How to set Syria free


Getting rid of Bashar Assad requires a united opposition, the creation of a safe haven and Western resolve

IN HOMS they are burying their dead under cover of darkness, for fear that the mourners themselves will become the next victims. Syrian government forces are setting out to strike the city’s makeshift clinics, where the floor is already slick with blood. The rebels in Homs have guns, but they are no match for the army’s tanks. And yet the butchery seems only to fire the conviction among the city’s inhabitants that state violence must not prevail against the popular will.
The outside world, to its shame, has shown no such resolve. A vote on February 4th, in the UN Security Council, condemning Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, and calling on him to hand powers to his deputy, was defeated thanks to vetoes from Russia and China. For Mr Assad, this was the impunity he needed to redouble the killing. Earlier a ramshackle mission to Syria by the Arab League had ended in bickering. Division has eviscerated international co-operation just when the turmoil whipped up by the Arab spring makes it essential.
The people of Syria deserve better. With the number of dead rapidly climbing above 7,000, the world has a responsibility to act. It also has an interest. Syria occupies a vital position in the Middle East, jammed between Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon, and allied with Russia and Iran. The country is a cauldron of faiths, sects and clans seething with grudges and mistrust. Many of Syria’s minorities are sheltering with Mr Assad’s Alawite sect only because they fear a bloody reckoning if Syria’s Sunnis, the largest group, are victorious. A lengthy civil war in Syria would feed mayhem and religious strife in an unstable part of the world.

So shifting Mr Assad from power as fast as possible is essential. It is too late for him to negotiate an accommodation with his people by overseeing reform and an increase in democracy. Mr Assad’s repeated resort to violence has earned him the permanent distrust of most of his people. Any freedom they gain would immediately become a means to resist him. For the good of Syria and the region, therefore, the aim must be both to dethrone Mr Assad and also to minimise the loss of life. The pity is that, just now, those goals are at odds.

Bombing and other sorts of hand-wringing

As tyrants go, Mr Assad has two advantages (see article). One is his willingness to do whatever it takes to put down the rebellion. Whereas the troops in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would not fire into the crowd, Syrian soldiers are steeped in blood. Although some have switched sides rather than kill their compatriots, Mr Assad commands crack units and a relatively loyal officer corps, as well as tanks, heavy artillery and an air force. Syria’s rebel irregulars could not beat them in a head-on fight.

His second advantage is others’ lack of unity—not only at the UN and in the Arab League, but also among Syria’s opposition. The Syrian National Council is a divided gaggle of exiles, with only limited authority in a place they still call home. Inside Syria there is a ragtag of militias, gangs and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), mainly soldiers who have deserted the regime.

The most direct answer is to even up the fight by flooding Syria with arms or, perhaps, bombing Mr Assad’s troops in their barracks. But such a focus on firepower would play into Mr Assad’s hands: the grounds on which he would most like to fight are military. Foreign bombing would satisfy outsiders’ urge to do something—anything—to show their outrage. But even in Libya, which had a front-line and a terrain more vulnerable to aerial attack, bombing took a long time to weaken Qaddafi’s forces. In Syria it would have less military value.

The time may come when supplying weapons to the opposition makes sense. But such a policy would not suddenly turn the opposition into a fighting force. And a country awash with weapons would be plagued by the very violence that the world was seeking to avoid. The guns that flooded into Afghanistan to arm locals against the Soviet Union helped create the chaos that spawned the Taliban.

Far better to attack Mr Assad’s regime where it is vulnerable—by peeling away his support, both at home among Syria’s minorities and abroad, especially in Russia, its chief defender on the UN Security Council. Both Syria’s Alawites and Vladimir Putin cling to this dictator because they think that, despite his faults, he is better than the alternative. Yet under Mr Assad Syria has no future. Before the Arab spring his attempts to modernise the economy enriched a coterie of his cronies but did little for ordinary Syrians. Were he to see off today’s uprising, he would be left ruling over an isolated, impoverished and angry country. Surely the opposition can offer enough Syrians of all creeds a better future than that?

Stand up as one

To make that promise credible, Syria’s fractious opposition must unite. A contact group of outside powers and the opposition could channel money into Syria, as well as help with communications and logistics. With a single voice and a credible leader, the opposition could seek to reassure the merchants, Kurds and Christians who back Mr Assad that they will be safer and more prosperous without him. The Russians would also begin to shift ground. Mr Putin enjoys standing up to the interfering West, not least for domestic political reasons (see article), but sticking with a doomed leader could cost Russia its naval-supply base in Tartus and its arms exports. The more senior officials and army officers defect from the regime, the more likely Mr Putin is to change sides too.

To help persuade them, Turkey, with the blessing of NATO and the Arab League, should create and defend a safe haven in north-western Syria. The FSA can train fighters there, and a credible opposition can take shape. Turkey seems willing to do this, providing it gets Western support. The haven would be similar to that created for the Kurds in northern Iraq; Mr Assad would suffer only if he attacked it.

A haven carries risks, if only because the opposition is so fractious. But it is likely to cause less bloodshed than joining the civil war directly or letting Mr Assad slaughter his people at will. And a free patch of Syria would be powerful evidence that Mr Assad’s brutal days are numbered.

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