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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

No easy solution to Syrian crisis

Special to The Japan Times

UNITED NATIONS — As the carnage against civilians continues across Syria, there's a compelling humanitarian case for international intervention to stop the violence that has killed more than 10,000 civilians. Yet, what started as a political uprising against the authoritarian rule of President Bashar Assad 16 months ago has morphed into a complex conflict that borders on civil war and now threatens to involve regional states.

Predictably with the conflict at a boiling point, there are calls for foreign intervention, especially as media images of civilian massacres by the regime fuel a drumbeat of righteous indignation presented alongside the usual tableaux of a "we must do something." So is there a case for American military involvement?

First, a quick overview. Syria has been ruled by the Assad family dictatorship since the 1960s. Under their tenure, the country became one of the former Soviet Union's staunchest Arab allies, supported the "rejectionist front" Palestinians to oppose any peace deal with Israel, provided a home for the Abu Nidal terrorist group, and until five years ago, occupied neighboring Lebanon. Because the Assads belong to the Allewite sect of Shiite Islam, the Damascus rulers have been politically close with their co-religionists governing Iran.

Largely because of Syria's complex religious and ethnic quilt among its 22 million people, the regime has wisely maintained a secular state. There's a sizable and prosperous Christian minority. Moreover, Syria hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world and provides shelter for 1 million Iraqi refugees.

As the political sandstorm of the Arab Spring started last year in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, inevitably the winds reached Damascus. When they did, and protests started, Assad cracked down the old fashioned way: arrests, intimidation, and shootings.

As violence intensified, the "international community" expressed shock and dismay but repeated attempts to censure Syria in the U.N. Security Council were stopped cold by the dramatic vetoes of Russia and China.

Despite growing international indignation over the violence in Syria, both Moscow and Beijing have provided Damascus with the diplomatic cover fire to get away with murder. What small steps the U.N. has achieved on the political front, such as the Kofi Annan ceasefire plan with the 300 UN observers across Syria has largely become moribund, suspending operations, as all parties to the conflict refuse to stop.

As former U.N. Secretary General Annan stated circuitously, "It's time for countries of influence to raise the level of pressure on the parties on the ground and persuade them to stop the killing and start the talking." But will the meeting of the world powers and Turkey, held this past weekend in Geneva, stop the clock on the ongoing violence? Not likely.

So given the ongoing violence inside Syria, should the United States and its allies seek to topple the Assad dictatorship militarily either through a multinational U.N. operation or acting unilaterally?

Facing Russia's and China's continuing support for the Syrian regime, no remotely serious Security Council action will pass their vetoes in the U.N. And while a "Coalition of the Willing," in this case the U.S., Britain, France through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could rerun the Libya scenario and intervene under the "Responsibility to Protect," doing so would set a dangerous precedent.

When Syrian air defenses shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet, the crisis took on a dangerous new dimension. Turkey, which shares a 885 km border with Syria and which has sheltered 35,000 refugees, has played a key role in arming and supporting the Free Syrian Army. Yet, Ankara is wary of taking military action alone. NATO has condemned the Syrian action and has expressed strong solidarity with member-state Turkey.

While the pros of such an operation would likely topple the Assad family's rule and serve as a devastating setback to Iran's regional interests, the counterpoint would be to shatter a fragile secular state, to directly confront Russia, and to enter another Mideast political imbroglio. The Obama administration acquiesced to the rise of a radical Islamic government in Egypt. Would taking action open another political Pandora's Box that strengthens fundamentalist factions in Damascus?

Is Syria a direct national interest of the U.S.? Given the wide-ranging U.S. military deployments, the severe cutbacks to military preparedness, and the Obama administration's haphazard policy trajectory, this is clearly not America's fight.

Seeing the carnage in Syria, feelings of hopelessness and despair are natural. But beyond emotions, we must consider the collateral consequences of intervention, which would mean a significant American military role thrust into this spiral of events.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of "Transatlantic Divide: USA/Euroland Rift?" (University Press, 2010).

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