About a couple of months back, I had the opportunity to meet former CNN reporter Rudi Bakhtiar. She had returned from the Syrian-Turkish border region doing an investigation on the Syrian Civil War’s effect on Syrian children. She happened to be already speaking to my cousin when I had arrived, and when I came to introduce myself, my cousin casually mentioned my background in conflict analysis and resolution. She asked me what I thought about the civil war and what could be done about. I replied, “Nothing,” which seemed to startle the group that was presently speaking with her.
She responded, “Why?”
I answered, “It’s an election year.”
She smiled her million-dollar smile and she agreed, “Precisely.”
While the cute little exchange holds truth, it is only one factor that contributed (temporarily) to the U.S. government doing “little” to actively stop the conflict. Even with the elections out of the way, the United States is (and will be) quite hesitant in raising the Syrian government as a top foreign policy issue. Why? Because Syria isn’t Libya and, more importantly, al-Assad isn’t Ghaddafi.
That seems like a no-brainer, but it is significant in how the international community can approach in dealing with the situation. It only helps the international community to intervene with prejudice if you’re a touch like Dr. Evil. When Ghaddafi’s son, threatened “rivers of blood would flow with ‘thousands’ of deaths if the uprising does not stop,” — along with Ghaddafi going on Libya’s state television and exclaiming he will hunt down the “rats and cockroaches” (referring to the Libyan rebels) “to purify Libya inch by inch, house by house…street by street, person by person, until the country is clean of the dirt and impurities,” — it evoked memories of Bosnia and Kosovo in the international community to what they perceived would be a certain genocide.
This is politically significant because the fallout from Bosnia and Kosovo changed the UN Charter to include a “Right to Protect” (R2P) clause. The clause states:
“[W]e are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council, in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII, on a case-by-case basis and in cooperation with relevant regional organizations as appropriate, should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
The evening of Ghaddafi’s speech, the Arab League suspended Libya’s delegation and called for a no-fly zone to be put in place a few weeks later, which gave the ratification at the UN a significant boost a week later. So significant were these formal announcements of spilling blood that it even caused Russia and China from using their veto (both countries abstained). Russia and China didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history if another Bosnia were to have happened had they vetoed a no-fly zone. This is how Ghaddafi found himself in the firing line of Tomahawk missiles.
The Syrian case is quite different. Assad has a lot of friends. Most notably Iran and Russia. While Iran and Assad’s regime are religiously similar (though not the same), their friendship runs deeper. Most significantly is Syria’s support of Iran during the Iran-Iraq war followed by both countries’ involvement in Lebanon. This is why it should not come to anyone’s surprise that Iran provides not only weapons and supplies, but actual troops in the form of the Revolutionary Guard for Assad’s use. Russian-Syrian relations revolve around long-standing military cooperation and Russia’s only military base outside of the former Soviet bloc, the Tartus naval base located in Tartus, Syria. The latter most likely assures that a no-fly zone would be vetoed if it were to ever reach a vote at the UN. Besides friends, Assad mutes any sort of sabre-rattling from his speeches when it comes to the opposition. Even in the context of the Houla massacre, Assad uses political language to mitigate an international backlash.
A game changer is whether (or when) the Syrian government will use chemical weapons in its civil war. Syria sits on a large stockpile of chemical weapons that has many in the international community very concerned. President Obama has already declared that the use of chemical weapons is the “red line” Assad cannot cross with France and the UK following suit. The Assad government has announced that it will not use chemical weapons in its civil war, but recent events such as chemical weapons testing in August and a defected general having “high-level” discussions on the use of chemical weapons on the rebels prior to his defection have the world on high alert. If the Syrian army decides to use the weapons, it would certainly estrange Russia and China from supporting Assad, and would likely catalyze an R2P intervention.
Another game changer would be whether the Syrian military can keep the weapons secure or if the Assad government is overthrown, what kind of government would take its place. If an unstable or radical government were to take over, the seizure of the weapons can prove to be particularly destabilizing without outside intervention. It is hard to imagine the U.S., Israel, or Russia for that matter not intervening and destroying the weapons in a military strike.
So what will happen or what can be done? It is difficult to say. Syria’s opposition is a far cry from uniformity in comparison to Libya’s opposition, which is an egregiously low standard in and of itself. The U.S. and various Arab nations have just put together a new opposition bloc that they hope can recognized and legitimized by all the different Syrian opposition groups. They have already been recognized by the Arab League, but it remains to be seen if they can get all parties to work with them. If they can secure a majority of oppositional political and paramilitary parties then perhaps they stand a chance at entering negotiations with the Syrian government. However, what unites them is at odds with a segment of the international community. The fundamental question revolves on whether Assad should step down from power. For Russia and Iran, this is a no. For the West and the Syrian opposition, this is a yes.
In the meantime, R2P remains dormant due to Russia, while lives continue to be lost as Syria’s Civil War continues its slow burn.