Days before the US presidential election, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelled to Doha to help forge a united Syrian opposition. Nineteen months after the Syrian uprisings began, Gulf and western states, along with Russia, Iran, and China have undermined any possible peace process, while at the same time feeding and containing a civil war that has claimed 30,000 lives. Syria has become a humanitarian disaster that Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Peace Envoy to Syria, believes might become the next Somalia.
While Brahimi’s failed-state metaphor is far-fetched at this stage, he fears that the combination of competing militias comprising defected soldiers, armed protesters, and foreign and Islamist fighters, could devolve into total chaos. The Syrian crisis has transformed into a political and military battle between the government and opposition movements that include elite and exiled activists, local coordinating committees, and rebel fighters.
Opposition parties, particularly the Syrian National Council, have been frustrated by their own infighting and failure to centralise the decision-making of rebel fighters, thus resulting in battles against the Syrian military that have drawn proved destructive and indiscriminate responses against innocent civilians.
Since Syria is the last of the Arab spring states to come to a decisive solution, are outside powers losing patience? One could argue that the Syrian revolution was effectively co-opted by western and Gulf states in a proxy war against Iran. Part of that strategy, then, would involve fracturing the Syrian state, and in turn society, through a contained civil war. It is no secret that outside powers, on either side, could decisively end the conflict in Syria by flooding it with technology, ammunition, and advanced weaponry or implementation of a no-fly-zone.
Thus, Syria has become a geopolitical battlefront – Gulf states, Turkey, Europe, and the United States on one side, and Syria, Iran, China, Russia and Hezbollah on the other – that created a humanitarian crisis with no obvious solution.
The tension for the various parties is between decisively ending the crisis versus managing a solution that would preserve or enhance geopolitical interests. For example, western and Gulf states have had no problems denouncing Assad, providing havens for elite activists to meet, or supporting opposition fighters with some weapons and supplies. Yet, for all of their backing, both rhetorical and material, there has been a consistent reticence to fully realise the promise of support. Why is this so?
First, western states are exhausted militarily. Between the Afghan and Iraq wars, the evident consequences of arming rebels in Libya, and Egypt’s political volatility, Gulf and western states are engaging in damage control to preserve their assets and interests.
Second, one could argue that the war in Syria became a stalemate because it was in the strategic interests of western and Gulf states, not because they believed that more explicit intervention would lead to spillover, sectarian conflict, or civil war. If anything, the devolution of civil war, along sectarian and religious lines and 30,000 dead suggests the convenience of the excuse rather than deterrence.
Now that President Obama has been re-elected, how will western and Gulf powers (and Turkey) move forward? Are they likely to intensify their efforts to organise a politico-military solution, much like they did in Libya? Perhaps. This is possible for three reasons. First, the conflict in Syria is clearly straining Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey because of refugees, violence, and rebel fighters, foreign and Syrian, exploiting porous borders. If the instability spreads, Gulf and western states may lose their ability to “contain the fire”.
Second, President Barack Obama is now free to support, or perhaps even lead, an organised effort to bring down President Assad once and for all. President Obama’s carefully managed and contested campaign prevented him from taking any real substantive stance on Syria in the last two years.
Third, the Syrian regime, with the steadfast backing of Russia, Iran, and China, has clearly indicated that it does not take negotiations seriously, leaving little incentives for leaders and activists to trust the Syrian regime.
Western politicians are beginning to prudently and carefully craft some form of Syrian intervention? After visiting the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, where Syrian refugees are increasingly clamouring to return home due to the atrocious conditions of camp life, Prime Minister David Cameron asserted that President Bashar al-Assad should be granted safe passage out of Syria in order to allay his fears of prosecution.
He additionally noted, for the first time, that Great Britain, will engage in direct contact with rebel soldiers in order to organise them into a more effective force. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slammed the Syrian National Council, noting, “The SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.” She, along with US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, organised a meeting in Doha to orchestrate a unified front between the Syrian opposition groups, which could later lead the transition.
Additionally, Turkey’s tit-for-tat shelling with Syria culminated in a request to Nato to transfer patriot missiles to the Syrian border. At this point, it would not be surprising to see the next escalation of violence lead to a coalition of countries preparing for joint military operations, led by Turkey.
Yet Nato officials have repeatedly insisted that no action will be taken without a resolution from the United Nations Security Council where pro- and anti-Assad camps refuse to compromise. How, then, might intervention proceed?
Frankly, it is hard to say. While Ambassador Robert Ford insists that the only solution is political, it is hard to imagine a solution that does not explicitly target the Syrian military’s firepower. Nevertheless, the military option is unlikely unless the opposition organises, and this is unlikely to happen soon. Indeed, the Doha Conference barely started before different parties, including Riad Seif, a long-time activist with international and street credibility, withdrew from the negotiations, while the SNC rejected the convention platform, and others spurned the meeting altogether.
Syria is fractured and innocent civilians die but why should we be surprised? Geopolitics is, in the end, a game of elite interests that produces its own crises at the expense of the people.
The writer is a Syrian-American geographer and activist.