Violence in Syria has escalated into what has been labeled a civil war. According to the UN more than 60,000 people, mostly civilians, have died since the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which is increasingly losing territory to rebel fighters, blames “terrorists” and “armed gangs” for the unrest, while the opposition and other nations have accused Assad’s forces of crimes against humanity.
To provide some background on the conflict it is important to know that Syria is a country of 21 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority (74%) and significant minorities of Alawites – the Shia heterodox sect to which Mr Assad belongs – and Christians. Mr. Assad has concentrated power in the hands of his family and other Alawites. The family of President Assad has been in power since his father, Hafez, took over in a coup in 1970. Under Mr. Assad’s rule, critics have been imprisoned, domestic media has been tightly controlled, and economic policies have often benefited the elite. The country’s human rights record is among the worst in the world.
Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 after the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on their school’s walls in the southern city of Deraa. Security forces opened fire during a march against the arrests, killing four. The next day, the authorities shot at mourners at the victims’ funerals, killing another person. People thereafter began publicly demanding the overthrow of Mr. Assad in a way that had not previously occurred.
The Assad regime first reacted with a combination of minor concessions. It ended the 48-year-long state of emergency and introduced a new constitution. However, the authorities continued to use violence, besieging opposition strongholds. The UN became involved and instituted a ceasefire, which soon was violated by both sides. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, have demanded an end to violence and have called for stronger international action, but China and Russia oppose sanctions and military intervention.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. -Arab League special envoy for Syria, told the Security Council this week that Syria had plunged into “unprecedented levels of horror.” He told the UN Security Council it had to act now to halt the carnage epitomized by the killing of at least 78 young men, who were found shot with a single bullet and dumped in a river in the battlefront city of Aleppo. Syria “is breaking up before everyone’s eyes,” Brahimi told the council’s 15 ambassadors. “Only the international community can help, and first and foremost the Security Council.”
The United States and European council members blame Russia, a staunch ally and key arms supplier for Assad’s government, and China for the Council’s inaction on the conflict. Moscow and Beijing have vetoed three resolutions condemning Assad and reject the idea of sanctioning his government. Iran’s support to the Assad regime has mapped Syria even further into the international context. The question of international engagement must be considered.
The international community, via the UN Security Council could pass a resolution to set up a transitional government to attempt an end to the bloodshed. International Syria mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said last week he could not move forward with a peace plan unless it was backed by a U.N. Security Council resolution and he warned that a ceasefire would only hold if it was overseen by a peacekeeping mission.
While Russia, China, and the rest of the world make up their mind about what to do about the Syrian conflict, Assad’s regime continues to commit crimes against humanity. On the other hand, given the experience in Egypt some say that perhaps it is better to let the Syrians to figure out their fate without arming the insurgents.
I suggest the following questions for reflection; do we do nothing when we know innocent people continue to die? Can the world afford another unstable “democracy” in the Middle East? Is this a precursor of a new cold war with Russia and China on one side and western allies on the other?