The Arab Spring has changed the political dynamics of the Middle East. The Arab Spring has changed the political dynamics of the Middle East. Many a politician has praised and offered support for Arab protesters and rebels who are struggling against tyrannical governments.
Yet we see a surprising silence when it comes to Syria.
The Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist since 1970. There has always been a nucleus of opposition to this family, which up until this point most famously found expression in the city of Hama. Hafez al-Assad brutally extinguished the Hama rebellion along with the lives of between 10,000 and 40,000 of its people.
Though Hafez al-Assad maintained power until his death in 2000, he was unable to completely extinguish opposition to his regime, an opposition
that took to the streets against Bashar al-Assad, his son, in March 2011. Bashar has responded harshly. Though casualty reports are hard to verify as few independent journalists are active in Syria, the U.N. estimates that 5,000 civilians have been killed since the start of the protests, most of them unarmed. The situation has gotten so bad that the Arab League, an association of Arab states, has suspended Syria’s membership in an overwhelming vote and has set up a monitoring mission in the country. The League has also imposed sanctions on Syria. Considering that the Arab League is not exactly famous for its love of democratic norms, this is a significant statement.
Much more significant, I would point out, than any that has come from our own government.
There was and has been much condemnation of the Syrian government, and the U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions of their own regarding the country. However, our involvement is not nearly what it was in Libya, where in conjunction with NATO we practically provided the rebels with an air force. On Syria the administration has not said much, and very few are advocating broader U.S. intervention. They should be.
U.S. intervention, or at least support for the rebels, would not only be good on human rights grounds but would also serve our national interest. Bashar al-Assad’s government is one of the most implacable foes of the U.S. It is one of the primary backers of Hezbollah, a group on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. Under the Assads, Syria has also meddled extensively in Lebanon and might have been connected to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The government is also one of Iran’s closest allies in the region, and the Los Angeles Times reported that in 2011, Iran sent advisers to Syria to help Assad cling to power. In 2007 the Israeli Air Force struck Dair Alzour, a site that the International Atomic Energy Agency believed was most likely a covert nuclear reactor. It is difficult to think of the removal of the House of Assad leading to a much worse outcome than the status quo.
Some are concerned about the potential loss of stability that would come as a result of dumping Bashar al-Assad. Syria is a complicated place, with large minorities of Alawite and Druze sects of Islam as well as a sizeable population of Christians. The north has a substantial population of Kurds. The Muslim Brotherhood is active as well, and this makes some people nervous. Syria shares a border with Israel, as well as a border dispute over the Golan Heights. It is not unreasonable to wonder what would happen if everything were suddenly to go up for grabs in Syria. However, it is quite possible that things will go up for grabs with or without U.S. intervention. Units of the Syrian army are defecting to the rebels, and protesters increasingly have decided to start shooting back at the security forces. Part of Assad’s bid to remain in power likely will involve his administration’s trying to play the various sects and groups in Syria against each other; meaning that even if he does cling to power, he will rule over a country bitterly divided. Sectarian violence is a real possibility in Syria even if the U.S. does nothing. Doing nothing would only give the U.S. less influence over what ultimately ends up happening in the pivotal country.
What form should U.S. intervention take? Sanctions and diplomatic pressure are good starts, but these might not be very effective: North Korea and Cuba have weathered them for years. The U.S. should seriously consider imposing a no-fly zone. A no-fly zone would essentially encourage more defections from the Syrian army: One thing that prevents such defections is that soldiers who defect need to make their way to the north, where the Free Syrian Army (rebels) is camped out. In doing so, however, defectors the risk of being bombed from the air. If that risk were to be removed through a no-fly zone, then the possibility of defection would become much more tempting. It’s also possible that the no-fly zone could expand into more of an intervention on the Libyan model, which would give the rebels a fighting chance. We should also pressure the Arabs and the Turks to act, as these parties would be able to provide political cover for U.S. actions and seriously damage the Assad regime in their own right. It is time that we extend our support to those fighting one of the most odious regimes in the world today.