Who Broke Syria?

Less than a week into a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Syria, the arrangement is already looking pretty shaky. The Syrian government has promised to pull its army back from major cities, but now seems to be reneging on that deal. But rather than castigating its motives, perhaps it might be a good time now to take a fresh look what exactly has been accomplished by the internationalization of the Syrian "problem."

I've been going to Syria for some years now, both as a journalist and an ordinary citizen, and it's been inspiring to see how the country has changed. Some of my friends are ordinary civilians; others are now involved in the motley collection of opposition groups that have emerged since the uprising began in March of last year. What's often lost in the account of crisis given by po-faced humanitarians, with their pictures of dead bodies and tales of indecipherable evil, is how inspiring the revolt originally was for many ordinary Syrians. Virtually all the people I know in Syria have changed their opinions radically in the last year, and their demands have grown bolder and more ambitious.

As spring 2011 gave way to summer and fall and the flagging Baathist regime moved to snuff out dissent, some opposition groups looked to the force of arms to protect their demonstrations and their communities. At around the same time, international efforts to apply pressure to the regime led to sanctions that virtually no one in Syria wants (even the Free Syrian Army), an ill-fated mission by Arab monitors that disappointed everyone, and now a U.N. initiative that has initially stemmed the daily round of killings, but failed to satisfy either the government or the opposition.

So what's going wrong? The problem, in my view, is that the tools of international law are a very blunt instrument with which to solve real problems of civil strife. In November, for example, I smuggled myself into Homs as the desperate opposition movement was beginning to turn to the Arab League to mediate in its conflict with an increasingly brutal regime. As the situation worsened, the daily demonstrations (I could still hear them breaking out in November along with the occasional crackle of sniper fire) were joined by armed militias that grew up to protect Sunni areas of the city. Then the geopoliticking began.

(…)As the situation has ground toward a temporary stalemate, everyone in the opposition now realizes that NATO has neither the mettle nor the resources for another Libya. That kind of organized military intervention is simply not going to happen. But the next phase of diplomacy is in danger of making matters substantially worse. The remaining carrots offered to Bashar Al-Assad's regime are now being matched by thinly veiled sticks whereby the international community promises to turn a blind eye to Saudi and Qatari efforts to back the military opposition with force of arms.

This internationalization of the conflict has been met by ordinary Syrians with a mixture of incredulity and opportunism.

Driving around the center of Homs at the end of February (until I was picked up by the Syrian Army and sent back to Damascus), I stopped a group of old men in the center of town and asked for directions. "Are you Russian?" was their first question. Probably government supporters, and quite possibly Alawites, they knew that the only foreigners they really wanted to talk to were Russian, Moscow being the Assad regime's most outspoken defender on the international stage.  

James Harkin is an Irish, London-based writer and social analyst. His latest book is Niche: The Missing Middle and Why Businesses Need to Specialise to Survive.

The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on April 17th, 2012.

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