As I feared yesterday, the Syrian government is using yesterday’s alleged attack and killing of 120 security forces by protesters (yet to be verified) as a justification for a massive use of force upon the Syrian people. Residents of the town Jisr al-Shughour, where the alleged killings took place, are fleeing saying they fear an oncoming slaughter.
The government says it will act “with force” to combat “armed gangs” that it blames for the recent killings. Activists say the cause of the deaths is unclear, and may involve a mutiny.
Residents have posted messages on Facebook saying they fear a slaughter and appealing for help from outside.They called on people to try to block roads leading to the town with burning tyres, rocks and tree trunks. Syrian army tanks and troop carriers backed by helicopters were reported to be on the move.
Activists insist the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is peaceful and scorn the government’s talk of armed gangs.
Foreign journalists are banned from Syria, so minute-to-minute updates of the news may not be forthcoming. There has apparently been a draft UN Security Council resolution drawn up by France, Britain, Germany and Portugal condemning Assad’s regime and requesting he open areas of Syria to humanitarian teams. Obviously, Assad is unlikely to agree to such a request and unfortunately Russia is expected to veto the resolution.
Given the fact that Syria is not a client state of the U.S., and that there is even high amounts of tension between us (plus the Israeli factor), there is a possibility the apparently oncoming brutality towards civilians will prompt a direct intervention by the U.S. Some at this point argue it is unlikely Obama would get involved officially in a fourth war in the Middle East, but that is also what was said before our Libya intervention. The two conflicts are beginning to have important similarities (armed insurrection turning into civil war, clear sides to take, 1000+ civilians killed and more expected, etc.). Ground troops are as unlikely as they were in Libya, but attacks from the air aimed at destabilizing the Assad regime and preventing civilian casualties just may be in the cards.
Part of the issue here is that Libya is much less important than Syria. The authoritarianism of Assad’s regime has not been a concern of the U.S. for years. Washington welcomes brutality and virtual slavery so long as the regime in question provides “stability” (Washington code word for obedience on the international stage). This has been one of the primary reasons no intervention has yet taken place. But with the protests and killings at the Golan Heights yesterday, continued “stability” is in question and thus staying on the sidelines is increasingly unlikely.
Another issue is any sort of post-Assad plan. With the U.S. commitment to ruling the world through unlimited geographical jurisdiction, choosing a post-Assad leadership becomes the most important part of the calculus in private, while protecting civilians is most important publicly.
The potential escalation in Syria poses a dilemma for the United States and Europe as well as for Arab states and Israel. The Obama administration and its allies have so far stopped short of calling for Mr. Assad’s departure because of uncertainty about who might succeed him; fear that Islamists factions could emerge stronger in a post-Assad era; concern that armed rebellion would split Syria along religious lines with Christians and Alawites backing the president and Sunnis and Kurds populating the rebels; and anxiety that the turmoil could spill across Syria’s borders into Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Lebanon, home to the Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia.
The escalating violence is however making it increasingly difficult for the international community to stick to the principle that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
That is not to say that there is any love lost between Mr. Assad, who was a key member of former President George W. Bush’s axis of evil because of his ties to Iran as well as Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas, and Western leaders such as President Barack Obama. Mr. Assad nonetheless was a predictable foe who refused to engage in US-sponsored Middle East peace efforts and efforts to force Iran to concede on its nuclear program but stopped short of rocking the boat.
French Foreign Minister Alain Joppe, in an indication that an escalation would force the US and its allies to review their view of Mr. Assad, warned Monday that the Syrian leader had “lost his legitimacy” to rule Syria. Mr. Joppe’s remarks were the first time a Western leader effectively called for Mr. Assad’s departure.