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The situation in Assad’s Syria remains explosive

Dale R. Herspring

By A Contributor

Dale R. Herspring Contributing Writer

If t ever a civil war carried regional, or even broader, implications, it is Syria’s.  This is not just an internal battle to determine whether President Bashar al-Assad steps down. That is important, but his stepping down — which no one expects — would solve just one part of the problem. The larger issue is where Syria is going politically.

There is a major internal struggle in which Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority is trying to free itself from rule by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Assad’s Alawite sect is petrified that if he gives up power, it will witness the rise of another Muslim-Brotherhood type of government that would be intolerant toward them —with all the consequences that carries in a Muslim state. 

The problem for the rest of the world is that there is no easy solution to this.  Consider, for example, Egypt and the problems involving Coptic Christians, many of whom fear a pogrom instigated by or tolerated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some have suggested that the answer to the war in Syria (with a death toll of about 5,500 and rising) is to send in NATO forces, as happened in Libya. The two situations are very different. First, Libya was isolated from other nations of North Africa.  Its ties with Egypt, Algeria or Tu-nisia were not close. Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi could not count on those countries coming to his aid. Nor could he count on Western nations, which ended up turning the tide against him. 

As regards Syria, both Russia and China have important economic ties with Damascus. Russia and China were the only two countries to vote against (veto) the Security Council resolution condemning the Assad government for its actions in attempting to put down the uprising.

Russia’s interest Syria is twofold; first, Syria is a primary customer of weapons and military equipment.  Second, Russia hopes through Syria to regain the influence it once had in the Muslim world.  Also, Russia’s only overseas naval base is in Syria, and Moscow remains piqued at the West for freezing Russia out of the the solution in Libya. China apparently has decided to follow Russia’s lead.

Then there is Iran, which is openly aiding Assad. Indeed, there are reports of Iranian military officers in Syria helping to direct Syrian troops in their effort to destroy Assad’s opposition. Any effort to insert outside forces in Syria would mean a confrontation with Iran. That is why most observers believe that the United States should try to resolve Iranian efforts to create nuclear weapons before considering using military force against Damascus. 

One possibility involves providing weapons to Assad’s opposition, and Turkey would be a good conduit. However, we aren’t sure the opposition force could make good use of them. The opposition appears primarily made up of conscripts, the vast majority of whom come from the majority Sunni society.  In addition to equipment, they would need training

Another option would be increasing sanctions against the Assad government. We already have sanctions in place, and the European Union is considering expanding its sanctions.  Unfortunately, sanctions seldom work unless they are administered over a long period of time and supported by all of the world’s major powers. 

We could provide the rebels with intelligence information; that would be valuable. Yet that is not likely to change things significantly, and it puts us on a slippery slope that would likely proceed to money, then medical assistance, then organizing the opposition,  then weapons, then advisers, and then… Who knows where it would end?

One question anyone watching news on TV might ask is why the rest of the world permits this slaughter go on. Don’t Moscow and Beijing understand the horrendous nature of the situation?  Yes, they do. But as I have argued before, foreign policy is not just another form of domestic policy. 

When one enters the international sphere, one learns quickly that if a country is determined to achieve a certain goal, the death toll does not play an important role. Dancing with the devil may unpleasant, but achieving the actual goal is considered more important.

Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor, and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.









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