Syria and the perpetual crisis

By Neil Andrews

A visit to the world’s oldest city two years ago and you would have seen men playing board games out on dusty Damascene streets.  Not any longer.  The death toll since hostilities broke out between rebel forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad in March 2011 is 70,000 and rising, and yet the West does nothing.  Why?

The situation in Syria is deteriorating at an alarming rate.  Along with the tens of thousands already dead, up to 2 million Syrians are thought to have been displaced inside the country, many without proper shelter or access to medication.  Added to this is the growing refugee problem: an estimated 700,000 people are thought to have fled Syria into neighboring countries in recent months and the borders of Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan are bursting at the seams.  It is little surprise, then, that Syria’s neighbours are desperately struggling to cope with the rising influx of people and failing to provide ample healthcare and sanitation.  Added to this, a recent UN appeal aimed at raising $1.5 billion to assist Syrian refugees had only achieved 3% of its target.

The refugee problem is not all, though.  Syria itself remains in a perpetual state of violence and civil war.  Only 3 days ago a car bomb in the capital killed 53 people, a day after a mortar attack fatally wounded a player inside a local football stadium.  This latest wave of atrocities comes just weeks after the bodies of 80 suspected rebel troops were scooped out of a canal in Aleppo, the country’s largest city.  The men, who were later identified by family members, had been shot with a bullet to the head and their hands tied behind their backs, bearing all the hallmarks of a planned execution, most probably by regime troops.  Yet, despairingly, President Assad remains free to commit genocide.

There are two reasons why the West is reluctant to commit.  First is the support that Assad commands.  Inside Syria the government has a large Allawite following and the control of over 50,000 well-armed troops, as well as a pool of maybe thousands more to draw upon.  Supplementing this is the backing Assad enjoys from the Lebanese extremist party, Hezbollah, as well as financial and military aid from Iran, Iraq and Russia.  Indeed, it is the support from Russia, the world’s second-largest military power, that is especially demoralizing.  Having already blocked 3 UN Security Council resolutions aimed at evicting Assad, and on the verge of an agreement to sell air and naval defence systems (as well as a consignment of Yak-130 jets, with ground attack capabilities) to the Syrian government, Russia is proving a major thorn in the side of Western endeavors.  Despite the attempts last month of its Prime Minister, Dmitry Medvedev, to cool talk of Russia’s links to Assad, it is clear that the Kremlin is continuing to prop up the Middle Eastern despot.  Unless Russia withdraws its support for the regime, Assad will continue to sponsor the massacre of innocent Syrians and the West will be at pains to act.

Perhaps a bigger concern for the West is the danger of causing a greater pan-Arabian crisis.  Geopolitically, Syria is nestled in between a number of already highly volatile Middle Eastern nations, and an act of Western intervention carries the risk of inflaming ethnic divisions, as well as fuelling the jihadist cause.  Lebanon has close ties with Syria and any interference by the West has the potential to flare up pro- and anti-Assad divisions within the country.  Israel, which also shares a border with Syria, is another hotbed of political ferment – the installation of an Islamist party, similar to that of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, would only stoke anti-Islamic sentiment.

But this should not excuse the West’s absence.  Pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria, aiding legitimate rebel forces and increasing pressure on Russia would all be welcome moves.  If the West does not act quickly, Syrians will continue to die at an appalling rate and a once beautiful, historic country could burn to ash.

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