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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Long hot Syrian summer: Protesters caught in a complex international vise

PARIS — French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, viewing the political showdown in Syria, stated, “It is not a question of having statements, but to act. What Syria needs is a total political change.” He was venting frustration over the desultory diplomacy by foreign ministries and inside the UN which has failed to solve the broiling Syrian crisis.


Juppe’s words may have hinted at hope and decisiveness, but actually echoed the deep resignation of the international community regarding the dangerous political faceoff in Syria where Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to crack down on civilian opposition throughout large parts of the country, the most ruthless being in the city of Homs.

While the UN Security Council has gently slapped the wrist of the Syrian regime, it’s painfully clear that five months into the confrontation between the Assad Family rulers and protesters, the international community remains at loggerheads as to what to do next.

Also In This Edition

A frontpage cartoon in the daily newspaper Le Monde shows a Syrian tank crushing protesters and being halted by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon; “Stop — or else, nothing happens.” A Chinese delegate warns the Secretary General, “That’s a little too harsh!”

France especially feels thwarted in dealing with its former colony, with which Paris has had a tumultuous relationship, especially in the past decade. France particularly opposed Syria’s longtime military occupation of neighboring Lebanon which ended just a few years ago.

This image posted on the Internet by Shaam News Network shows what they purport to be a military tank on the streets of the city of Hama, Syria on the "third day of Ramadan," Aug. 3.     AP/SHAMSNN
Optimistic talk of the Arab Spring has slipped into a summer of discontent and delusion. Equally any optimistic momentum there may have been to pursue the “responsibility to protect” option, as in Libya, has run into a stark reality roadblock.

In March both France and Britain pushed for a Security Council resolution to protect Libyan civilians besieged by Col. Gadhafi’s forces. The USA along with the NATO alliance was soon pulled into the Libyan sand-trap, and five months later, has still not toppled the tyrant of Tripoli.

NATO’s mandate to protect Libyan civilians in Bengazi, quickly morphed into regime change in Tripoli. The French and British air forces which have been flying most of the missions are stretched too thin and running dangerously low on precision munitions. The French Aircraft Carrier Charles de Gaulle, on station in the Mediterranean supporting operations, will shortly return to France.

The point is that the powers who could intervene, are not in the military position to do so. Even so more than 1,600 Syrian civilians have been killed in the crackdown which started in mid-March. Twenty-five thousand have been arrested by the regime which is based on a toxic mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and the personality cult of the Assad family in power since the 1960s. Power is maintained by a web of secret police and shock troops in parallel to the regular military.

Here are some other realities concerning Syria that make any intervention more complicated. Syria, a former Soviet client state , still is supported by Russia and has been protected by Moscow’s threat to veto any tough UN Security Council resolutions. China has equally backed Damascus as have Brazil and South Africa who fear a “Libyan style intervention.”

The Assad family dictatorship is a close ally of the Islamic Republic of Iran — given that the ruling elite belongs to the minority and secretive Alawite sect of Shiite Islam. This in turn becomes more complicated as the Syrian majority are Sunni Muslims as in neighboring Turkey and Jordan. Syria is comprised of 75 percent Sunni and 15 percent Alawites among its 22 million people.

The religious combination mirrors Iraq where Saddam Hussein’s ruling elite came from the minority, but in that case the Sunnis. There is equally a Christian minority of about 10 percent as in Iraq. Despite suffocating political oppression, Syria has wisely remained a secular state.

Realistically, any major political jolt could shatter a fragile religious and ethnic mosaic into a land of chaos. Such disorders would likely spill over into tiny Lebanon as both Damascus and Teheran support the Hizbullah militia.

While it is not Washington’s role to sort out the Syrian situation, the Obama administration was painfully slow to forcefully criticize the Damascus dictatorship. In early 2007, former Democrat House majority leader Nancy Pelosi visited Bashar Assad in a ham-handed attempt to better U.S./Syrian relations.

Now months into the crisis and after an attack on the American Embassy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says Bashar Assad “is not indispensable,” and the U.S. is pushing for political change in this ancient land. Significantly Saudi Arabia has dumped the Damascus rulers too. Whether such change becomes part of the hopeful Arab Spring or the long hot Summer of discontent and delusion is debatable.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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