Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations now tasked with finding a solution to the year-long crisis that has engulfed Syria, returned from Damascus on Sunday with little more than vague words of ill-placed optimism. “You have to start by stopping the killings and the misery and the abuses …. and give time (for a) political settlement,” he told reporters, saying that Syrian President Bashar Assad needed to embrace change and reform. “I have urged the president to heed the African proverb which says you cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail.” It would appear that Assad doesn’t think African proverbs translate very well in the Middle East. Syrian army troops poured into the rebel stronghold of Idlib over the weekend, threatening a repeat of the carnage visited on Homs last month where hundreds were killed, thousands left homeless and parts of the city annihilated by sustained shelling. International reaction has been defined by despair, frustration and paralysis as the death toll exceeds 7,500.
“How many more will die?” U.S. Senator John McCain demanded at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing meeting last week. “10,000 more, 20,000 more?” McCain’s argument that the U.S. has a responsibility to intervene in the Syrian uprising echoed similar resolutions from Arab League, though for the moment, at least, no one can quite decide what that intervention should look like. U.S. generals are already war-gaming the situation but on a scale of recent interventions, a military solution in Syria would more likely resemble Iraq than Libya.
Diplomatic alternatives, however, are in short supply. Negotiations between the government and the opposition have stalled before even getting off the ground: On Saturday, Assad said that he wouldn’t pull his troops back as long as “armed terrorists” — his term for anti-regime activists, operated in the country. Regime opponents say they won’t be part of any agreement that allows Assad and his circle to remain in power. The longer it takes to set a transition deal in place, warns the Washington Institute’s Andrew Tabler author of In The Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria, the worse it will get. “You will start seeing different regional players start funneling arms to their preferred factions. It will be a proxy war, with Iranians and Russians backing the regime, and Turkey and Qatar and the West backing the opposition.” Short of diplomatic pressure from Russia and China, whose leaders until now have refused to turn against the Syrian regime, it’s unlikely that Assad will step down of his own accord. All the more reason to act forcibly now, says Tabler. “People say we can’t intervene now, that it’s too messy. But what will it look like a year from now?” Either way, he says, the outlook is grim. “We are headed for a big storm, one that has the potential to suck in everyone in the region.”
Frustration with a lack of options has forced some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to endorse what they see as the least bad option: arming the rebels. Will that start the carnage? Not likely, says the Council on Foreign Relations’ Ed Husain, an academic and author who has spent many years living in and studying Syria. Military assistance without diplomatic progress could end up causing even more casualties, he says, and the increased possibility of a sectarian conflagration would not be contained within Syrian borders. “If the opposition is armed it will ignite sectarian tensions. And those tensions have the potential to spread from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq and then to the tribes in the Gulf. It’s going to be bloody, and it’s going to be ugly.”
So what are the other options? To start with, says Husain, there has to be some recognition that the Free Syrian Army [FSA], which is made up of regime opponents and defected soldiers, shares some responsibility for the violence. Focusing on regime atrocities against civilians while ignoring the crimes of the Free Syrian Army will make it even more difficult to negotiate a way out of the crisis. Sunday’s drive by shooting of a celebrated Syrian boxer in Aleppo, which the state news agency blamed on the opposition, is just the latest in a string of high profile assassinations that have plagued the city. Members of the opposition have taken responsibility for some, but not all, of the attacks, saying that the victims were regime supporters. (Other opposition members say that the assassinations were committed by order of the government as part of a propaganda campaign). “We have to be fair,” says Husain. “The opposition is being provocative, it is kidnapping soldiers, assassinating businessmen and using civilians as human shields. You can’t go head to head with a tyrannical regime and assume that the repercussions won’t be extreme. Arming them will only make things worse.”
Syrian activists, particularly the ones that started the peaceful protest movement a year ago, are divided. “I believe in peaceful struggle,” says Wissam Tarif, a Beirut based activist who has been instrumental at getting video documentation of regime atrocities out of the country. “It may take longer, but we will be on the right side of history.” Of course, he says, drawing deeply on a cigarette. “I’m not in Homs. And when I see videos of guys being tortured and families being shelled, well, yes. These people need to be able to defend themselves.” There is a middle ground, he says. Militarization has to come with conditions, and it can’t happen without having a civilian leadership on the ground acting as a check. Since the government and the military’s officer corps is dominated by Alawites, members of Assad’s minority sect, many fear that revenge killings by the largely Sunni opposition would be difficult to contain. “Arming the FSA could end up like something out of Rwanda,” says Tarif. “They could start killing all the Alawites, then the international community would have to step in and defend them against the FSA. That would be the irony.”
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Both activists and analysts agree that the best possible solution would be a kind of internal coup, where Alawites and other regime stalwarts start to pull their support. Already there have been signs of cracks. The Druze minority sect has started to stand against the regime, as have significant numbers of Christian priests and leaders who have historically stood with the regime. Despite the fact that Syria’s Sunni majority seems to have turned against Assad, significant religious leaders have not. Nor have influential businessmen of all sects. “It doesn’t cost Assad politically to see Christians or Druze or even Alawites turn against him,” says Tabler. “It would mean much more if you saw prominent Christian, Alawite or Sunni businessmen turn away. That would be far more powerful than even giving arms to the opposition, because in the end, his army will always have more bullets.”
The biggest failure of those who support the opposition, from activists to international governments, says Tabler, has been the inability to reach out to the regime’s key supporters to get them to turn against Assad. It’s a shortcoming that the Syrian National Council, one of the opposition umbrella groups, hopes to address soon. “We do need to do better when it comes to the minority groups,” admits member Moaz al-Sibaai, who is based in Saudi Arabia. “We need to make them feel comfortable that the new Syria will be for them too.” Still, he says, it’s not too late. “I don’t believe that the regime has torn up the fabric of tolerance that defines Syria yet. People will go back to their values once the struggle is over. Everyone has aspirations for a Syria without Assad, and I don’t think anyone will compromise that dream through sectarian war.” But the longer the conflict lasts, the more likely it is that the sectarian divides will be cemented into place.
—With reporting by Rami Aysha/Beirut