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Weekend forecast for Syria – No chance of Spring

Friday approacheth, and, as early as Thursday morning, those of us who are locked in the daily commuter battle will already be making mental notes on how the weekend’s diary will likely shape up. And, for most of us, the ongoing strife in the Middle East and North Africa will not even figure into the hum of daily thought processes that propels us through our very routine lifestyles. Let us completely disregard those regions’ civilian populations, for the moment, and imagine that tiny smattering of western journos (our cultural contemporaries who pay the same taxes as we do and whose children share car pools with ours) spread throughout Syria, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain. What might their Thursday morning commute look like? What weekend plans are they urgently trying to finalise? They are thinking, ‘It’s Friday, it’s another day of crackdowns, it’s another resting wave of rage and violence and uproar’. After Friday prayers, the populations of various states across the Muslim world have marched, protested, rioted and have caused the overthrow of two leaders (Ben Ali and Mubarak) and an instigated a Libyan civil war of epic proportions. Not bad when the rest of us go home early on a Friday and don’t get much done. The Days of Rage in Syria, however, are up against a leader who has no reservations about using lethal force to suppress these protests. The question is: can these protesters be helped?

Initial answer: No, not really. Long term answer: Still no, I’m afraid. 

When it comes to extending a helping hand to those Syrians facing unjust arrest and physical violence, there are only two routes open to the US and EU. Unfortunately, for the Syrians, one won’t work and the other won’t happen.

The first of these two options consists entirely of imposing sanctions and embargoes. Simply put, the idea is that, the external pressure exerted by freezing financial assets will force otherwise untouchable autocratic leaders (and their inner circles) to change their course of action. Sanctions may be infinitely broad or focused – and impact the economy or the military. The ever so slight problem is that, historically, sanctions don’t really work…  a few examples include sanctions against Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea… and it doesn’t require a high flying think tank to prove their abominable success rate. I confess to a little cherry picking from the traditional Axis of Evil, but for a more rounded study check out Robert Pape’s Why Economic Sanctions Don’t Work. So if sanctions don’t really work and can end up effecting the civilian population (the people in this case that we’re trying to help), why use them at all?

There’s always a slight chance they might work (I’m not entirely sure whether it would be appropriate to insert a question mark here – ? – there, I did it). It seems reasonable to expect politicians to look a bit down the road at what typically happens after sanctions hit the books: most leaders who’ve used lethal force against protesters is not going to give up to a little international pressure, since if he loses power he might be held to account. Other than this outside chance of success, the main reason to use sanctions is so that the US and EU statesmen (and women – apologies Madame Secretary Clinton) can say with a straight face that they did not just stand by and do next to the nothing.

The second option is that of military action, which isn’t a plausible route. To amass any kind of groundswell of UN support for some sort of No-Fly Zone or military intervention would require President Assad to really pull out all the stops and start using jets and running people over with tanks… which, since his forces (unhindered) are doing a pretty efficient job, would just be unnecessary. Even then, a notional UN resolution is far from guaranteed, especially with Russia voicing concerns about mission creep and bombing raids against Tripoli, as well as citing that Syria should settle its own affairs. And please never mind the fact that NATO forces are too overstretched to act unilaterally, which further adds to the possibility of some sort of military intervention to aid the protesters being crushed under a giant Syrian hobnailed boot.

The regional ramifications also draw a line under the possibility of military action. Syria acts as a stabilising lever in the Middle East and has a strong relationship with Lebanon and Hamas. Any intervention by the West, like that in Libya to topple Gadaffi, would risk further radicalising the region and would run the risk of causing serious security concerns for Israel.

It is true that the use of lethal force is not a solely Syrian phenomenon – it also occurred in Libya, though there are some important differences to remember. Unlike Gadaffi, who has proven a star pupil in the Middle East destabilisation department (sponsoring terrorism, conducting terrorism, trying to build WMD – although he did make progress towards rapprochement with the US in the last decade), President Assad was viewed in the West as a moderating influence and a reformer (much like Gadaffi junior who, with his suspicious doctorate from LSE, later went on to rant about the eradication of all their enemies). Having seen the UN response to Gadaffi’s bombing of civilians, Assad is unlikely to put his air force to the same use. He also has no need – his security forces and military are doing an effective job. The only thing that prevents Syria from gaining permanent membership in the totalitarian club is its failure to shut down the flow of information to the outside world (despite reporters being banned from Syria).

The options for US and EU assistance to the Syrian protesters look non-existent. Unless Assad resorts to widespread chemical and biological warfare or systemically institutes a programme for genocide, the US and EU are going to sit on the sidelines shaking their heads and tutting. Hands tied, so to speak. In short, the Syrian people are on their own and unless something radically changes, the Arab Spring in Syria will come to an abrupt end, just like the last protests did 35 years ago.

As reports from Syria detail the actions of the government against protesters, and the reports get worse (attacking hospitals, 1000 dead, blanket arrests, etc.) the US and EU are increasingly placed in an awkward position. The real and unspoken tipping point in this region’s crackdowns rests solidly in the grips of public opinion. It is this crucial element, not UN or NATO mandates or even streaming internet video of state-prosecuted violence that will push western coalitions to action. What is seen or judged to be right in the public eye is entirely political – those leaders keen for re-election (surprise – Cameron and Obama) will likely bend to these pressures and these pressures only. Sadly, what Syria needs is a grosser demonstration of state violence – a real YouTube generation coup of media atrocities that leave no room for waffling or ‘sanction talk’. Unfortunately, Assad, unlike Gaddafi, appears entirely too clever to allow such an overt act to take place (or at least be reported).


It is true that the use of lethal force is not a solely Syrian phenomenon – it also occurred in Libya, though there are some important differences to remember. Unlike Gadaffi, who has proven a star pupil in the Middle East destabilisation department (sponsoring terrorism, conducting terrorism, trying to build WMD – although he did make progress towards rapprochement with the US in the last decade), President Assad was viewed in West as a moderating influence and a reformer (much like Gadaffi junior who, with his suspicious doctorate from LSE, later went on to rant about the eradication of all their enemies). Having seen the UN response to Gadaffi’s bombing of civilians, Assad is unlikely to put his air force to the same use. He also has no need – his security forces and military are doing an effective job. The only thing that prevents Syria from gaining permanent membership in the totalitarian club is its failure to shut down the flow of information to the outside world (despite reporters being banned from Syria).

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