Why is moral outrage not prompting intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s regime?
The task admittedly more complex than in Libya, but “from a purely moral point of view, Western inaction is a display of hypocrisy that is bound to undermine future attempts to invoke universal principles in the name of policy,” especially when “the price of inaction is much higher than any type of intervention,” writes Emanuele Ottolenghi, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies:
True, there are many unknowns — Syria might go Islamist, like all other Arab countries where dictators have been toppled. It might descend into a sectarian, fratricidal war which would engulf the entire region. Shadowy forces could take advantage of anarchy to lay their hands on Syria’s deadly arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.
But these are things that could happen either way, and that Western inaction is more likely to facilitate than to prevent. After all, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Turkey are not exactly playing along with the West as willing bystanders. If the rebels are ultimately armed by Saudi Arabia rather than the West, they will owe a debt of gratitude to Wahhabis rather than Jeffersonians.
The fact is that Syria’s potential transition is falling victim to international power politics, analyst Ruth Hanau Santini writes, which have effectively paralyzed external actors’ will and capacity to intervene:
Two critical junctures in particular are key to understanding the diplomatic stalemate. The resulting choices shed light on both the humanitarian consequences and the regional and international power politics that played out.
The first of these junctures occurred last summer, when the regime’s actions towards the uprisings turned increasingly violent and bloody. The international community started to divide itself among different interpretations of the events on the ground and their implications.
Some of the difficulties in adopting a clear-cut stance were linked to the status of the Syrian opposition – which started as civic uprisings, then turned into militarized forms of resistance and eventually, as we see now, paved the way for guerrilla warfare dynamics. Parts of the opposition coalesced around the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which however falls short of representing a unified front of opposition against the regime.
Also, minorities, such as Alawites, Druzes, Christians and Kurds failed to be integrated into the Syrian National Council (SNC) – the political body supposed to represent the opposition. This led many to suspect that sectarian logics would dictate the evolution of the opposition, something which significantly diminished the SNC and FSA appeal and atout. More broadly, many in Western capitals shared the Russian fear that a post-Assad Syria would become a buffer zone between regional powers (Iran on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other), characterized by persistent internal instability, with potential devastating regional spill-over effects.
The second juncture happened in New York last February at the UN Security Council. The US and Europe put forward a resolution on Syria, supported by the Arab League, guided by Qatar. The idea was to try to broker a Yemeni solution with the Assad regime, devising an acceptable exit strategy for the Assads.
The resolution called for a strong condemnation of the violence, the oust of Bashar al Assad and a swift political transition headed by a regime figure leading the country to early elections. Russia and China vetoed it on February 4th.
China’s motivations appear clear to all: the country is ideologically and politically committed to the principle of national sovereignty and specifically rejects R2P logics. Responsibility to Protect allows breaches to a state’s territorial integrity if that state is accused of serious human rights violations against its population.
The solution to the Syrian dilemma lies in the dynamic interplay between regional and international politics. Syria interests namely a plethora of regional and international actors.
We could distinguish at least four fronts: unwavering supporters of Bashar al Assad out of personal interest (the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon); supporters of the Assads but open to intra-Syrian solutions including the Alawites (Russia and China); the West, caught in cognitive dissonance, between calls for R2P, realistic assessments of the risks posed by the complex scenario and by possible unintended consequences and; lastly, those financially and possibly militarily supporting the rebels, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Some have built or would like to build an alliance with Syria based on ideological similarities, i.e. sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran fall into this group. The Sunni-Shiite divide is the axis that accounts for national preferences. What many in 2003 depicted as a Shiite Crescent, including Iran, the new Iraq and Lebanon, looks particularly fragile today. On the other hand, the Sunni front, spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, has been strengthened by the 2011 uprisings. Even the Shiite protests in Bahrain, violently crushed by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, did little to turn the tide against the Gulf states.
Syrians are caught in an alliance race, characterized by a double logic: alliances following sectarian lines, which accounts for the foreign policies of Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and strategic alliances following the guarantee of specific national interests, which accounts for the Russian stance. While the US and Europe struggle between a principled foreign policy (R2P in its different interpretations) and realpolitik considerations (fears of a chaotic, Iraq-style Syria), Turkey appears to have won the moral high ground that all other international players aspire to.
Whether this will be enough to broker solutions acceptable to the main stakeholders, unfortunately, is another matter.
This is an extract from an Aspen Institute analysis by Ruth Hanau Santini, an Assistant Professor at the University of Oriental Studies in Naples and a Non Resident Fellow at The Brookings Institution.