x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Military intervention should be the last resort for Syria

War against the Assad regime would not be clean or quick. It is essential that every peaceful option be first exhausted.


The seas are getting choppier, but the tide has yet to turn. As the Syrian uprising enters a new calendar year, and with around 6,000 bodies now buried because of it, a political solution seems more elusive than ever. Each passing day makes one less likely.

The uncertainty is crippling, and is making Syrian society choppier. The country is becoming more dangerous: the last few weeks have brought explosions to the centre of Damascus and an apparent suicide bombing.

The attacks have spooked Syrians, wary of their once-safe country becoming a hotbed of sectarian strife. (Those who blame the Assad regime in some way for the terrorist attacks suggest that this fear is precisely what the government wants.)

The rumoured killings of Alawites - the Shia sect to which President Bashar Al Assad and many of his key supporters belong - in Homs can be explained by the predominance of Alawites in the military-security apparatus. But Christians, who make up 10 per cent of the population, fear that they would be next if sectarian strife grips the country.

At the same time, the protests are becoming more dangerous. Clashes between the army and defectors from it are becoming more frequent. The line between an armed insurgency and peaceful mass protest is growing harder to delineate - a phenomenon entirely due to the brutality with which the Assad regime has sought to quell the unrest.

But the tide has yet to turn decisively against the president. Mr Al Assad remains defiant and many, perhaps a majority, of Syrians are still cautious, willing to watch and see.

This was just how Tripoli remained under the control of Muammar Qaddafi for so long after the uprising began: fearing the repercussions of choosing the wrong side, many residents were reluctant to rise up until the rebels entered the city.

The international response has so far failed to quell the army's brutality, failed to offer protesters a safe haven and failed to convince Mr Al Assad to take a way out.

It is in this context that the idea of military intervention has resurfaced. Arguments over the use of foreign militaries to affect regime change have circulated since the dark days of 2003, when Syria was part of the domino chain that many claimed would inevitability be toppled post-Saddam Hussein.

But now even Arab leaders are mooting it. This week the Emir of Qatar suggested that Arab troops could end the bloodshed.

Military intervention seems like a bold decision; its use has been partly rehabilitated by the experience of Libya, and the Arab Spring has offered several opportunities where intervention might have been tried in the name of safeguarding citizens.

Yet military intervention has a way of spiralling out of control. Whether it is an Arab army marching through the streets of Damascus (and which Arab army would that be? Under whose command?) or Nato planes bombing Syrians, intervention is bloody and brutal.

In Syria, intervention could not be clean and would not be quick. Therefore it is essential every other possible step be first exhausted.

There are few good options in Syria; the road to intervention might one day need to be walked. But not yet. For now, as tempting as it is to argue for a big, quick solution, Syrians would be better served by a series of smaller ones.

In particular, a three-pronged approach involving Syrian civil society, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian National Council (SNC), combined with external pressure from the Arabs, Turkey and Russia, offers the best chance of a minimally bloody solution.

When Mr Al Assad said, in a television interview last week, that "the majority of Syrian people are in the middle", he described the situation accurately. The SNC and the FSA need to widen the group of people who believe there is a better alternative to Mr Al Assad's rule.

The SNC are not doing enough to convince Syrians they can guarantee a stable, orderly transition. The political squabbling so far has been at best undignified, at worst a dereliction of duty. Members of the Council often talk as if they are preparing to lead the country, when in fact they can only ever lead a transition. Post-Assad, Syrians will need to choose their leaders, not be led by a group of people who have spent many years outside their country.

The second plank is the Free Syrian Army. As the ranks of army deserters swell, the announcement this week that a senior officer has defected to Turkey and will lead a military council to encourage more defections is positive. Defections will weaken the basis of Mr Al Assad's ability to repress and remain the swiftest way to weaken his power.

The third plank is civil society. A countrywide general strike last month was supported mainly outside of Aleppo and Damascus, the centres of Mr Al Assad's rule. But this tactic's power lies in demonstrating the extend to which the president has lost control of the country.

None of these, by themselves, will be able to deliver a knockout blow to Mr Al Assad, who, it is clear, intends to fight to the bitter end.

But together, they may convince enough Syrians within the country and enough supporters without (especially Russia and China) that Mr Al Assad's rule must end.

Such a path may yet avoid the bloodshed of intervention, a last resort that has brought immeasurable harm to countries west and east of Damascus.



Follow on Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai