The continuing deterioration of the political situation inside Syria last week led the emir of Qatar to suggest that it would be appropriate to send in Arab troops to stop the killing. How seriously he meant this suggestion remains unclear. He may have been offering this as a practical proposal or merely sending a political message that the Arab world could not wait forever as Syrians are killed by the dozen every day.
The Arab League met in Cairo this weekend and assessed its month-long mission of monitors whose presence in Syria has not slowed down the killing. That the League has decided to continue its strategy and enhance the number of monitors makes little difference at the moment. The bigger issue that looms is the question of whether or not to send in foreign troops or take other measures to stop the deaths in Syria.
This is really two separate questions: Is it realistic and is it desirable to have foreign troops involved in Syria? The Syrian National Council (SNC), comprising a consortium of opposition groups, is calling on Arab and foreign governments to start thinking of a safe haven area along Syria’s northern and southern borders, or even designated “cities of refuge,” where Syrian government troops cannot attack citizens. This would not be feasible without the direct participation of foreign troops, mostly from the air enforcing a no-fly zone, for starters. There is no consensus now among the Arab countries for doing this, and such a consensus seems an absolute prerequisite for any such move to be seriously considered.
Syrian opposition figures speak of the experiences in Kosovo and Bosnia in recent decades, when foreign troops protected the local civilians, as precedents that could be emulated in Syria. Foreign- or Arab-enforced safe havens along the borders would allow many more troops or civilian officials to defect from their current positions and joint the opposition demonstrators, which would hasten the fall of the regime. Combined with this would be a series of political and diplomatic gestures that Arab and foreign governments could make, including holding regular working meetings with the SNC and ultimately recognizing it formally as the official representative of the Syrian people, a sort of government-in-exile.
The different options that other governments have for engaging with the Syrian opposition is crucially important for those Syrians who are trying to bring down their government, because this is seen to be the most feasible way in the current circumstances to convince President Bashar el-Assad that he must step aside and make way for a new democratic and pluralistic governance system in the country. The current situation in the country is a stalemate, similar to the Yemen situation. Rebels and demonstrators express strong opposition to the regime, but the regime is also able to muster considerable assets (troops and money, mainly) to kill, beat back or intimidate enough demonstrators to keep the Assad regime in power. Breaking this stalemate is the top priority of many in the Syrian opposition, who recognize that the current level of demonstrations and limited defections from the armed forces or civil service will not be enough to bring down the regime.
There are also considerations of precedence for those who might be pondering sending foreign troops to stop the killings in Syria, for other countries that experience similar tensions and death sprees might also ask for foreign armed intervention to protect civilians. The Qatari emir’s call for sending Arab troops to Syria sends the signal that this once inconceivable idea will not always remain beyond the realm of the possible. The technical issues of how to intervene to assist Syrian civilians and opposition groups are the least complicated. The really hard obstacle now is the political dimension of whether it is wise to consider such a move.
The conclusion I draw from all this reinforces what I have been thinking and saying since the first demonstrators started threatening the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes last December 2010 and January 2011: Syria suffers many of the same problems and conditions that were evident in Tunisia and Egypt (poverty, lack of democracy, corruption, a widespread sense of indignity and anger among the citizenry) and therefore it is not immune from their fate. The Libyan situation offered examples of a phased process of opposition organization and international intervention. It is true to say, as we hear daily, that Syria is not Libya. But it now seems correct also to say that Syria is increasingly looking like Libya in the trajectory of opposition moves and regime responses that now increasingly trigger talk of drastic interventions and measures to save civilian lives.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri–distributed by Agence Global