By some estimates, the death toll in Syria has reached 7,000. Since the recent attacks on Homs and Aleppo the casualty toll has risen from 20 to 50 people per day. Innocent men, women, and children are dying and it’s clear that something must be done to stop the bloodshed. But this, however, is easier said than done.
The crisis in Syria is deeply complex, layered with various conflicting interests and historical motivations. Syria itself is religiously and ethnically diverse, with Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites among others pursuing their own concerns. In the greater Middle East, the Sunni-Shiite divide has caused other Arab nations to carefully choose their sides and hedge their bets. Interwoven on top of all this is a grander East-West divide: the United States and its inseparable Middle Eastern ally, Israel, versus the old Cold War powers of Russia and China.
These factors have all combined to create a noxious concoction that is leaving many Syrians helpless and the Assad regime increasingly intransigent.
The idea of a united Syrian front against the current government is untrue. The bulk of the resistance movement is made of Sunnis, yet they lack both a strong leader and strong popular support from other religious groups.
The most powerful element in the Syrian National Council - the name given to the resistance group – is the Islamic Brotherhood. After having been repressed under consecutive Assad regimes for over 30 years, and feeling emboldened by the success of counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, they are yearning for a voice.
But more worryingly, they may be yearning for revenge.
The Brotherhood led a guerilla campaign from the ‘70s in to the ‘80s that aimed to seize power from the Alawite-led Ba’ath Party of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. After numerous attacks on government officials – and a very nearly successful assassination attempt on the President – Hafez al-Assad ordered swift revenge on insurgents, political prisoners and many civilians. Amnesty International estimated the number of casualties between 10,000 and 25,000.
Today, the Brotherhood is well-funded, with significant support on a public level. But many Syrians are wary of an armed Sunni insurgency. Alawites in particular have the most to lose from Assad’s downfall. They may only constitute a small percentage of the population, but they control much of the economy as well as both the government itself and forceful government militias, such as the shabiha.
Other ethnic minorities, such as Druze, Christians, and Ismailis, worry of a radicalised and vengeful Sunni government turning on them after the insurrection. This may also be the case with the Kurds, many of which are Sunni, but who mainly seek national rights. All these minorities may be hedging their bets and tacitly supporting the status quo in the hope that if Assad weathers the storm they will not be troubled, and perhaps rewarded, for their silent acquiescence. For them, the unknowns of a post-Assad Syria are too great to be hazarded.
The Greater Middle East
Syria is of great interest to other Arab nations, particularly those in the Gulf region. The Arab League has called for action to be taken against the Assad regime, but so far to no avail. The primary worry for Gulf nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular is the thought of Syria, and more importantly Iran, stirring up trouble with Shiite populations within their own borders.
The Arab League has thus chosen to align itself with the anti-Iranian Western camp of the US, Europe, and Israel, to avoid exacerbating internal Sunni-Shiite divides.
The US and Israel
The primary motivations for the US in the Syrian conflict are regional dominance and the security of Israel. The perception of both the US and Israel in the region have suffered greatly of late. The 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war in Lebanon along with the Israeli attacks on Hamas and Gaza in 2008-2009 made Israel look bellicose, turning public opinion further against them. This can be said, too, for the US’s disastrously cavalier efforts at ‘democracy’ in Iraq, which ironically left Iran in a position of regional dominance, and as an existential threat to Israel.
Israel may also be worried about the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Their power will potentially weaken the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1979 and thus give Israel more cause for concern regarding the security of its western flank.
Recent events combined with the recurring menaces of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah have made a dent in Israeli hegemony, and now the US and Israel are seeking to restore that dominion in various ways. In the light of the conflated anti-Iranian rhetoric in the US, one can see a concerted, wide-ranged, and long-term effort to hinder these three regimes and restore regional supremacy.
Russia and China
For Russia and China the Syrian conflict is mainly a question of asserting power and claiming their own interests. Syria is home to the only remaining Russian naval base outside of the old Soviet Union: the port of Tartus. Established in 1971, Tartus gave the USSR a foothold in the Mediterranean. It was made a permanent base in 2008 and still holds great military and symbolic value for the Russian Federation.
Syria is also a large purchaser of Russian arms. Last month, Russia reportedly signed a $550 million deal to sell combat jets to Syria, and the total sale of arms has amounted to $4 billion, reports the SPIRI Arms Transfer Database.
Russia is now bound by its own stubbornness: having continued arms sales and blocked UN action the Kremlin has little choice but to support Assad, since any new government would no doubt now be hostile to its interests and seriously consider closing Tartus.
For its part, China rejects continual attempts by the US at securing regional control. China is a leading customer of Iranian oil, and thus objects to the US-led sanctions. They also object to the US’s new shift in overall policy towards the Asia-Pacific region. The Obama administration has made little attempt to hide the fact that it aims to control Chinese influence, and Beijing resents that.
The collective inflexibility of Russia and China in the UN represents not only their desire for their interests to be respected. It may also represent their desire not to set a precedent: with vigorous protests in Russia and China themselves, voting against the use of force by a government against its own people may set a dangerous example for revolutionaries within their own borders.
A Post-Assad Syria
For now, it seems Assad will cling to power. With a gridlocked UN there is little stomach for unilateral (or near-unilateral) military intervention. Assad knows he is not as isolated as perhaps Qaddafi before him – he has the support of Iran, the guns of Russia, and the vetoes of Russia and China.
Even the Arab League, recently very pro-intervention, may not be so gung-ho anymore. Embroiling Iran in to a regional conflict could put their own oil facilities in jeopardy.
Others just don’t want to open the Pandora’s box: the opposition is disorganised to say the least, and with new reports of Iraqi arms coming across the border, neighboring countries such as Jordan, and even Israel, may opt for the status quo rather than a radicaliaed and vengeful Muslim Brotherhood at the helm of a post-Assad government.
With the downfall of Assad nowhere near inevitable, foreign leaders and aid groups must find other ways to deal with a further protracted and bloody conflict.