How do you solve a problem like Syria
Who's saying what
For most of those nations gripped by the Arab Spring (which promptly moved through the rest of the seasons and now seems to be squarely settled back in Winter, Game of Thrones style), the story has more or less played out. Some governments were toppled, others were not, some death tolls were high, others were less high, and the process of post-revolution reconstruction continues in its awkward, stilted way.
But then there's Syria. Syria had always been particularly good at shutting out the eyes of the world and had been doing so for so long that the world had largely forgotten it existed. On the international political map Syria existed as a barely explored zone marked 'Thar be repression'. Even as the rest of the region went to the barricades day after day, all we got from Syria were burblings of discontent, reports always received second- or third-hand, often without corroboration or usable pictures. Whatever the story was, Syria's regional neighbours – and Libya in particular – were providing far more compelling, readily recorded narratives of popular revolution. The inchoate, irregular elements of Syria's protest movement couldn't compete. It wasn't until Gaddafi's final fall last October that the world really started paying attention to what was happening in this strangely ignorable country of 22 million people, a nation fenced in by the hot zones of Israel, Palestine, Turkey and Iraq and home to Damascus, the longest continuously inhabited city in the world (first settled in 15th century BC. Phwoar!).
Another six months down the track and the country seems to have entered something you might call violent free-fall, if not out-and-out civil war. The government of Bashar al-Assad is crushing protests with a force and audacity that even Gaddafi seemed ill-prepared to muster, while the opposition – a hodge-podge of angry locals and disaffected military – engage in a strange combination of non-violent protest and bloody insurgency. A strongly tribal society, long united by the Assad family's all powerful military state, the Syrian uprising has been unfolding in specific geographic locales (the besieged cities of Homs and Hama chief among them), adding to the sense of incoherency amongst the national opposition. This has allowed the Syrian army to pursue individual pockets of resistance (the beseiged cities of Homs and Hama chief among them) and crush them through a mixture of siege tactics, indiscriminate shelling and tanks.
On the flip side, the Turkish government, flexing its muscle as a new regional powerbroker, has been harbouring a growing collective called the Free Syria Army, who have claimed responsibility for recent strikes against Assad's forces, including last night's firefight in the tightly controlled capital. As tends to be the way, the FSA are being fuelled by military defectors from the Syrian regime, but unfortunately Assad's military is a lot more disciplined (and ruthless toward said defectors) than Gaddafi's was and so their numbers remain limited. The numbers of dead remain hard to gauge, although most estimates place it on the other side of 8000, which calls to mind the last time the world paid much attention to Syria, in 1982 when Assad's father ordered the execution of some 20 000 people in the city of Hama. Still, a growing number of those dead come from the security forces themselves, which is heartening in some ways (yay for the rebels!) and deeply depressing in others (boo for civil war). One thing is for sure though: as points of conflict grow from one city to the next that death toll is accelerating upwards.
In the face of all this – and make no mistake, the situation in Libya never got this bad prior to intervention – the international community has been doing... well, not much really. The Arab League has turned on Syria with peculiar vehemence, especially considering that it's never really been a body that concerned with the rights of its citizens. They've been unequivocal in their calls for Assad's departure and suspended the country from the organisation until everything gets sorted out. They dispatched an observer's mission to the country a couple of months back, but after being stonewalled for a few days – days in which people were being killed all over the shop – they abandoned the entire project.
Meanwhile, the UN has been struggling to do anything that might be considered "action", because the Russians and the Chinese keep vetoing any condemnations that the Western and Arabic nations see fit to pitch up. The motivations of the Chinese are typically opaque (although as the more authoritarian regimes on the UN Security Council, Russia and China do have a tendency to vote in lockstep), but the Russian antagonism smacks of burnt pride in the wake of last year's Libyan intervention. There a UN Security Council resolution paved the way for a NATO-led assault on the country, which Russia thought was beyond the remit of the resolution. Ever since they've been particularly sensitive to matters of national sovereignty, and also keen to paint themselves as the new statesmen of the developing world. Witness a sequence of largely performative, low impact diplomatic overtures toward the Syrian regime, most of which have had all the influence of a Bob Katter press conference. But it's probably safe to say that until Assad actually massacres 20 000 citizens in a single month, Russia won't be backing down any time soon.
The problem with the Syrian regime is that they just don't have much to lose in the way of international isolation, because they're already so massively internationally isolated. The place doesn't even permit foreign journalists in and has been subject to crippling sanctions for decades. There's quite simply a limit to how much diplomatic pressure is left to exert. So, one's thoughts turn to military intervention. After all, it worked in Libya... after a while. But it's safe to say that no Western nation is particularly enthusiastic about further military involvement in an Arabic nation quite yet and even if they were, Russia isn't about to let them wander in and bomb the hell out of the place. So, one looks to the Arab League. As yet, their antagonism still doesn't stretch to military intervention - witness the Kofi Annan-led UN/Arab League mission currently patrolling the country – but it seems unlikely that they'd actually be willing engage in a war against one of their own, suspended membership or not. There's just not enough at stake for them and the prospect of a violently achieved post-Assad Syria seems considerably more volatile than a post-Gaddafi Libya. So one looks to the Free Syria Army. Which has shown a heartening amount of spirit in the face of repeated crackdowns and defeats, but has the problem of being massively under-resourced and splintered compared to the actual Syrian army. There's always the prospect of providing arms to the insurgents, but history has shown that arming unaccountable, unknown armies has a way of backfiring on you (*cough* the Taliban *cough*) and al'Qaeda is already entering the country and mobilising against the Assad regime.
So we look to... the forces of entropy, perhaps. The hope that the continued dissolution of order in the country mixed with international pressure might turn elements of Assad's government against him, or somehow might otherwise make his presence as leader untenable. Or that a Russian or UN or Arab League brokered ceasefire (one of the few benefits of this turning toward civil war) might eventually lead to regime change or even a vague pivot toward democratisation. But Assad is strong and the solutions to and end points of the Syrian uprising are a lot less clear then they have been in most other outings for the Arab Spring and bring with it that particular awfulness of having to watch helplessly as a country consumes itself. In the end, Assad's departure might not even be the most palatable option, but one really does hope the attendant civil war doesn't get that bad. Still, expect Syria and all its diverse hopes and horrors to be a feature of our news cycle for quite some time yet. As is too often the tragic case, there ain't no magic bullet in a country whose history is so littered with the violence of its rulers.
Join the conversation below