Martin Gascoigne writes in a guest essay for Informed Comment
The ongoing conflict in Syria, in a year of tremulous conflict across the region and beyond, singularly fails to ignite passions in the West. Oddly, even professional media coverage is relatively lacking, certainly compared to the interest in, say, Egypt. It is not as if nothing momentous is happening in Syria. The likelihood is that the scale of deaths in the Syrian crackdown on its uprising has been underestimated by the United Nations and others. Even Iraq, mostly ignored in the past couple of years by Western media, found itself centre stage in many news reports following a series of bomb attacks recently in Baghdad. Syria however, somehow, so far, fails to stick in the mind of Western consciences. Why?
That the situation is grave is unquestionable. The British-based Avaaz group maintains that it has evidence of over 6,000 deaths, of which, a minimum of 400 are children (the United Nations recently estimated the death toll at 5,000, including casualties among government troops). Reacting to the regime’s claim that 2,000 of its security forces have been killed in the unrest, Ricken Patel, executive director of Avaaz countered that, “one in every 300 Syrians has either been killed or imprisoned.” An astonishing figure. Conflict has not been widespread throughout the country. Protests that began in Dara in March 2011 have not been as widely embraced in Damascus and Aleppo. Disparate cities that count for 25% of the population. As one of the worst weeks for deaths concludes, as an Arab League monitoring team was due to arrive, there were reports of 111 deaths close to the Turkish border.
The regional situation is less black and white than the internal one. Not all of Syria’s neighbors have led a charge against the regime, and Iraq, which now has important relationships with Europe and the US, has been notably skittish in this regard. Syria does 30 percent of its trade with Iraq, over $2 billion a year. Some 200,000 Iraqis work in Syria, and the total number of Iraqi refugees there may amount to about a million (Syria’s population is about 22 million). Likewise, Lebanon’s current government has been reluctant to denounce Damascus, and remains fearful (like Iraq) of the instability in its neighbor spilling over onto itself.
There is also the not inconsiderable issue of Syria having very well connected friends in Russia and China.
There has been some hardening of statements from Russia recently. A draft resolution put forward to the United Nations Security Council last week, deploring violence on all sides. Russia, however, will be very reluctant to lose its last remaining Mediterranean Sea port access. China similarly vetoed the October Security Council vote on sanctions. Along with Russia, China has significant economic interests in Syria. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented, “Hopefully, we can work with the Russians who for the first time at least recognize that this is a matter that needs to go to the Security Council.” Unfortunately, the US is not in a good position to complain about the vetoes of other great powers on the Security Council, given its own trigger-happy deployment of that prerogative on behalf of its own clients in the Middle East.
Perhaps this consideration hints at yet another aspect to the uniqueness of the Syrian situation. Damascus is 136 miles from Tel Aviv. The highly disputed Golan Heights are home to an estimated 19,100 settlers. With the exception of ultra-hawkish foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, Israel probably is not looking for yet another conflict with a close neighbor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to have adopted a relatively cautious stance toward the upheaval next door. Had the Israeli government spoken on Syria in a more unified way and taken a more transparent position on it, that stance might have affected world opinion.
Regional intricacies aside, it may well be that wider geo-political concerns have dampened enthusiasm for more active involvement in the arena (beyond financial sanctions) on the part of the United States. Hilary Clinton has appeared reluctant to ‘engage’ with the Syria issue in a sustained way. Syria may remain (for now) in the realms of a ‘too big to fail’ situation. As far as the State Department seems is concerned. It may also be difficult for the Obama administration to undertake another major foreign policy engagement in an election year.
In Syria. President Bashar al-Assad has suggested that he is a pragmatic politician trapped by circumstance. Whether, however, his plan of conducting more open elections in 2012 has any hope of offering a way out of the impasse has a rather big question mark over it. The legitimacy of the regime may well have been fatally wounded. Syria, unlike Tunisia or even Libya, risks becoming trapped in a cycle of debilitating violence rather than seeing the sort of political progress for which the opposition Syrian National Council hopes.
It might help if the rest of the world would at least pay attention.
Martin Gascoigne is freelance writer based in UK and S.E. Asia