This is the latest in a series of worsening developments that could potentially spill over and affect regions outside the country, from the downing of a Turkish military jet that prompted Turkey to station troops along the border to the dangers of militant fighters moving into Syrian territory bordering the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights to wage war against Israel (as was reported on July 17 by The Washington Post).
Naturally, nations outside Syria have a particular interest in what happens inside Syria. Reuters reported on March 23 that Iran is apparently contributing to the violence by sending guns and various forms of technical assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
On July 11, the Al Arabiya news agency reported that Russia was still sending arms to the Assad government despite a Western arms embargo on the regime. On the other hand, rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army have received weapons and funding from both Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to a report that appeared in The Independent on June 13. Russia has repeatedly voiced its irritation with the West as it sees the pressure on Assad as yet another instance of the Western habit of inflicting violent regime change in a post-Saddam Middle East. Russia Today, on July 9, reported that Vladimir Putin had labeled Western policy in the Middle East “rocket and bomb democracy.” Strong words indeed.
Clearly there is a propaganda war being waged in Western media, different portions of Arab media and Russian media to explain what is actually going on inside Syria. Ultimately, is it wise for our governments to meddle in other nations' internal affairs? What are the potential consequences?
The Globe and Mail reported on July 17 that “frantic last-minute diplomatic efforts” were taking place at the UN to try to get nations to agree on some sort of action to be taken against Assad -- in the form of further sanctions or even military action if he fails to step down. The aim of the Western-led UN proposal is to instigate a transfer of power from Assad to opposition forces. The exact details of how that could happen in a democratic fashion are still being argued. However, the likelihood of such a thing happening in reality looks slim.
Russia is among the few nations with the power to veto a UN Security Council resolution. The country, even while rebuking Assad for the violent methods to which he has resorted, still opposes any action that would put pressure on Assad to step down. Instead, as The Globe and Mail reported, Moscow has created a rival resolution to the one developed by Western powers. While the text does urge some form of transition, no timeline is attached to it. It also does not threaten Assad with any punitive action if he chooses to ignore the resolution.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that the UN will have to leave Syria if the Russian resolution is continuously blocked. There are already several UN observers and monitors inside Syria. Whether these people will have to leave as a result of a stalemate between Russia and the West is still uncertain.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has criticized Russia for defending Assad but, according to The Globe and Mail report, the Obama administration is not particularly enthusiastic about military intervention in Syria. The prospects of unforeseeable regional instability as a result could be too much to handle.
Syria's civil war is very much a reality, with 16,000 people among the dead and tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to nearby countries. Military action could exacerbate this situation.
An important question to ask is what the Syrian people want. Such a question is likely to come from people outside Syria who may say that action against Assad would be a good thing because the Syrian people have requested it. But there is no conclusive evidence as to the loyalties of the Syrian people as a whole. The Qatari government runs a public forum called The Doha Debates. On Jan. 2 of this year, a poll commissioned by that forum revealed that while the majority of Arabs want Assad to resign, the same was not true for Syrians. At that time, 55 percent of Syrians were opposed to Assad resigning. One of the reasons they opposed the fall of his regime was out of fear for the future of their country. This also calls into question quite a bit of the reporting in Western and Arab media, which has often painted Assad as a sadistic dictator who enjoys murdering people at the slightest questioning of his regime. Assad has certainly committed crimes. But how bad is he really? Do we really have all the information in hand? And, with regard to the propaganda against Assad, just like the propaganda in support of him, there have been some interesting revelations.
In an article that appeared in the Guardian on July 12 titled “The Syrian opposition: who's doing the talking?”, writer Charlie Skelton attempted to connect the dots to understand the powerful influences on Syrian opposition. Are these powerful influences attempting to co-opt or bribe the Syrian opposition, or have they been affiliated and allied with them all along? The answer is not yet clear. However, the article does uncover some notable links to very influential people in the US.
One of the Syrian opposition groups is called the Syrian National Council (SNC). The most senior spokesperson of the SNC is a woman named Bassma Kodmani. According to Skelton's article, Kodmani worked for the Ford Foundation in 2005. This group is a large organization with headquarters in New York and quite a bit of influence as an NGO. However, when The Washington Post revealed in February 2005 that President George W. Bush was funding Syrian opposition groups after freezing official ties with Damascus, Kodmani became an even more influential figure. She became the executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) -- a research program created by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
The ARI was created by a CFR group called the US/Middle East Project and has members which include former CIA agents, influential diplomats and bankers. The US/Middle East Project is chaired by Brent Scowcroft. He used to advise George H. W. Bush on national security issues. He also supported the ousting of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi via military action and said that military intervention was a “model for the future” during a conference of the Atlantic Council think tank back in April. Alongside Scowcroft sits Zbigniew Brzezinski, another important member of the US/Middle East Project. Brzezinski was a former member of the Carter administration and helped strengthen the Taliban and supply them with weapons against the Soviets in the 1980s. Another member of the board is Peter Sutherland. He is chairman of Goldman Sachs, a bank that has come under considerable scrutiny since the global financial crisis hit.
Another member of the ARI is a man called Radwan Ziadeh. He also seems to have some powerful friends. Ziadeh signed a letter back in February that called on US President Barack Obama to oust Assad. That letter was also signed by James Woolsey. Woolsey claimed that Iraq was behind the events of 9/11 only a day after they occurred, as CNN reported at the time. He was also part of the push for a war against Iraq in September 2002 and alleged there were ties between Saddam Hussein and the bombing of US federal buildings in the 1990s. Another individual who signed the letter calling for Assad to step down was former Bush administration member Karl Rove. Rove was an even more blatant supporter of action against Saddam than Woolsey was.
As the situation in Syria continues to worsen, it is important to keep a clear, skeptical head with respect to the calls for intervention. Today's Zaman reported on July 5 that most Turkish people oppose military action in Syria. While it is prudent to move troops near the border with Syria in case Assad does do something crazy, any aggression against Assad would have frightening consequences.
While there is a propaganda war with regards to the truth of the situation, there is no doubt that people are suffering on the ground as a result of the violence carried out by both sides. Whether one side is causing more deaths is still sometimes disputed; for example, BBC journalist Jon Williams blogged about the uncertainty over where the responsibility for the Houla massacre lies. On June 7, he wrote: “In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear.”
Regardless of the spin and obfuscation of the truth with respect to responsibility for the violence and killing, there does need to be pressure on both sides to stop. Of course, bringing an end to the violence without creating more violence is a very difficult prospect.