Why nothing much
will be done
I was approached recently by a Dutch journalism student who asked me if I had any views to the current conflict in Syria and why the US seemed reluctant to get involved. And so this is my response. I write the following with the admission that I have no specialist knowledge of Syria. I have stood on the Golan Heights, which is Syrian soil unilaterally annexed by Israel, but I have never been to Damascus and claim no special insight.
I do know from talking to people in the region and from my own experiences in neighbouring countries that Syria lies at the nexus of historically complex and multi-layered geo-political allegiances, alliances and conflicts. And that creates a complicated problem for the international community.
Following the Houla massacre, there has been vocal and public outrage from the international community. While there is a lot of talk of taking action, this will fall short of direct military intervention.
America will not get involved in any military operations before November's presidential election. Barack Obama is scaling down his country's commitment in Afghanistan and he's taken US troops out of Iraq. He does not want to contest an election while also fighting another war. The Russians are also opposed to military action but for different reasons. Syria has been a long-time ally and Moscow is at this stage not prepared to abandon a regime it considered a friend, even though its position appears to more difficult to defend.
Russia's position also gives Barack Obama diplomatic cover. He can protest that he wishes he could do more through the United Nations but knows the Russians will block it. China takes its traditional position of refusing to get involved in the internal affairs of another country.
People who demand action to stop the Syrian army point to the no-fly zone imposed by NATO when protests erupted in Libya. However, the Syrians are better trained and better armed, and their air defences are significantly more impressive, so taking action of this kind carries with it much greater risk. Any international military action against Syria would almost certainly engage its allies, Iran and Hezbollah. And that in turn, creates complications at the very least for the situation in Lebanon and Israel.
The Syrian rebels are divided, there is mis-trust between various factions
and there is growing evidence that pro-Al Qaeda groups fighting in Syria
are more numerous and better organised than they were in Libya.
The region does not need another conflagration. Any action would also need the approval of Turkey as refugees from any fighting would join the thousands already seeking protection and safety across the border.
The Houla massacre saw several countries expel Syrian diplomats. It was a co-ordinated international effort, which carried a clear message that the government in Damascus was becoming increasing isolated. Russia refused to join in – claiming such actions close down the opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the conflict. Such a move has little practical impact on the Syrian regime as it realises it is involved in a fight for its very survival, and that removes the normal constraints and expectations on its actions.
There is real concern too that if Assad if removed, what comes next? The Syrian rebels are divided, there is mistrust between various factions and there is growing evidence that pro-Al Qaeda groups fighting in Syria are more numerous and better organised than they were in Libya. Removing Gaddafi has not automatically produced a stable state in Tripoli.
A number of US politicians, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have called on America and others to arm the rebels. Reports indicate that Saudi Arabia is believed to be providing weapons, and the Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal said in April that 'the arming of the opposition is a duty, I think, because it cannot defend itself except with weapons'. It should be remembered that the Saudis regard Syria as a traditional and historic enemy. So for these reasons, I explained to my new Dutch friend, Bashar Al Assad remains in power.
Alan Fisher is an Al Jazeera correspondent