Who will help Syria’s opposition?

Senator McCain has boldly called for NATO to do in Syria as it did in Libya; utilize air power to create safe havens for the opposition.  While this is a step in the right direction, I think McCain goes to far.  At this moment, use of NATO air power is not necessary or desirable; enough can be done by combining material support to the opposition with unrelenting strict sanctions.  But at least McCain recognizes what is at stake.

In 1989-91, a wave of revolts across eastern and central Europe, from Eastern Germany to Romania, liberated countries that had been bound by communism for almost half a century.   Yet an earlier wave of revolts in the same region in 1848-49, also aiming to produce democracies, ended in defeat and the restoration of autocratic power for over sixty years.   The difference?   In the 1980s the Soviet leadership in Moscow determined it would not help to suppress popular movements.   In 1849 Russia helped the Austrian government crush revolts in Vienna, Milan, Hungary, and itself took charge of Romania, preserving autocratic rule.

Today, Russia and Iran are helping Syria resist a democratic rebellion at a time when developments in other countries across the Middle East are at a critical stage.    In Egypt, the military is striving to hold back change; in Yemen and Libya the outcome of popular revolts is still uncertain; in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia efforts at reform are being harshly suppressed.  If Syria’s autocratic ruler, Bashar al-Assad, crushes Syria’s democratic revolt there is a real risk that such an outcome could turn back the democratic tide throughout the region and delay democratization for another decade or more.

Yet the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis last month offered little to the valiant Syrians seeking to follow the Arab wave of 2011 to seize their freedom.  European nations have fears about a civil war in Syria drawing in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon and destabilizing the entire Levant.  At a time when US troops are struggling in Iraq and Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen are still in turmoil, and conflicts are still wide open in Somalia, one can understand the hesitation to open yet another front.

In fact, Syria is already at war; the only question is how it ends, and what influence that ending will have on all the current struggles of the region. Refusing to engage in Syria will not change that.  It simply risks everything that has been gained in the region in the last year.

Have western nations not learned the consequences of tolerating tyrants in the name of seeking stability?   The peace that results would be the peace of the graveyard; and in the longer term the forfeiture of any influence that Western nations might have over future Syrian regimes.

The obvious immediate need is to provide humanitarian aid – medicines, food, clothing, shelter – to the victims of Assad’s destruction.  Yet in order to deliver that aid to their countrymen, Syria’s opposition will also need military assistance – arms and intelligence.

Of course, no amount of arms will enable the opposition to military defeat Assad’s professional army.  But as we have seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, autocratic regimes are not militarily defeated by revolts; rather they are put under pressure until their militaries and elites defect.

The goal of arming Syria’s opposition is not to create a force that can defeat Assad’s army.   Rather, the purpose of giving military and humanitarian aid to the popular forces in opposition is simply to allow them to survive while the world places the strongest possible pressures on Syria’s government and economy to stop the massacres of its people.

Those pressures – from sanctions on Syria’s central bank to boycotts of its oil and other trade – will take time to bite.  But over the coming weeks and months, they will send a clear message to the elites of Syria: the world will not tolerate an autocrat who directs his military to massacre unarmed civilians, including women and children, to sustain his unpopular and illegitimate rule.    As it becomes clear that the popular movement will survive, and that Gulf and Western powers are intent on isolating Assad, his supporters will continue the process of defection that has already begun.

Without substantial material support to the opposition, however, sanctions may have a different effect:  they may prompt Assad to fully crush the opposition as rapidly and completely as possible in order to eliminate any alternative before the external sanctions peel away his remaining support.

If Assad manages to remain in power, the result will be an emboldened Iran, with Syria more deeply in its debt, and greater confidence among Iran’s other regional allies, Hezbollah and Hamas.  Other counter-revolutionary forces in the region will gain confidence as well, and autocrats throughout the world are likely to draw the lesson that crushing any popular opposition quickly and thoroughly is far more likelier than reform to preserve their power.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, revolutions against absolute monarchies scored success after success, producing new constitutional regimes from 1776 in America to 1789 in France, and on to Holland and Belgium and Greece.  But in 1848 the wave broke and was turned back when Russia supported Austria’s counter-revolution.   Whether Iran and Russia help Syria to crush its popular revolt may similarly determine the fate of democracy across the region for decades to come.

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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