusions on the part of governments can produce exactly the thing that they wanted to prevent: a disintegration of Syria into a civil war which will attract terrorist groups and infect neighboring countries.

Syria's uprising is more complicated than the other Arab Spring rebellions were. The system did not rapidly collapse, and there is no liberated zone as there was in Libya. Instead, what the country has is an explosive mixture of minority groups. Meanwhile, Russia and China are blocking any military intervention inside the United Nations Security Council.

Instead of military action, there were negotiations, mediated by the Arab League and the UN. They continued for months, regardless of the fact that President Bashar Assad's regime did not stick to any agreements. Instead, it continued to shoot and later bomb the growing resistance movement.

Indeed, Damascus never intended to negotiate seriously. "It was always entirely about how the protests could be put down by force and how we could win time to do that," recalls the secretary of the national security council, who fled the country in the spring. "Elections and negotiations were staged. There were even a few opposition figures who received money and instructions from us." Fitting into this Orwellian construct was the label for the opposition, who the state media constantly portrayed as "armed foreign terrorists" operating on behalf of a "universal conspiracy".

But the regime's violence has not led to the rebels' surrender. Instead, it has left cities devastated, tens of thousands of people dead and a war that Assad can no longer win.

Magic Formula

Those who are still warning that Syria could disintegrate fail to recognize that the regime has long been encouraging the country's collapse. Instead of giving up, the regime has pushed the Alawite minority, to which Assad and his family belong, to massacre their Sunni neighbors. It is probably also planning attacks in Lebanon and encouraging the Kurdish rebel group PKK to pursue separatism in Turkey. The reason it is doing this is because it can only protect its Alawite enclave in the mountains of northern Syria if there is a civil war. Given the choice, the regime would rather see Syria collapse than to step down.

The West and most Arab countries continue to hope for orderly regime change, even though they do not know themselves how that would work. First, Qatar pinned its hopes on Burhan Ghalioun as the then head of the opposition Syrian National Council. In vain. Later, France and Saudi Arabia wanted Brigadier General Manaf Tlass, a former member of Assad's inner circle who fled Syria, to be the transitional leader. But it was to no avail, because Manaf turned out to be neither competent nor charismatic.Washington talks of a "managed transition" as if it were a magic formula that can conceal how helpless it actually is.

In the meantime, the rebels are being supplied with weapons bought with Qatari money, with Turkish help and the blessing of the Americans. But the Kalashnikovs and ammunition only serve to maintain the conflict's status quo. "Anti-aircraft missiles are waiting for us in Turkey," says one of the insurgents, adding that Washington has so far refused to allow them to be delivered.

Filling the Gap

But trying to manage the transition without overthrowing the regime will not work. The longer the outside world fails to help, the more likely it is that others will fill the gap, possibly including al-Qaida. Believing that a regime can continually kill its own people without any consequences is, quite apart from the moral considerations, a serious mistake.

What do people do when their nearest and dearest have been killed? Many choose to avenge the deaths. And with every day that the murders continue, there are fewer people who are willing or able to stop the killing. Rebels have already carried out the first acts of retaliation, murdering prisoners and throwing the corpses of dead snipers from roofs.

Foreign countries can continue to watch events while opposing any outside intervention or the delivery of arms that could stop the regime's jets and helicopters. But the price of doing that will be high. It will mean an outcome that is precisely the thing that the West wanted to avoid.

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