February 21, 2012

The Opportunity Cost: Just How Much Can We Afford in Syria

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For over a year, the opposition movement in Syria has grown, developed and shifted from public protesting in the nation’s capital to widespread violent battling against the ruling regime. While Egyptians have experienced a tumultuous and dubious transition to military rule and Libyans received substantial military and financial aid from the U.N. and NATO, Syrians continue to fight their fight unaided by the foreign powers that be.

The Arab League has condemned Bashar al-Assad — the scion of the ruling family of 41 years — and demanded that he step down. The League considered the use of similar pressure a success in Yemen, where Ali Abdullah Saleh stepped down in January after 34 years of rule.

Assad has not, however, stepped down; instead, he has ramped up the tactics that the Syrian Army uses on opposition fighters and protesters in an attempt to quell the widespread dissent. The numbers of those killed vary, but according to the UN at least 6,000 had been killed by government forces since the uprising broke out in March.

This death toll approaches that of the entire Kosovo War, including the NATO bombings, even though there has been no foreign military interference. By all accounts, fewer civilians had died in Libya when NATO intervened than have in Syria thus far. This absolutely constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and yet substantial help outside of diplomatic negotiations by the Arab League has not arrived.

Plain and simple, the scale and manner in which Assad’s regime has inflicted violence on the Syrian people is wrong. His regime is part of the small but elite Alawite Muslims minority, of which the Assad family is a pillar, ruling over the entire country through important military positions. This enables “official” army branches to participate in the widespread violence against protesting civilians.

The Assad regime has essentially hijacked the Syrian people’s right to political self-determination. Through concentration of wealth and power, they have held onto the country’s reins for over four decades and continue to do so in spite of a clear domestic bent on a new government. The Syrian opposition has a legitimate claim to contest the Assad regime, and has a right to do so peacefully. If the Assad regime will not allow that to happen, then foreign powers, preferably a coalition like the Arab League or a U.N. group, must induce it as they did in Libya.

What variables make this situation different for the international community from that in Libya, and why has such a coalition not come about?

The widespread inactivity has been aggravated by that everlasting thorn in the State Department’s side, Iran, and the ambiguous calculus of what decision would make the region more stable. The Obama administration has proved wary of continued efforts by Iran to dispel Western initiative on support for the opposition movements. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have become outspoken in their belief that the United States should stand behind the Syrian opposition, a stance that might change the administration’s attitude over time.

Iran, however, has thus far successfully utilized its increasingly few international supporters to prevent action similar to that in Libya. Russia joined China in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution to demand Assad’s resignation. The U.N. General Assembly proceeded to approve the resolution in opposition to the vetoes. As loaded as a description as this could be, there are axes of power being drawn over Syria’s domestic turmoil, and Iran is leading the charge.

But still, it is true that the United States should be considerate of whether or not intervention actually achieves a stable future for a region in whose interests we are so vested. Would a strict religious government potentially be more abusive than the Assad regime? Does Syria even risk falling to religious extremism while building a post-revolution state?

Syria is quite religiously diverse, which would certainly decrease the likelihood of an extremist or Iran-backed party’s success in future elections. Aside from Lebanon, which has a significant Christian population, Syria is one of the most diverse countries in the region.

Opposition is dominated by Sunni Muslims, this is true. But it’s more likely that this is a product of the country’s demographic make-up than sectarian strife. Fears that the Shia minority, including Alawites, could be turned on violently are probably baseless since the major paramilitary group Free Syrian Army is composed of a wide diversity of defected soldiers, including Alawite Shiites. The Free Syrian Army has an agreement with the non-military group the Syrian National Council, unifying political and military aims at a crucial moment.

If the United States wants to be able to interact with a peaceful Middle Eastern region in the future, we need to accept the inevitability of our authoritarian former “friend” regimes’ failure. These protests and battles will continue regardless of support, and thousands could die. If we endorse apathy, then not only do we perpetuate an unfortunate philosophical stance, but so too will we encounter diplomatic issues when the inevitable arrives.

If we are willing to act through the Arab League and contest the balance of power as it stands in the face of Iran, then financial and military support now provides a powerful opportunity to change the dynamic of U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry