Although footage of atrocities coming from Syria confirms the increasing intensity of a civil war in a country in which ethnic, sectarian and religious differences play a decisive role in the power struggle, the international community seems overly reluctant to stage an intervention.
The anticipation that the US administration would pay attention to the situation in Syria once it is not occupied with the election at home after November seems to have decreased following the killing of US diplomats, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, in Libya on Sept. 11. The US, already suffering from war fatigue in Afghanistan and Iraq, cannot afford another front by leading an intervention in Syria, especially after the impact of the killing of its ambassador in a country where it became belatedly but heavily involved in a NATO operation. (Remember Hillary Clinton’s frustration stemming from the murder of the US ambassador in a city they “saved.”)
Europe, on the other hand, is clearly concerned about its own future in the midst of an economic crisis and seems indifferent even with the humanitarian tragedy in Syria. In Libya, although Europeans, and particularly Britain and France, took the lead in the operation against Muammar Qaddafi, it was not completed without US help. The NATO operation in Libya came at a time when NATO’s military operations were already in decline because of both the changing nature of threats and consequently that of the military alliance, and the costs.
At the latest NATO summit in Chicago a new defense strategy called “smart defense” was adopted in the environment of shrinking economies. Smart defense is based on a connected forces initiative that is less costly in theory but much more difficult to exercise in practice since it requires more cooperation. Given the fact that the transatlantic alliance is already suffering from an imbalance because Europe’s share in the financial burden of NATO dropped to 30 percent, few are concerned about toppling Bashar al-Assad as long as there is a clear necessity to invoke Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates collective defense.
According to diplomatic sources, NATO is closely monitoring the situation in Syria, but an intervention is not on the agenda since there is no “demonstrable need” coupled with a UN decision as in the case of Libya. It seems that an intervention is unlikely unless there is a direct threat to Syria’s neighbors and particularly Turkey, which is a longtime member of NATO.
The will to intervene that existed in the Libyan case seems far away in Syria not only due to economic reasons but also because of the internal dynamics in Syria and the sectarian concerns in its surrounding region. For years, despite their discontent with the regime, the majority of Syrians chose to remain silent both because of the fear of the regime, which derives its power from a wide web of intelligence, and for the sake of relative stability. Indeed, for years, Turkey seemed reluctant to witness a reshuffling of the social layers in Syria while expecting a peaceful transformation of the regime with the impact of Turkey’s encouragement and setting an “inspiring” example. It was not until Assad began to use violence against his own people that Turkey gave up on him.
However, it seems that no matter how brutal the regime, it will be able to fight back for the foreseeable future. For example, despite heavy fighting, Aleppo is has not been taken over by the Free Syrian Army. According to diplomatic sources, Alawites, Christians and even the Sunni bourgeoisie still support the regime in Syria, which together constitute almost one-third of the country. Unlike activists from the opposition such as former Assad advisor Assad Ayman Abdel Nour, sources argue that the civil war is likely to continue, which will make it harder for the opposition to fight in the absence of a significant change in the attitude of the big actors.
The Assad regime’s desire to give the world the impression that a strong al-Qaeda presence is taking root in Syria has received approval, to say the least, from the non-action of neighboring states -- from Palestine to Iraq and from Lebanon to clearly Iran.
It would not be inaccurate to expect the continuation of the status quo -- i.e., a civil war -- in Syria given the reluctance of the international community, and hence that of NATO, coupled with the “coalition of the friends of Assad” who should not be underestimated in the larger power game in the Middle East.