The Syria conflict has gained renewed intensity after the al-Assad regimes announced its willingness to utilize its stockpile of chemical weapons if the international community were to militarily involve itself; thus ensuring that international activity in the region will not surpass mere sanctions and also suggests that the al-Assad regime may be feeling the pressure of the various opposition groups within Syria.
Though Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons has been an open secret for the past 4 decades, the Assad’s regime’s announcement is a direct confirmation that Syria does indeed have a chemical weapons arsenal at their disposal. The announcement targeted the international community, stating that if any foreign intervention in Syria’s civil war would be met with the deployment of chemical weapons. The weapons include mustard and sarin gases, as well as cyanide, and are capable of being deployed by aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and rockets. The announcement has sparked renewed animosity towards the regime, as well as towards the eastern powers that still persist in supporting the Assad regime, such as Russia and China. Though the announcement does spark another international dilemma to be confronted if the community were to begin renewed intervention-talks, it does not present any new looming threat for the opposition groups still fighting throughout the Syrian country. As the perpetuating conflict in Aleppo demonstrates, the opposition groups are utilizing a hit-and-run, urban-guerrilla warfare against the security forces of the regime. The chemical weapons are poorly suited for such close-quarters style combat; rather, these weapons are generally most effective against mass formations in open country. This does pose a problem for neighboring anti-Assad countries, such as Turkey. Turkey has remained a proponent of direct military involvement and has, in the past, deployed reinforcing troops along its borders and has run military-training exercises as a show of force. So saying, the foreign powers that constitute the ‘Friends of Syria’ contact group are those most threatened by the weapons and it is for this reason that the recurring hopes for further foreign assistance to the people of Syria will most likely dwindle away again. Nevertheless, Assad forces have killed more than 15,000 protesters in an attempt to repress what it has called a ‘foreign conspiracy’. Thus the efforts of diplomacy, embodied by the UN’s Annan plan, have gone nowhere and the humanitarian catastrophe escalates.
“No chemical or biological weapons will every be used. Unless Syria is exposed to external aggression.” – Jihad Madkissi, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman
Russia, a remaining ally for the Syrian dictator, has refused to budge on its stance against unilateral international action, but they have also warned Assad against using the chemical weapons. Russia’s defense of Assad can be explained by merely pointing a finger at the current President, that being Putin. The repression enforced in Russia during the first round of presidential elections represents elements of the Stalin-esque era, as well as the heavy-handedness supporting by Russia and represented by Assad in Syria. Combined with the installment of loyal office-holders in the regime by Putin, the regidity of the country to liberalization is evident. So saying, Syria also represents to Russia its last stronghold in the Middle East and is also part of a lucrative bilateral trade agreement, thus making Russia very reluctant to lose such an ally. Many have stated that if Russia were to withdraw its veto on any and all UN measures, then the international community would be able to respond with force against Assad. However, the complexities of involvement go beyond the mere reluctance of Russia and the American gun-ho attitude of invasion without knowledge, as in Iraq, cannot be the strategy taken. If Russia were to continue maintaining strong ties to the Assad regime whilst the international community launched a Libyan-style intervention, the result would be a proxy struggle mired in a protracted civil war. With great powers funding militias on both sides, entering a period of escalated violence, civilian casualties would dwarf the already high numbers currently. The situation then would not resemble the relatively successful Libyan intervention, but more so that of the Lebanon civil war which resulted in over 150,000 deaths over decades long span. So saying, an internationally involved military conflict would not provide the sought after government transition. As of now the Obama Administration, despite hot-headed criticism from GOP Presidential candidate Romney, has taken the correct diplomatic path towards Russia. The American government continues to try and persuade Russia, if not to join the Friends of Syria contact group, then at leas ease its objections to sanctions. The recurring request comes after another recent UN resolution for sanctions was vetoed by both Russia and China. Nevertheless, even without Russia, the current sanctions and embargoes will bankrupt the Syrian regime – just not as swiftly as desired.
“Our duty today as Syrians is to unify for one goal, and that is to make our country free and democratic.” – Manaf Tlass, Free Syrian Army Brigade General
As said before, much blame for a lack of direct action by the Western community, is directed as Russia. If Russia were to remove its support for Assad and thus allow the international community an unhindered approach to do as it pleases, the situation in Syria as a whole still represents a variable that is nigh unconquerable. The international community was able to involve itself in Libya because it was a large country with a small population, allowing the rebel forces there to capture a significant stronghold. Syria is roughly one-tenth the size of Libya and it has 3 times as many people. Moreover, the rebel forces in Syria have not been able to take control of any significant part of the country. A majority of the Syrian population lives in or around Damascus and Aleppo, both of which remain under the regime’s general control. The Syrian rebels have been able to launch sporadic attacks, but poor organization and a lack of unity has made expansion and coordination impossible. Elements of al-Qaeda and other religious extremists are fighting with the rebels, as well as members of the country’s various minority groups – Christian, Druze and Kurdish groups. This divided group stands under the umbrella name of the Syrian National Council, which faces a loyal Alawite hierarchy. There has been no signs of high-level dissent, mainly due to the connection between the Alawite dictator and the fact that all key military and intelligence posts are held by Shi’ites as well. There loyalists have remained supportive because they know that in a post-Assad Syria, they will likely be massacred. The scenario was seen in Libya where Qaddafi loyalists were executed without trial. Evidently, the Assad regime still remains military strong and thus an international-militaristic-coalition would not be the correct response to topple the regime.
“It would be morally far more satisfying to do something dramatic that would topple Assad tomorrow. But starving his regime might prove the more effective strategy.” – Fareed Zakaria, Editor-at-Large of TIME Magazine
In retrospect, the international community must stand behind its current plan to constrict the Syrian regime financially, through a series of stricter embargoes and sanctions. Though Russia and China remain allies to Bashar al-Assad, their support is not the key element in keeping the international community from entering into Syrian with guns blazing. The reality is that the international community cannot, or at least should not, become militarily involved because of the uncertainty of the Syrian situation represented by a fractured opposition and because Assad does hold a key deterrence tool, that being a large arsenal of chemical and biological weapons.