After the fall of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, attention has now turned to whether or not the Assad regime can retain control in Syria. The Syrian uprising started at relatively the same time as the other Arab spring uprisings. Last week the regime launched an attack on the city of Homs , in the hope the city would not become a base of opposition, similar to Benghazi in Libya, as Hama was in Syria during the 1982 uprising. The regime’s response is becoming more violent as opposition to its rule persists; over seventy were killed in . According to the United Nations, over three and a half thousand people have been killed so far, including children.
Other Arab states are also turning against the regime. In an unprecedented move, the Arab league suspended Syria’s membership, with 18 out of 22 members voting for Syria’s removal. Jordan’s King Abdullah went a step further and declared Assad must step down, becoming the first Arab leader to do so. Without international support the Syrian government is becoming increasingly isolated.
A number of stringent sanctions have been placed on the regime. Sanctions, along with the obvious economic turmoil involved in a mass uprising, are having a significant effect on resisting Assad. The government is running out of money and the Syrian pound is becoming weaker by the day. One of Assad’s few remaining powerbases is the business elites; however as businesses are finding it harder to stay open and as unemployment rises, merchants could abandon Assad.
The number of military defectors has increased since March; many have joined the Free Syria Army (FSA), which, according to a spokesman for the group, includes 25,000 defectors organized in 22 battalions spread throughout Syria (though international observers say these numbers are exaggerated, with some estimating that the FSA’s membership is around a thousand). The FSA seems more organized and disciplined than the rebel groups that overthrew Momar Ghadafi earlier this year. The FSA has attacked several Syrian government targets but its boldest move happened in the capital itself, Damascus. On November 15th the defectors targeted a large air force intelligence installation, killing 6 soldiers and wounding more than 20.
What options do the United States and its allies possess in this chaotic scenario? Unlike in Libya, a military effort to aid the opposition would be much more difficult as Syria is larger and its army is better trained and better equipped. But nor do they have to stay silent as an ally starts shooting its people, as happened with Bahrain and Yemen. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who recently stepped down as director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, says that NATO can ‘intervene peacefully’. Slaughter outlines a number of actions the international community can take, including creating and then defending a buffer zone on the border with neighboring Turkey for civilians fleeing violence. She sees the emerging humanitarian crisis as similar to those caused by natural disasters. She argues therefore that the best response is a disaster relief effort, led by NGOS and the UN, with logistical support as needed from NATO.
This would be similar to Operation Provide Comfort, in which the United States created a safe haven for Kurds following the end of the Gulf War. In that case, the Kurds rebelled following Saddam Hussein’s defeat. But the uprising was short-lived, as Saddam crushed the rebellion. In response, the United States designated an area on the border a demilitarized zone and set up shelter for refugees. Something similar could happen in Syria, with the United States playing a support role and Turkey taking the lead. Even if intervention is out of the question, NATO can help mitigate the humanitarian fallout to the violence in Syria.
[Photo courtesy of Maggie Osama]