Like most Western governments, the Obama Administration has been caught in a bind over Syria. Hopes that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad can oversee a transition to democracy have been dashed by the months of vicious repression that has seen more than 4,000 Syrians killed, according to the United Nations. Perhaps as a result, hopes that the movement to oust Assad can be confined to peaceful means that avoid the danger of sectarian civil war also appear increasingly forlorn, adding to the factors that militate against foreign military intervention of the type seen in Libya.
Syria was clearly never going to follow the path of Libya: The regime maintains a solid base of support in both its Alawite and Christian communities, even if that support is driven more by fear of the violent sectarian streak in the predominantly Sunni opposition than by love for the ruling family. Externally, the regime can count on the support of Iran, but also on Russia (for which its strategic value includes offering the Russian navy its only deep-water port in the Mediterranean) and China to block the establishment of any legal basis for military action at the U.N., burned by what Moscow and Beijing saw as the Western powers exceeding the Security Council’s mandate on Libya (where the mission to protect civilians was interpreted by NATO as permitting a military campaign for regime-change). Nor do the cash-strapped Europeans and the U.S. have much appetite for further entanglements in the Middle East, while the Arab League remains skittish over more muscular intervention.
An abiding fear among many of the stakeholders is that a sectarian civil war will draw in many of the region’s power players, spilling over on sectarian lines into neighboring Lebanon and Iraq (where it appears, already, to be reinforcing a revival of Sunni militancy), and potentially becoming yet another theater of Saudi-Iranian proxy warfare. Perhaps sensing its advantages on the sectarian military terrain, that’s precisely where the regime has chosen to wage the battle for power. With an Arab League delegation in Syria to monitor Syria’s (non-) compliance with a previous truce agreement, the regime is determined to frame the conflict as one driven by violent extremists, as a way of rationalizing its own military actions — last week’s bombing in Damascus cited as evidence.
The more the regime can force the opposition onto the military terrain, and the more sectarian the terms of battle, the more outside powers will hesitate to intervene, even as the steadily rising body count raises pressure for action. The key player may turn out to be Turkey, a recent key ally alienated by Assad to the point that it’s weighing the creation of a military buffer zone inside Syrian territory. Ankara has played host to the rebel Free Syrian Army, composed of defectors from Assad’s forces, but has at the same time prevented it from staging attacks from Turkish territory. Just how far Turkey will go in pressing for Assad to go may be the key question of the New Year in Syria.