The deaths of two Western journalists in Homs on Wednesday 22nd February appear to have been a critical turning point in the Syrian conflict. The Assad regime’s continuing refusal to halt its relentless shelling of the city are now leading to growing clamours for intervention in the Western media, and US and EU leaders have unanimously called for action. As every day brings yet more civilian deaths, and the specific targeting of reporters stokes fears that an imminent massacre is being planned, the pressure to act is rapidly growing.
Yet calls for a military intervention the likes of which ousted Gaddaffi in Libya ignore many of the complex political realities on the ground. Syria is not an isolated pariah state, but has the support of Russia and China, two extremely powerful allies with permanent seats on the UN Security Council. Moreover, Syria’s extremely heterogeneous population, made up of minorities of Kurds, Christians and the ruling Shiite Alawites, as well as the Sunni majority who are leading the rebellion, means that a Western-led regime change could well lead to a prolonged inter-ethnic conflict the like of which we saw in Iraq. Significantly, many members of the minority groups see Assad’s regime as a guarantor of their security and religious freedom.
A Western-led regime change could also generate a wider conflict bringing in regional rivals such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, each of whom have their own stake in the current violence. The rebel fighters in Syria are already being armed by the Saudis, who some have theorised wish to forge a new Sunni state comprising of the oil-rich Euphrates valley in Syria and the Sunni-dominated regions of central Iraq. Assad’s former ally Turkey has also been fuelling the violence, allowing rebels to operate freely on its side of the border and allegedly providing them with weapons and training. This may be part of Turkey’s wider strategy to cement its status as a regional power in the wake of the Arab Spring.
An equally frightening but perhaps less likely prospect is the possibility of intervention leading to a proxy war between the US, China and Russia, which carries the risk of escalating into the equivalent of World War III. That is why an extreme degree of caution is required; we need to be wary that we don’t end up doing far more harm than good. After all, the last 10 years of foreign policy have taught us nothing except that we cannot bring peace and democracy to the Middle East by dropping bombs.
However, the current tactic of applying pressure to the Syrian regime through sanctions has shown itself to be of only limited use. So far, the support of Russia and China means such sanctions are largely symbolic, and the Syrian regime has shown no sign of being particularly weakened by them. Just as with sanctions against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, the only people really affected are the civilians caught in the middle. This tactic therefore seems to serve largely as a way of appeasing the Western public and avoiding a more substantive foreign policy.
A purely humanitarian intervention the likes of which is being suggested by the UN may provide a more promising alternative. The suggestion by Under-Secretary-General Baroness Amos to provide a humanitarian corridor, with a few hours ceasefire every day, would allow the West to help the victims of the conflict without exacerbating it. The problem is that the precedent set by Libya, in which the mandate to only protect civilians was so clearly overstepped, has made Russia and China extremely wary of any kind of UN-backed resolution. Any resolution of this kind would therefore have to be very clearly worded so as to not allow any form of military intervention.
Another potential avenue is to promote a dialogue between the warring parties by sending in an intermediary negotiator. Former Secretary-General of the UN Kofi-Anna is now heading to Syria to attempt this formidable task. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also recently called for a negotiated settlement along with many other world leaders at the Friends of Syria conference in Tunisia. The problem will be satisfying all the relevant sides in the conflict, by including the many groups in the fragmented opposition as well as giving assurances to the minority groups that their security will be maintained. For this reason, a UN peacekeeping force may well be necessary.
One phrase that has been repeated many times by politicians and the media is that China and Russia “have blood on their hands,” after vetoing the critical resolution against Syria. A cynic might point out that they are not the ones with blood on their hands following their decision to veto the invasion of Iraq. Yet this blame game does little to help those dying on the ground. Dropping yet more bombs, as was done in Libya, would probably not help them all that much either. What is really needed is a non-military intervention on terms which all sides can agree on, combining humanitarian aid, a negotiated settlement and potentially a neutral peacekeeping force which can maintain stability during a period of political transition. That is why we must resist calls to go into yet another thoughtless military escapade, and combine diplomatic pressure with a humanitarian-centred approach.