Syrian opposition should not count on Western help | News and current affairs from Germany and around the world | DW | 16.06.2011

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Syrian opposition should not count on Western help

For all the talk of staying on 'the right side of history,' a strong Western response to the brutal crackdown in Syria is missing. What's keeping the West from acting more decisively, asks Sophie Roborgh?

Sophie Roborgh

Sophie Roborgh is a strategic analyst at the The Hague Center for Strategic Studies in the Netherlands with a focus on the Middle East and the Islamic world.

Decision-making on Syria is complicated by the existence of a number of uncertainties, such as the inner workings of Syria's tight-knit ruling elite, the make-up of its unorganized opposition, and the potential for civil strife in its multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. The West is reluctant to act blind, particularly when Syria's central location in the Middle East and its history of supporting destabilizing forces in the region means any mistake in judgment could be a costly one.

The West has several key policy options that could be used in combination. Firstly, it could intensify international diplomatic pressure on Syria, for instance through its current efforts to broker a widely-adopted UN Security Council resolution, renouncing Syria's use of violence. Although largely symbolic, it would emphasize Syria's isolated international position, providing much-needed moral support to the protesters.

UN and ICC

However, even a watered-down draft resolution has yet to secure abstention from China and Russia, who remain disgruntled by the interpretation of resolution 1973 on Libya. Ironically, the failure to adopt this resolution may empower Syria's regime, highlighting international divisions that will hamper any concerted international response. Also the West itself has been reluctant to adopt certain measures aimed at increasing diplomatic pressure, such as the severing of diplomatic ties and the denouncement of the regime's legitimacy.

Secondly, whilst serving to acknowledge the legitimacy of the protesters' cause, calls for the referral of al-Assad and his cronies to the International Criminal Court are potentially counterproductive. Leaving a one-way ticket to The Hague as the only exit-strategy available, is unlikely to encourage regime members to step down.

Thirdly, in the absence of any noteworthy natural resources, political and economic sanctions could have a profound impact on Syria. Ideally, a failure by the regime to fund its large patronage system would lead to defections, while its failure to maintain economic growth could inspire a change of heart in Aleppo and Damascus, where large segments of the population still denounce the protests.

Counterproductive sanctions

Intensification of sanctions may, however, prove counterproductive as well, as outside pressure on the population could increase support for the regime and discredit the opposition. Moreover, securing the active involvement of other powers remains critical for the West, as its insufficient economic leverage on Damascus means that it is unlikely to have the resources necessary to seriously threaten the Syrian economy.

A fourth, hypothetical, option would be a foreign intervention on humanitarian grounds. But post-Libya there would be little support for such an action anywhere. An intervention in Syria would also have to confront its own set of problems, including the opposition's lack of a clear territorial base, and the presence of better-equipped and organized security forces than in Libya.

The Syrian situation therefore offers relatively few options for limited intervention, and could quickly necessitate the deployment of 'boots on the ground' - a scenario few would welcome - least of all the protesters themselves. Meanwhile, NATO is both morally and practically overstretched, having considerably underestimated the Libyan situation.

No solo adventure

In addition, any intervention would require regional support, both for practical matters, and to prevent "crusader" narratives. Although Turkey and Israel are increasingly critical of al-Assad, some of the Arab states continue to regard him as a necessary stabilizing force in the region, leading to divisions in the Arab League.

They fear that foreign meddling will fuel conflicts in bordering states such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, either as an act of diversion or a consequence of anarchy. Meanwhile, Syria's ally Iran is unlikely to allow for a decrease in influence in Syria, as President Ahmadinejad could use a well-timed foreign crisis to divert attention from Iran's domestic problems.

There is no clear-cut solution for the situation in Syria. The perceived decrease in Western influence in the Middle East and its recent experiences in Libya imply that there is little chance of a Western solo adventure, and even less of a successful one. As long as Syria's democratically challenged neighbors fail to step up, its suffering population should not expect more than symbolic gestures from the West. But sometimes even those can prove to be of value, offering recognition and censure in a country where this is anything but usual.

Editor: Michael Knigge/Rob Mudge