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Syria: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”

, by Mathias Maertens

This outcry for help from the citizens of Homs was recorded in the last piece by Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin. She died two weeks ago with French photographer Remi Ochlik and 21 Syrians after a ruthless attack on their makeshift press centre. The continuing massacre in the city of Homs has evaporated hope that a peaceful transition of power can be achieved.

Last week an absolute low point was reached in the brutal crackdown of the opposition movement when the city Homs was the decor of a grim guerilla war between the rebels of the Free Syrian Army and Bashar al-Assad’s regime troops. The dead toll in the medieval siege of Homs is skyrocketing, family homes are shelled to rubble, children are murdered and the bodies of tortured men and women are dumped on the streets. It is in such an environment that a couple of journalists have infiltrated the most dangerous areas to cover the conflict, as unlike in Libya, there are no “free zones” . This courageous act is necessary to dismantle the propaganda machine of Assad, to give credibility to rebels’ claims and most importantly, to give a voice to the people who are most harmed by the conflict, the citizens of Homs and Deraa. This was what Marie Colvin did just before her refuge was bombarded; reporting on the killing of a young baby and other massacres while putting a finger on the spot:

“ Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.”

And hell it is. Blatantly backed up by China and Russia using their veto of the UN resolution to condemn Assad’s regime, the Syrian president has increased the bombings of Homs and Deraa over the few last weeks. Even the evacuation of the wounded and the dead by the Red Cross is still being impeded by the reigning forces. And now that all troops and journalists have fled from Homs, no one knows what is to come for the remaining citizens. Notwithstanding the violation of human rights, Assad held a referendum to improve democracy in Syria. On the day of the vote at least 30 people fell. It is this kind of cynicism and despicability of essential human rights that marks only the most disgusting of dictators. But why does the international community not react stronger? How come that a Libyan life is, at this moment, valued more than a Syrian?

Russia and China

Give credit to those who deserve it. The recent increase in violence can be attributed to the shameless backing of Assad’s regime by China and Russia. As long as they both thwart any sanctions proposed by the Security Council, chances are zero that Assad will abdicate. They both have their reasons. Russia is a longtime friend of Syria and will not easily offend its main ally in the Middle East. China has nothing to lose in the specific case of Syria, economic ties between the two countries are negligible, but more generally is anxious that the overthrowing of Assad could pave the way to similar events in Iran, which accounts for 20% of the so necessary oil imports of China. The two countries are additionally allergic to any interventions in sovereign country politics, in fear that the eyes of the world would focus too hard on their own autocratic regimes.

Middle-east tensions

Syria is playing a key role on the international scene in the intricate web of power relations in the Middle East. Since Syria lost the Golan plains to Israel, it is one of the main links in the Israel-hatred chain of the Middle East. Backed up by Syria, the Shiite Iran is funding Hamas in the Palestinian areas and Hezbollah in Lebanon, a country as good as occupied by Syria for the past 30 years, to pose a threat to Israel. Syrians find themselves furthermore entrapped in the middle of ever increasing tensions between the Sunni Muslims (Qatar, Saudi- Arabia), the Shiite Muslims (Iran, Iraq) and the imperialism character of the Persians (Iran) and the Ottomans (Turkey). Many fear that a forceful intervention in Syria will lead to an unstoppable chain of events that could trigger a wild outbreak of armed conflicts in the region.

Ethnic melting pot

The internal situation of Syria maybe even more complicated. All the major functions in the country are occupied by members of the Ba’ath party who have set up one of the most secular states in the Arab world. They mostly represent the Alawites, remotely related to the Shiites Muslims, who were given power under the French mandate after World War I, to oppose the majority of Sunnites. The Christians represent another minority group who support the reigning Ba’ath party in exchange for protection as they fear that they will be persecuted if a Sunni regime, under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, seizes power. Therefore protests have, on the contrary to Libya, an ethnic nature and are geographically spread. In Damascus and Aleppo, for example, only minor protests arise. This makes it very difficult to assess the support for the opposition and the rebel forces.

Do these reasons justify the inaction of the international community?

No. Because it is clear that the reign of Assad is over. Even if he renounces all violence, his government has no shred of credibility left. The regime will never consider any serious democratic reforms because this will only erode his dominant position, enforcing the opposition to overthrow Assad’s reign. Therefore a capitulation without enormous pressure or some sort of intervention by the international community is impossible. Convincing China and Russia of this idea is the key to isolating Assad and dissolute the malicious regime.

The most effective way in which a regime change can be achieved, without sectarian escalation or massive blood-shed, is the unification of the opposition. Today’s opposition is divided into small uncoordinated groups supporting either the Free Syrian Army, which mostly consists of defectors from the Syrian army and the Syrian National Council, an organization that represents the Muslim Brotherhood. The West and the Arab League should therefore engage themselves to ensure coordination and logistical support across the opposition groups. Establishing a buffer zone at the Turkish border, where the rebels can be trained and have their fall-out base, can form a free haven for refugees and support the democratic movement. If a credible well-organized opposition can be set up, more and more people will abandon the regime, including high ranking government officials and army troops. This will trigger the end of Assad’s reign.

Waiting and not acting is the worst “solution”. The longer the international community stalls explicit action, the more chance there is that what began as a democratic movement will be hijacked and used to instigate a horrifying sectarian war, with a fallout that no one can foresee.

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