What can be done about Syria?


The indiscriminate killing of civilians including women and children in Syria continues. All we seem able to do is wring our hands and denounce the perpetrators.

The “peace plan” proposed by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, involving a ceasefire by both government and opposition fighters, has clearly failed. U.N. observers who try to discover what happened at alleged massacre sites are fired on, and when they eventually reach the sites, they find the aftermath of fighting but the bodies have been removed.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared that the Syrian government, led by President Bashar Assad, has lost all legitimacy. The Security Council condemns the violence, but is impeded from proposing effective action to protect human rights in Syria because of the positions taken by Russia and China, who veto action that in their view would lead to unacceptable intervention in the internal affairs of another country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has never shown any respect for human rights abroad or at home. His eyes are on Chechnya, Dagestan and other territories ruled by Russia, but where ethnic and Islamic groups are opposed to Russian rule. Russia has a naval base in Syria and supplies more than three-quarters of the arms used by Syrian forces. The Russians have recently been reported to be supplying helicopter gunships to the Assad regime for use against the opposition.

China is adamantly opposed to any actions against Syria that might set a precedent for interference in China’s periphery. In Tibet and areas of Central Asia, the Han Chinese are in a minority and are regarded by the indigenous peoples as exploiting colonists. The Chinese Communist Party, which faces a leadership change over the next few months, showed extraordinary sensitivity to reports of the Arab Spring involving the overthrow of autocratic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. News from the area was drastically censored.

Both the Russian and Chinese leaders felt that they had been “trapped” at the U.N. into agreeing to NATO intervention in Libya. What was intended ostensibly as the enforcement of a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan aircraft from massacring Libyan civilians turned in their view into the use of NATO aircraft against Libyan government forces generally and the overthrow of the Gadhafi tyranny in Libya.

The security situation in Syria has deteriorated quickly and the country is sinking into all out civil war. Already this has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon. Refugees have crossed into Turkey and camps have had to be built to house them. The International Red Cross believes that well over a million people in Syria are in urgent need of food and medical supplies.

The Syrian government blame the troubles on criminal gangs and extremist elements. The opposition accuse government backed militia, the Shabiha (meaning “ghosts” in Arabic), as well as the Syrian Army for the atrocities. The weight of evidence belies the Assad regime’s assertions, but civilian casualties are inevitable in any insurrection and the opposition forces are hardly blameless.

The opposition are far from united but are backed to a degree by Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states. They also have some support from Turkey.

The troubles in Syria are not a simple struggle by democrats against an autocratic regime. Nor can they be blamed solely on the long-standing enmity and rivalry between Sunni and Shiite sects and on religious intolerance, although these are all elements in the conflict.

Sunni followers account for about three- quarters of Syria’s population of some 21 million. Syria has had a largely secular form of government, and a substantial Christian minority have been allowed to practice their religion. But the government has allowed the Alawites, who represent around 11 percent of the population, to hold dominant positions in the government hierarchy. The Alawites have a complex set of beliefs combining Pagan, Christian and Islamic elements, and they practice their rites in secret.

Syria’s middle class wants stability and fears that civil war will lead to anarchy and the ending of secularism in government. The Assad regime plays on these fears while the failure of the opposition to unite suggests to some that Islamic extremists might win control. There are also apprehensions that civil war in Syria may spread to Lebanon and beyond in the Middle East.

What can be done to prevent further massacres?

Military intervention would only be legal under international law if endorsed by the Security Council and this is currently ruled out by Russian and Chinese opposition. Another mechanism involving the General Assembly could perhaps be used to give legal cover to outside intervention that should not be ruled out.

Safe havens could be established in Turkey and supplies of arms to the opposition increased, although this could lead to the war spreading and to increased civilian casualties.

Economic and diplomatic sanctions, which are already being applied, could be intensified, but past precedents suggest that these are largely ineffective.

The Assad regime clearly intends to tough it out and recognizes that, if after all the civilian casualties, it were to lose control, its members would have no future in Syria and might well end up before the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes.

Humanitarian help through the Red Cross and Red Crescent must be increased. Turkey, in particular, must be assisted in dealing with refugees from Syria.

The Russians and Chinese are unlikely to be influenced by ethical considerations, but may be more willing to modify their positions, if it can be demonstrated that supporting Assad’s regime is damaging their own long-term interests. This will not be easy to achieve as the focus of their leaders is narrow and shortsighted, but attempts to get them to see reason must be intensified not only by Europe and the United States, but by other democratic countries with interests in the Middle East, including Japan.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.