In December of 2010, in protest of his government’s tyrannical rule, a street vendor in Tunisia set himself ablaze. Like wildfire, this event was the catalyst to a democratic movement, later coined as the ‘Arab Spring’, These revolutions swept through the Middle East, bringing down ruling elites as the people finally spoke out against the human rights violations, unemployment and corruption that had plagued their countries.
In March of 2011, protestors mobilized in Syria calling for the end of President Bashar al-Asaad’s five-decade Ba’ath Party rule. The government responded with overwhelming force culminating in last week’s Houla massacre. U.N observers have estimated the death toll to be 108, including 49 children. The story of an 11-year old boy named Ali el-Sayed who feigned death by smearing his own family’s blood on himself to escape government forces, has caused uproar among the international community. Yet the end of the Asaad regime, let alone peace, seems to be nowhere in sight. There are realities that need to be addressed in order to move forward.
One of the key differences between the situation in Libya, and the ongoing crisis in Syria is the extent to which the international community, specifically the members of the United Nations Security Council, are unified in their opinion. Russia considers Syria to be its closest ally in the Arab world and has consequently provided Syria with political coverage by vetoing any and all U.N Security Council resolutions aimed at raising the possibility of further action against the Asaad regime. Russia has also been providing financial and military assistance which is counteracting the nominal, and non-lethal, assistance the United States and other NATO allies have thus far been providing the civilian rebel forces with.
The Arab League, along with the UN Security Council’s disjointedness, is not fully backing Asaad to step-down from power as they did with Gadaffi in Libya. The Muslim Shi’ite Iran has been accused of transporting weapons to the Alawite ruling elite in Syria, which is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. The minority Alawite rule of the majority Sunni population of Syria is also creating concerns that the increasing violence will take on a sectarian tone, as opposed to a political one. Such a development would further fragment an already heavily divided Middle East and hinder regime change.
As mentioned earlier, NATO allies, and the United States in particular, have been supportive of a regime change, without directing any significant personnel or military assistance towards the rebel movement. While Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, may insist that domestic politics has no place in American foreign policy, the reality is that it does.
History contradicts Carney; former President Bill Clinton has often said that during the eight years he served, his greatest regret was not intervening in Rwanda. Americans were still raw with anger and disappointment when pictures of American soldiers being dragged by their heels through the streets of Mogadishu appeared on CNN. In total, two Blackhawk attack helicopters were shot down and 18 U.S soldiers were killed in a routine military operation that expected no casualties. Six months later, the Rwandan President’s plane was shot down and genocide began. The disturbing dilemma of more dead American soldiers versus more dead Rwandans depicts the reality of foreign policy today, in that it is skewed by domestic politics.
Having obliterated most of his political goodwill in the Blackhawk down scandal, Clinton could not and did not intervene in Rwanda until it was much too late. While the events in Syria cannot be compared to the atrocities in Rwanda, there are parallels that can be drawn. If President Obama were to commit troops or seriously increase the White House’s support for the rebels, he is taking the risk that this could engulf America in yet another war. This might give off the impression, yet again, that the President is meddling in the civil affairs of a sovereign state in the Middle East. This issue would consume the election and overshadow some of the key domestic problems that the Obama campaign wants to focus on. It seems however, that President Obama has come to the conclusion that the price to pay, to be able to do good for the next four years, are the lives of Syrian rebels and innocent citizens, that could have been saved today. In the fight between a President’s inner political demons and his moral angels, it seems like the former may have the upper hand in this scenario.
– Faraz Alidina
Featured Photo credit: FreedomHouse2