Syria: Famine and Civil War

The Syrian government massacre at Houla has probabaly killed the faltering Annan peace plan, which envisioned a ceasefire between the Syrian Baath army and the rebel Free Syrian Army that would be monitored by UN observers. The ceasefire not only has not held, the fighting has intensified as the regime has insisted on using tank and artillery barrages against urban quarters that the FSA controls. Having UN observers watch the carnage isn’t useful. Syrian armor is controlled by Maher al-Assad, the brother of the president, who clearly is not interested in any ceasefires and is willing to bombard civilian areas despite the certainty of killing e.g. children. Some 36 children were among the 108 estimated dead at Houla. Increasingly, you could see the al-Assads on trial at the Hague for war crimes not so long from now.

Even after Houla, the regime did not take a breather, going on to kill dozens Sunday into Monday with artillery barrages in Hama and sniping at protesters elasewhere.

The Free Syrian Army warns that it can hardly afford to maintain Annan’s supposed ceasefire if the UN can’t stop the massacre of civilians.

Even the Russians and the Chinese did not stand in the way of a UNSC condemnation of the use of artillery on civilian neighborhoods. Since only the Syrian army has artillery, the party being blamed was clear.

Annan was in Damascus Monday but it is unclear what further he can accomplish.

Even the current international sanctions have driven the Syrian economy toward full collapse and put in doubt the government’s ability to import enough grain and foodstuffs. Syria’s own grain crop this year is disappointing. It is not clear that Syrians will put up with this situation much longer, and they only have two choices– to acquiesce in the Baath dictatorship or to rise against it.

Regional intervention to counter Russian and Iranian arms and support is not impossible. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates that country’s parliament and is in the running to hold its presidency, called on the international community Monday to do something in the wake of Houla. Qatar and Saudi Arabia, both with links to the Brotherhood, want to smuggle arms in to the Free Syrian !army.

The Baath regime seems incapable of real reform. Early in the crisis they could have demoted themselves to a political party and then contested elections, as Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen did in the 1990s. His national Congress still dominates the Yemeni cabinet. Likewise, the dissolved National Democratic Party in Egypt is reforming around Ahmad Shafiq and has a shot at the Egyptian presidency. The Syrian Baath wasn’t doomed, only the one-party state and the al-Assad cult of personality. By acting like Muammar Qaddafi, the al-Assad’s are risking his fate.

The question is now not what new peace plan can be proposed but how the Syrian Civil War will end.

15 Responses

  1. We have heard, in this comments section, much of how the “right to protect” is essentially a smiley face upon the darker, more imperialist motives of more powerful nations.

    I would prefer to promote a long view. For over 300 years, international relations rested on the doctrine of absolute sovereignty (of the sovereign within its own territory) as defined and promoted in the Treaty of Westphalia. That was 1648. Three hundred plus years later, it is increasingly apparent that we have too many people on a (psychologically and philosophically) “shrinking” globe. The business of Syria is our business, the business of China is the business of Burma and Tibet and so on. Everybody is going to be, increasingly in our ultra-fast 21st Century, everybody else’s business.

    If the Assad regime’s latest massacre helps create new philosophical and political ideas among the past supporters of the regime, it may in time be seen as a crucial step in the extremely difficult business of building a new paradigm of international relations (which, of course, depends on new psychologies, new philosophies, new political conceptions and probably also some new economic relationships taking place within the minds of existing human beings).

  2. The Sunni Ummah need to make a decision if they want to continue funding the Free Syrian Army – aka Sunni proxy for Saudi Arabia and other Sunni terror exporting mal-governments.

    This is a full on Shia v/s Sunni battle and we in the US have NO ROLE to play other than getting two sides to talk to each other via the Arab league. We should use our leverage with Saudi Arabia and ask them to stop funding the Sunni faction, but our stupid blind bureaucratic opposition to all things Iran will stop us from this.

    • You have handed over Iraq to Iran. So you have a role to play. Or just bring Saddam back. And btw. the US is on it`s way to hand over Afghanistan to Iran too.

  3. Dear Professor Cole

    I wonder if you mind if I take issue with your piece. I am inclined to sit on the fence for a week and then await rational decision making when the emotion has drained out of the situation.

    Alastair Crooke warns against basing policy on “Advocacy Reporting.”
    link to atimes.com

    “What has become so striking is that, whilst this “information warfare” may have been almost irreversibly effective in demonizing President Assad in the West, it has also had the effect of “unanchoring” European and American foreign policy. It has become cast adrift from any real geo-strategic mooring. This has led to a situation in which European policy has become wholly suggestible to such “advocacy reporting”, and the need to respond to it, moment-by- moment, in emotive, moralistic blasts of sound-bites accusing President Assad of having “blood on its hands”. ”

    I am actually impressed with the British Foreign Office (FCO) position and with General Dempsey’s caution.

    FCO are being quite careful NOT to declare a civil war while Annan still needs to report back to UNSC. We also need to hear General Mood’s report on the massacre.

    I am haunted by the spectre of the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, and the half million dead and displaced and so am inclined to see what can be done to avoid a similar occurrence in Syria and the surrounding countries. I suspect the outcome of a Syrian Civil War will be the same as the Spanish one. The big battalions win.

    The fragmented nature of Islam in Syria and the 10% Christian community means that the situation has the potential to become quite as messy as any seen in Germany during the Thirty Years War, and to spread to draw in regional powers. We saw the casualty toll in Armenia resulting from a Turkish administrative decision in 1915.

    At this point my main concern is how to help extract my friends from the country, and how to help support those who are unable to leave. I don’t want to hear of friends starving in small towns in Syria or massacred in their beds over some obscure doctrinal issue.

    So, having avoided getting killed in the doomed Operation Armageddon in Ireland forty years ago, can I suggest we cool it, take a deep breath, and wait to see if the Russians can calm things down.

    • It has become cast adrift from any real geo-strategic mooring.

      Another way of saying this would be: it is being discussed using viewpoints other than a strict definition of national interest. I’ve never liked foreign policy that was strictly realist. Values have to come in at some point.

      wait to see if the Russians can calm things down.

      Rest assured, Russian policy won’t be “adrift from and real geo-strategic mooring.”

      • Surely though minimizing casualties and ultimately the stability this would bring is very much in Russia’s geopolitical interest. Even if we were to look at it so coldly, Russia’s military and economic cooperation with Syria would best be protected in a stable state where its different ethno-religious factions are not killing each other.

        • Surely though minimizing casualties and ultimately the stability this would bring is very much in Russia’s geopolitical interest.

          Not if it means the ouster of their client/ally, Assad. If such a peace could be reached while he remains in power, that would obviously be ideal from their perspective, but that’s a pretty big IF.

  4. A plan to end the civil war needs to recognize that defeating Assad will not be enough. The civilians who need protecting could quickly change from the Sunnis to the Shiites and Christians.

    • This is the Balkan problem: establishing a military force that truly has no bias or designated enemy, yet is effective at figuring out who the bad guy is and punishing him, even if he was last week’s victim. No one ever trusts the referees. It is also an unnatural position for a military to be in. Ultimately, peacekeeping forces tend to fixate on one faction as the aggressor (US in Somalia and Lebanon) and get identified as the ally of its rival, leading to a surprise counterattack.

      To me, the question is, what price will the Saudis demand to neutralize Syria as a supposed Shiite agent, and what price will Russia demand to preserve its prized naval base in the Mediterranean? America is too biased on both of these issues to be an honest broker.

  5. It’s an unstoppable tragedy and one that will no doubt spill over into Lebanese territory (it already has).

  6. I am quite concerned not only about the fate of Syria and Syrians, but about the possibility of the conflict metastasizing along its religio-ethnic fault lines. We are already seeing fighting break out in Syria, and support for the Assad regime by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is a substantial irritant in an already grim situation in that country. Iraqi Kurdistan could also be drawn in over any threat that might emerge to the Kurdish population, which would annoy Turkey and Iraq. The Syrian conflict also sharpens hostility between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I’m not sure there’s any hope of the U.S. discouraging SA from supporting the rebellion, nor could the U.S. succeed anyway — and pragmatically, seeing the rebellion crushed would be as dangerous as seeing it continue.

    I really don’t see any good options. Does Prof. Cole have an idea?

  7. Russia and China, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, have the ability to veto any effective way of ending the atrocities comitted by Assad’s forces.

    Russia, having a valuable naval base on the Mediterranean Sea, has every motivation to keep Assad in power in Damascus. A new regime in Damascus would leave Russo-Syrian relations in a very dubious position.

    There is no doubt Assad is an embarrassment to the concept of a participatory democracy and will likely never voluntarily step down absent extraordinary opposition pressure by the Syrian people and the international community.

  8. I don’t know enough about Syria’s current borders to comment on their legitimacy against the suggestion of partition. I know that in 1914 it was a Turkish province that included Lebanon, and that Faisal’s Arab liberation movement intended it to be the capital of a single Arab kingdom that included Iraq, Jordan and Palestine. The UK approved this, then betrayed its ally Faisal.

    So yet again, the problem of legitimate states and borders caused by that British and French treachery bites the world in the ass.

  9. Yes, killing innocent people wholesale. It’s not like the USA is doing that with drones or anything. No sir.

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