By Ozge Zihnioglu*
More than a year has passed since the start of the insurgency in Syria, which began when a few thousand men gathered in the southwestern city of Daraa in March 2011 to demonstrate against the al-Assad regime. It later became clear that this was only the beginning of a widespread revolt against the regime and its leader. As of June 2012, an estimated fifteen thousand Syrians have lost their lives and tens of thousands have been displaced. Western governments have denounced the violence and have even recalled their ambassadors from Syria in response to the May 2012 massacre in Houla. Despite their critical rhetoric and diplomatic gestures in protest, however, the West and other Arab countries have failed to put an end to the Syrian leadership’s brutality.
One of the main reasons behind the failure of the international community to stop the violence is that unlike Libya, there is an apparent lack of political will for military intervention in Syria. The relative military strength of Syria, expected high costs of such a military operation, and the possibility of confrontation with Russia and Iran in the region all account for the international community’s reluctance to intervene in Syria. As for the United States, President Obama would like to avoid taking any such risks during an election year. For their part, European countries are unwilling to commit themselves to a possible intervention before handling the economic crisis crippling their continent. Therefore, even as the international community strives to find a diplomatic solution (e.g., Kofi Annan’s mission to Syria), al-Assad continues to act with confidence that a military intervention is unlikely.
The impact of economic sanctions is felt more in Syria with each passing day. The United States, the European Union, the Arab League, and neighboring Turkey imposed economic sanctions at different levels, from travel bans and freezing of assets of individuals to exports and imports from Syria. The West’s ban on Syrian crude oil imports is likely to hit its economy the hardest, as oil revenues previously accounted for nearly twenty percent of Syria’s GDP. Already enduring decades of high unemployment and widespread poverty, the Syrian people have been deeply affected by economic sanctions, yet these remain ineffective: the Syrian government receives arms support and assistance with riot control equipment and intelligence monitoring techniques from Iran and Russia, which help keep al-Assad in power.
The Arab League has also avoided making commitments to use military force to end the violence in Syria. Comprised of members that are opposed to the al-Assad regime, the Arab League has called on the UN Security Council to send in peacekeepers. The regional organization also laid out a plan of political reform that was rejected by the Syrian government on the grounds that it would infringe on national sovereignty. Despite such efforts, the varying and often contradictory interests of member countries contribute to the lack of consensus regarding an Arab League-led military intervention. For instance, while Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar support Syria’s Sunni-led opposition, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon support the Alawite-led government of al-Assad.
Al-Assad’s hand has been strengthened by having secured the support of Iran, Russia, and China. Iran and Russia have been providing the necessary material support for the Syrian government to continue its suppression of the opposition, while Russia and China have used their veto power in the UN Security Council to shield al-Assad from condemnation and calls for his resignation. Russia’s economic interests in Syria, Iran’s sectarian ties to the al-Assad regime, and China’s fear that justification for an intervention in Syria could potentially be applied to its own troubled western regions, have led these countries to repeatedly defy calls by the international community to confront the Syrian regime. During their meeting in early June 2012 in Beijing, Russian and Chinese leaders reiterated their opposition to external intervention in Syria. Instead, they encouraged the Syrian opposition to support peace efforts by UN envoy Kofi Annan, and proposed a meeting of countries that have influence over the rebels and the government.
Meanwhile, al-Assad has made important gains within Syria, despite the existence of opposition groups there. The opposition has formed the National Council of Syria in exile based in Istanbul, and there are also armed insurgent groups, including the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Liberation Army, that have been active during the uprising. Yet the opposition is largely diffuse and unable to act in concert. This disconnect does not reassure other countries, meaning groups are not able to secure the required financial and arms support. As a consequence, al-Assad can more easily stand up to their resistance. Al-Assad also enjoys the support of the Kurdish and Christian groups within Syria, who fear that his fall may bring the radical fundamentalists into power.
In short, al-Assad has thus far played his cards well and turned the situation to his favor, while his adversaries have been disappointed in their expectation that al-Assad would be easily overthrown. This is not to suggest, however, that al-Assad is still going strong. Even if he continues to remain in power, he will have to rule a country that is rife with unresolved tensions that could easily boil over into renewed violence.
*Ozge Zihnioglu is a Fox International Fellow at Yale University’s Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies. Her research interests include civil society development with respect to democratization, third sector research, and approaches to norm diffusion.