Who Broke Syria?

Bashar al-Assad did. But the international community and the media made things worse.


Less than a week into a U.N.-brokered ceasefire in Syria, the arrangement is already looking pretty shaky. The Syrian government has promised to pull its army back from major cities, but now seems to be reneging on that deal. But rather than castigating its motives, perhaps it might be a good time now to take a fresh look what exactly has been accomplished by the internationalization of the Syrian "problem."

I’ve been going to Syria for some years now, both as a journalist and an ordinary citizen, and it’s been inspiring to see how the country has changed. Some of my friends are ordinary civilians; others are now involved in the motley collection of opposition groups that have emerged since the uprising began in March of last year. What’s often lost in the account of crisis given by po-faced humanitarians, with their pictures of dead bodies and tales of indecipherable evil, is how inspiring the revolt originally was for many ordinary Syrians. Virtually all the people I know in Syria have changed their opinions radically in the last year, and their demands have grown bolder and more ambitious.

As spring 2011 gave way to summer and fall and the flagging Baathist regime moved to snuff out dissent, some opposition groups looked to the force of arms to protect their demonstrations and their communities. At around the same time, international efforts to apply pressure to the regime led to sanctions that virtually no one in Syria wants (even the Free Syrian Army), an ill-fated mission by Arab monitors that disappointed everyone, and now a U.N. initiative that has initially stemmed the daily round of killings, but failed to satisfy either the government or the opposition.

So what’s going wrong? The problem, in my view, is that the tools of international law are a very blunt instrument with which to solve real problems of civil strife. In November, for example, I smuggled myself into Homs as the desperate opposition movement was beginning to turn to the Arab League to mediate in its conflict with an increasingly brutal regime. As the situation worsened, the daily demonstrations (I could still hear them breaking out in November along with the occasional crackle of sniper fire) were joined by armed militias that grew up to protect Sunni areas of the city. Then the geopoliticking began.

In December, the Syrian National Council seems to have made an orchestrated effort to turn Homs into a Syrian Benghazi — the eastern Libyan city whose imminent destruction by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces provided the catalyst that sparked the international intervention in Libya last year. The council spread stories in the international media, for example, suggesting that the Syrian Army had moved up reinforcements with which to strike the city, and that it had given the rebellious Homsies 72 hours to lay down their weapons or be killed. When I phoned a respected veteran activist in Homs, he told me that the charge simply wasn’t true. Things were bad enough, he said, without having to make up scary stories. In retrospect, by leaning on precedents within international law rather than the force of its own movement, the exiled Syrian opposition seems to have aimed to exaggerate the civilian losses in the city into the claim of genocide in order to push buttons within the international community.

The United Nations bought it. Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that "many voices are warning that a major assault" on Homs is about to begin, that a further military buildup had already begun. "I am not in a position to confirm those reports," she said, "but the prospect of such an attack is extremely alarming."

If there was a strategy to internationalize the conflict, however, it failed. The United Nations could do nothing, but the promise that it might may have put ordinary activists and Free Syrian Army rebels in the city at even greater risk. Many were led to believe that help was coming, when it most definitely wasn’t.

The history of most humanitarian interventions in the last 15 years has been similar: By promising more safety than it can credibly deliver, the United Nations has often put the lives of those on the receiving end of its efforts in even greater danger, everywhere from Srebrenica to South Lebanon. By changing the incentives facing both parties to the conflict, the United Nations, at its worst, only makes their incentives more perverse — and their negotiating positions even more intractable.

Much the same applies to the international media. Beginning in late December, Western journalists fanned out, under the coat-tails of Arab League observers, to find the "war story." They duly met members of the Free Syrian Army, and came back pleased as punch with pictures of masked, professional-looking soldiers wielding rocket-propelled grenades. In the short term, the result was a propaganda coup for both the journalists and the Free Syrian Army. As soon as the media departed, however, the government forces moved in to kill or capture many of these guerrilla fighters, whose implicit claim that they could control territory for any length of time turned out to be dangerously hollow.

That was then. As the situation has ground toward a temporary stalemate, everyone in the opposition now realizes that NATO has neither the mettle nor the resources for another Libya. That kind of organized military intervention is simply not going to happen. But the next phase of diplomacy is in danger of making matters substantially worse. The remaining carrots offered to Bashar Al-Assad’s regime are now being matched by thinly veiled sticks whereby the international community promises to turn a blind eye to Saudi and Qatari efforts to back the military opposition with force of arms.

This internationalization of the conflict has been met by ordinary Syrians with a mixture of incredulity and opportunism. Driving around the center of Homs at the end of February (until I was picked up by the Syrian Army and sent back to Damascus), I stopped a group of old men in the center of town and asked for directions. "Are you Russian?" was their first question. Probably government supporters, and quite possibly Alawites, they knew that the only foreigners they really wanted to talk to were Russian, Moscow being the Assad regime’s most outspoken defender on the international stage.  

Amid the catastrophic decline of their economic fortunes, many Syrians are rather proud to be center of this international attention; at least, they say, their country is not being ignored or forgotten about. But they’re also deeply patriotic and understandably proud of their country’s fragile ethnic and religious mosaic. As several Syrian teenagers pointed out to me, the same Qatari government that has been moving to protect the human rights of Syrians has been denying them visas to visit Qatar. Nor is it lost on them that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are so democratically backward as to make the Syrian government look like a hippie commune. The SNC’s apparent decision to accept money from the Gulf States to pay salaries to Free Syrian Army guerrillas sounded breathtakingly arrogant, and makes for shockingly bad politics. Not only does lend credence to the conspiracy theories peddled by the government that the uprising is the handiwork of foreign agitators; it risks splitting the indigenous opposition movement and empowering exactly the kind of Sunni extremist groups who are most likely to stoke sectarian tensions.

None of this is to argue that Syrians should not take matters into their own hands. After more than a year of grueling state violence, there are very few absolute pacifists among the Syrian opposition. Just about everyone I met in Syria was caught between the terrible foreboding that things will — must — get substantially worse before they get better, and not wishing any violence upon their fellow countrymen. But if the Saudis and the Qataris are allowed to funnel unlimited cash and weapons through the country’s traditional smuggling routes, the likely result will be to empower a crooked new class of arms-dealing middle men and the kind of fringe Salafist groups that are quite happy to turn themselves and everyone else into martyrs for the cause.

Whatever the Syrian government now says, the influence of these extremist Sunni factions is currently marginal, even inside the Free Syrian Army. Most of the military defectors are simply conservative Sunnis from farming communities. But Syria is currently exhibiting a brand new irony of our post-war-on-terror era. The secular Syrian liberals and leftist groups that have most in common in Western values don’t want NATO intervention, while it’s exactly the kind of people who don’t much like us — the aging remains of the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the newer, more radical Sunni salafists — who are begging for our help.

Who knows: If the unthinking drift toward creating neo-mujahideen in Syria and Iran (a strategy advocated by Foreign Policy‘s own James Traub) continues, following a decade in which radical Sunnis became America’s Public Enemy No. 1, Osama bin Laden might have to be posthumously converted back into the freedom fighter America saw him as in the 1980s, marching into battle to drive out one of the last vestiges of godlessness in the Middle East.

<p> James Harkin is an Irish, London-based writer and social analyst. He is the author of Hunting Season. </p>