Syria Gets Complicated

A three-member “Independent International Commission of Inquiry” appointed by the United Nations concluded on February 23 that “gross human rights violations” had been ordered by the Syrian authorities as state policy at “the highest levels of the armed forces and the government,” amounting to “crimes against humanity.” The 72-page document thus provides the potential basis for Bashar al-Assad’s indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The panel presented the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights with a sealed envelope containing the names of Syrian officials who should be “investigated,” but those names remain secret. The U.N. did not specify who these investigating authorities might be, but that we know: on June 27th—three months into NATO’s air war on the side of rebel forcesthe ICC presented intervening powers with a veneer of legitimacy by issuing a warrant for Muammar Qaddafy’s arrest. The latest U.N. report seems deliberately crafted to provide a future ad-hoc “coalition” with an upfront justification for a military intervention in Syria, also based on “the responsibility to protect” doctrine which was invoked in the Libyan case. In view of the Russian and Chinese veto, a regional coalition may cite this principle in order to attack Syria without the U.N. Security Council mandate.

Unsurprisingly, the language of the U.N. Syria report closely resembles the ICC warrant against the late Libyan leader. The U.N. report says: “A reliable body of evidence exists that, consistent with other verified circumstances, provides reasonable grounds to believe that particular individuals, including commanding officers and officials at the highest levels of government, bear responsibility for crimes against humanity and other gross human rights violations.” In Libya, the ICC said, “State policy was designed at the highest level of the state machinery, and aimed at quelling by any means, including by the use of lethal force, demonstrations of civilians against the regime… The evidence establishes reasonable grounds to believe [Qaddafy and his associates] are guilty of crimes against humanity.”

The UN report is politically motivated. Western estimates based on “opposition” sources—almost certainly as exaggerated as the much-touted figure of “200,000 Bosnian dead”—claim that the insurgency in Syria took between 5,400 and 8,000 lives over the past year. By contrast, neighboring Turkey’s ongoing “dirty war against the Kurds” has killed more than 40,000 people over the years, including 35 civilians slain in a single Turkish air raid against the separatist PKK last December. Ankara’s intensification of indiscriminate attacks on Kurdish targets reflects a major shift by the Islamist AKP regime away from negotiations. No U.N. report has been commissioned thus far to investigate possible crimes against humanity in Turkey, however, and none is likely any time soon. NATO’s only Muslim member-country is the key conduit for arms, supplies, money and men—including Western intelligence agents, members of various special forces’ units and training instructors—helping Syrian rebels, or else fomenting rebellion where it is currently absent.

The insurgency in Syria is a low-intensity conflict by comparison. At fewer than 500 deaths per month—even if we accept the most frequently cited rebel estimate as reliable, which it is not—it is far less lethal than the chaos in Libya (up to 30,000 deaths between March 2 and September 8, 2011), or the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq and its aftermath (anywhere between 109,000 and 601,000 deaths to date). On this form, it is certain that the toll in Syria will skyrocket if there is a foreign intervention. Its intricate sectarian and clannish divisions—which remain deep and visible in the ranks of anti-government forces—would ensure a Hobbesian free-for-all if the regime is removed by external force.

The awareness of such possibility, reinforced by the frightening example of Iraq next door and the recent call to anti-government jihad by Al-Qaeda, is one of Assad’s strongest trump cards. It assures the loyalty not only of some 26 percent of Syrians who are not Sunni Muslims—Alawites, Christians, and Iraqi refugees of all faiths and denominations remain solidly pro-regime, as do most Druze and Kurds—but also of many secular, middle class Sunnis who do not cherish the prospect of a bloodbath or the probability of the Muslim Brotherhood emerging victorious in its aftermath. All of these groups have felt secure under Assad and his father and have ample reason to fear his downfall. It is likely that the ranks of media-invisible government supporters, millions of people who go about their daily business without fuss and try to stay out of trouble, constitute Syria’s “quiet majority.” It is probable that they far exceed the numbers of committed enemies of the regime, which is why we have not witnessed a fully-fledged “popular uprising” thus far.

Syria is not Libya for another important reason: Government security forces and the army retain their coherence and operational effectiveness. Defections to the rebels, which were heralded in the Western media last fall as the beginning of the end of the regime, are but sporadic. Morale and discipline remain high, especially considering the pressures of the past year. The government has not unleashed anything near its full firepower against the rebels—neither aircraft nor ground-to-ground missiles have been used to date. Assad is well aware that a significantly higher death toll is exactly what the proponents of intervention in Washington desire as a means of stepping up their pressure for American military involvement. On the other hand, the rebel “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) is largely a phantom force unable to conduct complex operations and devoid of clearly defined political objectives beyond removing Assad, which it is manifestly unable to achieve without foreign intervention.

Last but not least, having seen the misuse of the limited UN mandate by the Western powers in Libya, Russia and China will continue to block any Security Council resolution which could be creatively interpreted by the U.S. as authorization to intervene. An undeclared proxy war is under way, but Assad only has the Turkish border to worry about. Iraq supports him, which is unsurprising considering the influence of Iran—Syria’s major foreign backer—on the government in Baghdad. Israel is having second thoughts on the possibility of regime change in Damascus, and the 1973 ceasefire line in the Golan Heights remains one of the most peaceful spots in the Middle East. Lebanon is dominated by pro-Syrian Shiite factions, and Jordan has been notably lukewarm to U.S. pressures to open desert infiltration routes from the southeast.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is in some trouble, but it is not in any immediate danger of collapsing; if there is no foreign intervention it may survive. Of course, a Markale-like stage-managed stunt prompting media-pack hysteria here and in Western Europe may yet change the equation. If you have to go to Syria, avoid crowded public places.

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