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Rajan Menon

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On Syria's Continuing Carnage

Posted: 06/01/2012 1:09 pm

Much about Syria's continuing carnage remains unclear -- above all, what outsiders can do to stop it. But there are also undeniable facts.

Bashar al-Assad's regime has not lost the capacity and determination to kill, even after 15 months of bloodshed that has left some 10,000 Syrian civilians dead by now (the U.N. estimated 9,000 killed at the end of March).

Having killed this many for this long, the more determined Assad's government (the core of which is an Alawite minority, in a country that is overwhelming Sunni Muslim) seems to be to keep at it. Syria's leaders have so much blood on their hands that they cannot hope for a political settlement that leaves them in power, or even one that saves them from a terrible reckoning.

Assad's government is also willing to continue the violence because it is not just an Alawite clique opposed by the rest of Syria. The army, police forces, and intelligence services have stuck with the regime, from which there haven't been serial defections by top-ranking officials. Syria's Kurds, Christians, and parts of its urban Sunni middle class have not abandoned the government en masse, not because they like Assad but because they are unsure that he will fall and unsure what follow him if he does.

The latest atrocities in Houla have shattered hopes that a ceasefire agreement, the stationing of third-party monitors, and talks between the warring parties -- in short, the Kofi Annan's U.N.-backed diplomatic initiative -- might end the killing and then produce a political solution.

Even if were Assad and company amenable to exile -- and there's no sign that they are -- that solution won't be easy. After what they have done, which state would want them as indefinite house guests, and why?

Also, it's not a matter of loading a coterie of top leaders on a plane as a prelude to peace, much less implementing a Tunisian solution, where the army packed President Ben Ali and family off to Saudi Arabia. In Syria, there are perhaps thousands of military men, intelligence operatives, and civilian thugs who have perpetrated, or ordered, killings and torture and abductions. Absent safe havens, they have good reason to fight on given the alternative.

Even assuming such a large number of regime loyalists could find sanctuary outside Syria, the opposition groups are unlikely to allow the chief culprits to evade punishment for their horrific deeds.

Among the states most able to mount a military intervention, essentially the members of NATO, there is no widespread eagerness to do so, even in the unlikely event that a Security Council resolution approved such a step, as it did in Libya. There's plenty of outrage and hand-wringing, but no stomach for action beyond expelling Syrian diplomats and crafting additional sanctions, neither of which will make Assad call off his forces. In particular, it's clear that President Obama, who boasted that what he did in Libya in a month what took over a year to do in Bosnia, does want not to involve American military forces in Syria's war -- not when he's seeking re-election.

The so-called CNN effect -- images of the mass slaughter of innocents that ignite anguish and outrage in the citizens of democracies and create a cascade of calls for intervention -- may or may not be as powerful as it's said to be, but what's clear is that there's no popular outcry in the United States and Europe for a rescue campaign in Syria involving the risk of military action. Simply put: Western politicians are not under pressure from their citizenry to turn to military means.

Important Americans (Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Joseph Lieberman, most prominently) are calling for various military measures. But the proponents of such intervention lack satisfactory answers to critical questions about the actions they advocate and the possible consequences.

• If the tandem of a no-flight zone and arms supplies to the opposition don't stop the killing because Assad continues to use his armor, artillery, ground troops, and irregular forces (the dreaded shabiha), would air strikes on Syrian army units be next -- in effect, a war with Syria?

• What if the Syrian military's endurance proves greater than expected despite the air attacks? Would ground troops follow and, if so, whose? If the United States insists that its allies take part would they do so, as they did in Kosovo in 1999, even without the Security Council's authorization?

• Would there be substantial public support in the United States and Europe for such escalation in the wake of two wars -- Iraq and Afghanistan -- that have consumed a lot of blood and treasure? If not, which Western states are likely to pay the price in lives and money should the campaign become bloodier and longer than expected?

• What role would the anti-Assad forces play in all of this? And what is known about their plan for Syria's future and, more immediately, their ability to cast aside the political differences apparent among exiled groups, between exiled groups and the Syrian military and political opposition, and within the Syrian opposition itself? In short, is there a unified opposition leadership?

• What if the war becomes even more internationalized, and thus even deadlier, with Iran, Russia, and China, all of whom have substantial ties with Assad's government (albeit of different types and for different reasons) arm it, claiming that the intervention is not humanitarian but an attempt to change the regime in what is a civil war?

• What would be the definition of success? A ceasefire that lasts and is followed by a power-sharing agreement that paves the way for elections? The fall of Assad's government and the establishment of an interim administration thereafter? A new constitution that enables elections, with foreign troops keeping the peace meanwhile?

The lack of compelling answers to such questions and the Assad regime's do-or-die mindset yield two dismal conclusions: The bloodletting in Syria won't end anytime soon, and when it does, Assad and his followers, who will not prevail, will face a cruel comeuppance.

 
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