How long can the West sit by and watch as the Assad regime violently denies its people democratic freedoms?
Recent news reports out of Syria indicate a rapidly deteriorating situation progressing towards a full-scale civil war. The embattled autocratic government of President Bashar al-Assad has resorted to a widespread campaign of violence and repression in an attempt to quell anti-regime demonstrations that have been raging in the country for almost a year. Reports continue to surface showing that civilians are being massacred by the Syrian military, contributing greatly to the surge in armed clashes throughout the nation.
The parallels between the recent violence in Libya that ultimately led to the ouster of long-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi are hard to escape, yet despite the entreaties of some in the media and governmentWestern intervention in Syria does not appear likely in the near future. While no two situations are the same and obvious differences exist between Syria and Libya, the question remains: Since the intervention in Libya is widely seen a success for multilateralism that helped free millions of people from the iron fist of a ruthless government, why is a similar course of action not being seriously considered in Syria?
Unlike other governments with entrenched and uncompromising leaders who profess hard-line ideologies, most relevantly Gaddafi’s Libya, Syria is not a country that has isolated itself from the outside world. It has forcibly inserted itself into the politics of its neighbor, Lebanon, for decades; it has fought multiple wars with its other neighbor, Israel; it has sought to be a power broker and influential figure in the Middle East region, perhaps most prominently via its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah; and via its geographic position as both a producer and transit point for oil, it has economic ties with nations around the world such as China and Russia, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Additionally, Russia is Syria's primary arms supplier, and the two countries have enjoyed a close military relationship going back to the days of the Soviet Union. While Gaddafi’s government found itself with no prominent allies willing to come to its defense, Assad’s government has seen several states rise up and place themselves firmly against outside involvement in what they deem to be an internal issue. These established relationships make it certain that regime change in Syria would have a ripple effect that would not solely be contained within its own borders, or even limited to the Middle East.
Yet as the death toll in Syria rises, inaction by the international community to protect civilians increasingly begins to reek of hypocrisy. A recent Arab League monitoring mission to the country was widely derided as ineffective and, even worse, viewed by some as a shield allowing the regime to continue its violently oppressive tactics under the auspices of cooperation. How long can the international community, and most prominently the United States, sit by and watch as military weaponry is unleashed on demonstrators demanding things like freedom of speech, transparent elections, and an end to government corruption?
Any proposal for U.S.-led military action in Syria would be politically untenable in this election year. It would be criticized from the left as embroiling the country in yet another military conflict in an Arab nation. It would be criticized from the right as an unnecessary expense at a time when the nation's fiscal situation is leading many to conclude that government programs once viewed as sacrosanct must be cut or even eliminated. And for President Barack Obama, who has consistently pledged to lead by consensus abroad as opposed to the go-it-alone tactics of his predecessor, it would risk alienating some of his most strident supporters.
All these factors lead to the conclusion that military intervention is Syria is simply not a realistic possibility. At a minimum, the five permanent members of the U.S. Security Council must reach consensus on what action to take, and there are several issues preventing that from happening. Yet as the death toll mounts, the marginalized in Syria increasingly begin to view armed rebellion as the only viable means of achieving their goals. If civil war does erupt in Syria, will the international community be able to honestly say they did all they could to prevent the outcome? If Assad remains in power and the protestors return to their homes defeated, what message will it send to other autocrats facing protests in their states? The legacy of the Syrian protest movement could become a validation of brutal repression. Should that happen, advocates of freedom and human rights will regret having impotently resisted pleas to rectify the situation simply because they viewed intervention as overly complex.