COLETTE BROWNE: There is no quick fix to stop the slaughter in Syria’s killing fields

THE EU weapons embargo against Syrian rebels was controversially withdrawn, following lengthy talks on Monday night, but it’s doubtful the policy change will make a blind bit of difference.

Representatives from the UK and France have insisted the volte-face can be used to force President Bashar al-Assad to a negotiation table next month, where a peaceful settlement can be reached. The theory is that EU countries will never have to arm the rebels. The threat will be enough to act as a catalyst for peace without anyone having to get their hands dirty.

But, what if the al-Assad regime, which seems to prefer butchering its civilians to diplomatic niceties, decides to call their bluff? Is the EU really in a position to accurately distinguish the “moderate” rebels that it wishes to arm from the Islamic extremists that increasingly rank among their numbers? Or, if the EU does manage to identify western-friendly rebels from the disparate groups now fighting the regime, what’s to stop the weapons from eventually falling into the hands of terrorists? There are no easy solutions when it comes to ending the carnage in Syria that has, thus far, claimed nearly 100,000 lives.

But, without intervention, it seems certain that the genocide will continue until al-Assad crushes the opposition.

To understand why the issue of intervention is so crucial, it is first necessary to understand something about the structure of the al-Assad regime. Like other authoritarian dynasties in the region, the al-Assads have clung to power for decades because of the stability of the military-security complex in the country.

The ruling family are Alawites, a minority Shiite sect, who have held power since 1970 despite the fact that a majority of the population is Sunni. The al-Assads have maintained their vice-like grip on power since then because of the make-up of the 300,000-strong army, which is staffed by an officer class that is almost entirely comprised of Alawites. To get some idea of their disproportionate representation, it has been estimated that the ratio of Alawites in the army to other religious groups is 5:1, even though the sect comprises just 11% of the population.

Consequently, the military elite and the regime elite have a symbiotic relationship – one does not exist without the other — and so the army has violently repressed protesters since the rebellion first began.

Conversely, society in Egypt, where the Arab Spring swiftly delivered regime change in 2011, is among the most homogenous in the Arab world, with a huge Sunni majority and a tiny Coptic Christian minority. When former dictator Hosni Mubarak turned in desperation to the military to quell protests as they proliferated across Cairo, it opted not to prop up his rule and he was ousted within 18 days. In Egypt, popular protest was sufficient to overthrow Mubarak, but the rebels in Syria, unaided, have little prospect of being able to overcome the military might of the Assad regime without external assistance.

The problem for the international community, which has wrung its hands for more than two years as the situation has deteriorated in Syria, is deciding where that assistance should come from and what form it should take.

With the UN Security Council proving worse than useless, unable even to agree the wording of statements on the crisis, divisions in the EU have now bubbled to the surface and the UK and France have signalled their intention to act unilaterally.

Arming the rebels, and helping them to defeat al-Assad and his thugs, sounds like an obvious choice, but is it wise for individual EU states to do so when nobody really knows exactly who the rebels are and what a post-Assad Syria is likely to resemble? Would the West be happy if, as a consequence of its assistance, a relatively secular authoritarian regime was replaced with an authoritarian Islamic state? Alternatively, does it simply want an end to the bloodshed and a return to the status quo? Or do leaders in Europe believe that a liberal democratic phoenix will rise from a tyrant’s ashes in Syria?

The post-revolution power grabs in Egypt, by a small ruling elite, hint at the folly of that pipe dream. The only thing that can be assured, if Western intervention leads to the overthrow of the al-Assad family, is that the legitimacy of whatever group takes over will be seriously compromised, potentially leading to an even lengthier civil war as the country divides along sectarian lines. One only has to look at what’s happening in Iraq, now forgotten by the West but where bombs killing scores of people are exploding on an almost daily basis, to see the danger of ideologically-driven Western intervention in the region.

Alarmingly, many of the same hawkish politicians who were cheerleading the invasion of Iraq are now leading the charge for intervention in Syria.

Ideally, Western powers wouldn’t have to intervene in Syria at all and the Arab League would instead broker a peace.

However, with members like Bahrain, an authoritarian regime every bit as odious as the al-Assad dynasty — albeit, with the advantage of being supported by the West — that doesn’t seem very likely. They probably wouldn’t want to set a precedent.

AFTER all, if intervention is deemed necessary in Syria, then why not arm rebels in Bahrain, where Sunni-led security forces have brutally crushed protests from the Shiite majority, too? Or, are lofty notions of morality and ethics, and human rights abuses, conveniently forgotten as soon as Western strategic economic interests, or Formula 1 races, enter the equation? While UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has hailed the “very strong message” the EU has sent to al-Assad, following the abandonment of the arms embargo, he seems to be forgetting that there has been no shortage of messages from the international community in the past 24 months. What’s been missing is any action.

His statement also ignores that fact that Western governments have been covertly arming rebels for many months without any breakthrough being achieved.

Meanwhile, as world leaders continue their incessant bleating, the impotence of the international community is evidenced by the fact that UN investigators have still been unable to even enter the country to examine evidence of chemical weapons use months after reports of their existence first surfaced. Instead that task has been left to investigative journalists, with a team from France’s Le Monde newspaper the latest to detail first-hand accounts of their alleged use against rebels. Unable to agree a coherent and unified strategy on Syria, the international community is pinning its hopes on diplomatic talks being successful.

But, what incentive is there for the al-Assad regime to relinquish power and stop killing its citizens if it can still rely on the support of countries like Russia and China if the talks fail? The piecemeal approach by the international community, with Saudi Arabia and now the UK and France arming the rebels, while Iran, Russia and China arm the regime, means the proxy war that is already raging in the Syrian killing fields will continue indefinitely.


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