Normative Narratives

Conflict Watch: Syria

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Syria is currently engaged in a bloody civil war which has by most estimates has led to more than 40,000 deaths and 350,000+ refugees, not to mention IDP (internally displaced people) to date. Starting as a peaceful protest against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the situation quickly spiraled out of control. Assad responded violently against the protests, which led to a violent response from the protestors. The rest, as they say, is history.

The demands made by the protestors are relatively straightforward. Assad’s Ba’ath party, which has been in power in Syria since 1963, represents only a small fraction of Syrian people (about 12% of the population is Alawite, Assad’s sect). Most uprisings in today’s world are protracted social conflicts (PSCs), stemming from low levels of socio-economic development, human rights violations, and lack of civil and political liberties—Syria is no exception.

It is not uncommon for a legitimate uprising to be hijacked by violent factions even without provocation, as opportunist see the opportunity to seize power. Extremist groups have been associated with the Syrian rebels, and a recent report suggests that Al-Qaeda may have a foothold in the group. This raises concerns about who will fill the power vacuum once Assad is removed from power, and complicates American involvement.

The UN, for its part, has mostly had its hands tied. Security Council / NATO based resolutions are systematically voted down by China and Russia on national sovereignty grounds. These two governments state they do not want a repeat of what happened in Libya, despite Libya being a recent success story of international intervention. Kofi Annan, the original UN-Syrian peace envoy, resigned in frustration of the elusive peace process. His replacement, Lakhdar Brahimi, has had little more success than his predecessor.

Besides China, Russia, Iran, and extremist organizations throughout the world, there is little support for Assad’s continued rule. Syria has drawn economic sanctions from much of the Western World, and was even expelled from the Arab League (November 2011). Syria had been able to subvert sanctions by trading through Iran. Whenever high demand natural resources are in play, it is very difficult for sanctions to work fully—they often lead to the formation of a black market.

There is certainly blood on the hands of both sides of the conflict, but it is disproportionately on Assad’s hands. Assad has recently taken to blindly bombing areas assumed to host rebels, and civilians constitute a large portion of the total casualties in Syria.

Recently, the Syrian opposition has unified into a more inclusive and transparent group. The idea is to create a legitimate parallel government that will be ready to take over when the Assad regime is toppled. The group has received recognition from France and many other EU governments. The U.S. was instrumental in creating the new coalition, but has understandably been reluctant to offer direct military support. After expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. will tread lightly and try to avoid direct military intervention if at all possible. Even arming the rebels is not a foolproof approach, as weapons often do not end up in the intended hands.

Assad’s position seems increasingly bleak. New concerns suggest that a desperate Assad may turn to chemical weapons if he believes he has no other options. This is a stated “red line” for the U.S., that any use of chemical weapons would draw a U.S. military response.

It will be interesting to see how things play out, as the Syrian conflict seems to be at a crossroads. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Assad is able to escape from Syria alive, much less continue to rule in Syria, but certainly nothing is written in stone at this point.

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4 thoughts on “Conflict Watch: Syria

  1. Ben- you say the idea is to create a legitimate parallel government ready to take over “when” Assad is toppled. Is his defeat inevitable, or does it hinge on the extent of U.S./ Western support for the opposition?

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  2. His defeat is basically inevitable. His only real partner in the region, Iran, is facing significant economic sanctions itself and is no real position provide assistance.

    On the other hand, the international community seems to be closing in on Assad. Russia continues to back Assad, but warned against using chemical weapons. Assad is desperate, as he is bombing anything that moves hoping to defeat the rebels, but they know hes on his last breath and will continue fighting.

    Assad’s family has ruled Syria for almost 50 years. He has stated he will not give up control, and has hinted he would rather die than concede power. It remains to be seen how serious he is with this proclamation, but seeing a situation in which Assad is allowed to live, let alone retain his power, is hard enough to imagine. He is literally fighting for his life

    I read an article that raised the point that even if Assad was allowed to leave today, he wouldn’t be allowed to. He has ordered so many killings in the name of his cause, even those loyal to him are likely to prevent him from leaving, as this would leave them as the responsible party instead of Assad.

    Assad has his back up against the wall, which is why there are fresh concerns over the use of chemical weapons. I think his defeat, and probably his death, are inevitable

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  3. Ben…From what I see in the news it seems that Assad is really getting desperate. Do you think that Assad would really resort to chemical weapons. I think that he is crazy enough, but would he do it? Thanks for this update!

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  4. Hello Martin,

    I cannot see Assad actually using chemical weapons. Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has been very clear that they would not support the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

    Losing Russia’s support would greatly weaken Assad’s position. Additionally, it would probably lead to Western military intervention, which should be able to crush Assad’s army relatively quickly, especially with rebel support.

    The only situation where I can see Assad using chemical weapons is if he truly would rather die ruler of Syria than negotiate a change in power (as he has claimed). But even in this instance, using chemical weapons would make his victory less likely, not more likely.

    Unless Assad has completely given up hope for military victory, he will not resort to using chemical weapons.

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