Below is a student written article from the Elliott School’s International Affairs Review on March 18, 2013. Check out more students’ articles at www.iar-gwu.org.
Unless the international community takes action, Bashar al-Asad will remain in power and the conflict will continue.
By Gregory McGowan
March 18, 2013
Bashar al-Asad stands on twin pillars. The first is his regime’s substantial monopoly over the instruments of violence, thanks to his friends in Moscow and Tehran. Heavy arms have enabled government forces to level Syria’s cities and towns, raining down missiles from air and sea, and artillery by tank. The regime could be outnumbered by an enormous measure, and indeed it is. But even a million machine guns cannot remove a single missile from the sky. Until opposition forces are equipped with weapons capable of countervailing his military-grade firepower, Asad will stand.
That is, unless his second pillar collapses: the utter absence of political will from outside governments—specifically the United States—to outweigh his monopoly of violence. The external powers are pushing for a diplomatic solution to the conflict that will remain inconceivable until the opposition is better armed. The Syrian National Council has not solicited boots on the ground, and has relinquished its calls for a no-fly zone. Their needs are clear and urgent. As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey privately expressed to President Obama many months ago, the rebels need weapons. These arms need not originate in the United States, but our allies will only supply them with a green light from the White House. In the absence of any serious commitment to end the conflict, Asad’s calculations will not change, his military and brutal security apparatus will remain largely intact, and his Russian patrons will remain by his side.
Should either of its twin pillars crumble, so shall the regime. As long as they remain, however, Asad is highly unlikely to suddenly opt for a diplomatic solution, and the opposition is equally unlikely to accept one. Given the circumstances on the ground, Washington should reevaluate its strategy because the risks and implications of foreclosing action are mounting.
The fears paralyzing opponents of intervention are largely self-fulfilling. The dominant concern is that heavy arms supplied to the Syrian opposition will in turn be used against the United States and its allies. Yet while debate rages in Western capitals over whom exactly “the rebels” are and what their motivations may be, the very extreme elements that concern the United States and its allies continue to rise in the ranks of the opposition. This is not because their jihadist message resonates among a Syrian society whose history tells of peaceful ethnic and religious coexistence. It is because the powers capable of directing arms flows to moderate opposition groups (of which there are many) refuse to do so. As a result, nearly all the effective weaponry from the outside has flowed exclusively to the extremists, bestowing de facto credit for the military victories that only their arms are capable of generating. While Washington is right to worry that weapons are getting into the wrong hands, its own inaction has exacerbated this very problem.
The popular notion that arming the opposition would not tip the balance of military power against Asad, but rather further militarize Syrian society, is absurd. Opposition seizures of advanced weaponry from the regime have coincided with major tactical gains. Those who foresee greater militarization of Syria are out of touch with the country’s present condition. It is in the countless operations the rebels have been forced to abort (or simply been routed), due to acute ammunition shortages, that we can locate the grinding, protracted nature of the conflict, which is the driving force behind militarization and radicalization. To propose that throwing our lot into the Syrian arms bazaar will only increase the scale of violence is to ignore the policy of non-intervention that has for two years allowed the scale of violence to reach unconscionable proportions.
UN General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic lamented that “the bloodbath of Syria [is]…the most horrific humanitarian tragedy of our times.” The regime has bred conditions under which sexual violence and violence against children are the norm. Syria’s neighbors are deeply strained by the massive influx of refugees, which has surpassed one million. Political reverberations are manifesting in Lebanon and Iraq, where Syria’s problem is inflaming sectarian frictions and becoming their problem.
Despite the utter lack of favorable outcomes, it is our problem, too. The legacy of Iraq—where an invasion based on false pretenses produced a violent insurgency, led to a fatally mismanaged occupation, and resulted in a strategic nightmare for the United States—looms large, as do the shadows of Afghanistan, and Somalia, and Benghazi, and al-Qaeda. But it is time to accept that the specter of wholesale massacre, internal displacement, refugees, and the horrific decay of society and humanity consuming Syria now looms larger. The moral implications of inaction have assumed a strategic dimension that must not be ignored.
While planning for the day after is essential, fear of that day should not blind us to the fact that Asad’s fall is inevitable. Nor should it obscure the reality that this day will arrive only once one of his two pillars is swept from beneath him. Every day these pillars stand, prospects for a reasonable transition dampen. Astonishingly, the magnitude of violence to date has not reached a threshold inducing capable powers to action. But today, fear of what comes next prevails, and the panoply of violence continues in Syria.
Gregory McGowan is a Master’s candidate in Middle East Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Previously, he served as a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security intern at the Center for a New American Security, as well as with the United States Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). He can be reached at email@example.com.
Photo courtesy of Rami Alhames via Flickr.