Syria: The conflict rages on
August 1, 2012 1 Comment
By James Nickerson
Democracy has spread like wildfire through Northern Africa and the Middle East in recent times, yet the conflict in Syria has diverged from what we saw in the likes of Egypt and Libya. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has lost almost all its legitimacy by Western standards, but the powers that lie in the USA and Europe can do little to support the rebels, due in part to Russia and China’s vetoing of sanctions within the United Nations.
Protests started in Damascus and Deraa in March 2011, which were quashed violently with a number of people dead. Amidst all of the unrest, President Assad released a number of political prisoners; a peculiar move for a man who just two months later would send army tanks to put down anti-regime protests. Shortly after this, in July, the opposition began to mobilize. More regionally, November 2011 saw the Arab league suspended Syria for not implementing the Arab peace plan, with international pressure mounting for President Assad to step down.
Not long after this, the Red Cross, in July 2012, declared that Syria was in the state of civil war. On first appearances the conflict in Syria is not different to those we have seen before, which began with protests and escalated to violent conflict until the dictator (hopefully) falls. Yet it seems apparent that at this stage Kofi Annan’s five-stage peace plan has failed, especially after his futile attempt to persuade President Putin to change Russia’s position regarding Syria. This raises the question of if and when the time for intervention in a more substantial way is an option.
The violence continues and Syria’s largest cities burn whilst hundreds of thousands of refugees escape to Turkey and Jordan, with 200,000 fleeing Aleppo in the light of recent engagement between forces. All of these factors make the war in Syria different, yet the problem in Syria is far greater than faced in other countries: Syria has chemical weapons. Not only does Syria have chemical weapons, but also they have not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention. This means, unlike Libya, which was in the process of actively reducing its chemical weapons stock, Syria is under no obligation with regards to their stocks.
The powers that be inside the Syrian government have stated that they will not use these weapons on their own citizens. This is obviously important, and somewhat encouraging if true, yet does not mean that the international community is safe. Nawaf Fares, the most senior political defector, has stated that ‘the regime will not hesitate to use chemical weapons if it is cornered’. In other words, any external attack, whether from the West or Israel, will be met with extreme retaliation. This again raises questions about whether it would be prudent for any military intervention. There are of course mixed opinions about what the impact of this would be, and BBC’s Jim Muir has stated how the West and Israel have been worried that Syria may deploy its stocks of chemical weapons.
It appears, however, that most countries are now supporting the rebels in their struggle. William Hague, British Foreign Secretary, has stated that Syria’s threat to use chemical weapons against foreign intervention is “unacceptable”, and has openly expressed his moral support for the Free Syrian Army.
Israel have gone one step further, with Ehub Barak, Israel’s Defence Minister reaffirming that its intelligence services are tracking the situation carefully, and affirming that Israel ‘cannot accept a situation’ in which the weapons are put in to the hand of the Shia guerrilla group. Benjamin Netanyaju, the Prime Minister stated that Israel would ‘have to act’ if any weapons were to fall to militant groups. This could be a major advantage for the West but for the USA in particular, who may be able to leave any intervention to Israel.
But Israel has another major problem: Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called for a world without Zionism in 2005, vowing to ‘wipe Israel off the map’. Given this, Israel’s focus must be somewhat on Iran at present, in order to stop Tehran developing nuclear weapons, with the backing of the USA, and Mitt Romney in particular. This leaves the conflict in Syria in a precarious position: any attack by the west may at present be imprudent, but how long can the international community stand idly by whilst the number of dead increase at the hands of a tyrant? An estimated 16,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising, and while tighter sanctions are all the time being discussed and implemented, Mr. Fares maintains that President Assad will ‘only be removed by force’.
While on appearances a rebel victory is supported by most democratic states, the questions surrounding the chemical weapons will still a worrying threat. What would the rebels do with the stocks of chemical weapons? Would they be safer than under President Assad? Any country that has an interest in the area will be keen to make sure that if the rebels do prosper they implement a democratic government, which can be worked with to bring more stability to the region. Unfortunately, our leaders are stuck in a difficult position and therefore it appears that a victory will not be quickly or suddenly won.