Syria: A Case of Humanitarian Crisis Ignored?

by Lilit Arabyan

On Thursday, October 11th, the Burkle Center for International Relations invited prominent figures of academia to the UCLA School of Law, to discuss the current Crisis in Syria. Asli Bâli of UCLA Law, Dalia Dassa Kaye of the RAND Corporation, and Daniel Treisman of the UCLA Political Science Department gave us their perspectives on the likelihood of a halt to violence, while the somber tones of pessimism and urgency filled the room. This increasingly turbulent region of the Middle East has attracted much attention from the international sphere since the breakout of civil war in March of 2011, which pitted rebel forces against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Unfortunately, it seems that not much has been effectively carried out since then, in the direction of peace.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan named the crisis a “humanitarian tragedy” in his critique of the U.N.’s failure to act. But the dichotomy inherent within any sort of solution is quite complex, and it is not as black and white as “status quo vs. intervention.” Our panelists analyzed the roles that the U.S., Turkey, Russia, Iran and other stakeholders would have in reaching a coherent diplomatic solution, and whether this option is still on the table. They weighed the pros and cons of multilateral intervention, as moderator Kal Raustiala of the Burkle Center posed some very critical questions. Raustiala asked the panelists to analyze the various reasons why a tenable diplomatic solution has not yet been achieved, and whether democracy awaits in the aftermath of bloodshed. In the end, our panelists agreed that any real solution must begin with an end to the flow of arms to the opposing sides. But while this critical international discourse took place, the death toll of innocent, civilian lives continued to rise and to remind us of the urgency of now.

The fastest way to peace now is containment, and our panelists were in agreement. Kaye expanded on the infeasibility of intervention by underscoring the very real possibility that the conflict may escalate into regional war. “The key is to figure out how to address the humanitarian problem, while keeping radicalization of separatist groups from occurring,” she said. But did this imply that we had ruled out any chance of a diplomatic solution?

From the offset, Treisman claimed, Russia has viewed the option of conflict resolution by diplomacy as being naive in the case of Syria. Perhaps to maintain its own interests, by refusing to sign on to any western remedy such as the Security Council resolutions, Russia has bold-facedly sabotaged any forced change-in-regime that may have ensued. With arms contracts of a $700 million per year to defend, as well as commercial interests, a military base and social ties that link the two regions historically, the supplier of weapons and long-time ally to Syria is unlikely to bend with any international pressures to enforce economic sanctions for Assad to step down. Moreover, there is no guarantee, from Russia’s perspective, that the region will be more stable if Assad is forced out without a credible plan.

And yet, Bâli argued, sustaining the status quo for much longer is equally unlikely. It might not be too late to bring Russia, Iran and the U.S. to the table once more. The outcome of such a meeting, however, will not necessarily be an ideal one for the U.S.. “Russia has interests, as does Iran, to maintain allies in this region,” Bâli said. “If the goal is to prevent escalation or civilian death,” she added, “[the people of Syria] might want a pro-Russian, pro-Iranian entity to remain in power.” In pushing for a western solution, we must be aware of what we are committing ourselves to in the long run. “The future that we would prefer is going to come at a large cost,” Bâli cautioned.

While some rebel forces, including the Free Syrian Army and other unarmed opposition groups, are able to operate their headquarters from Turkish soil, Turkey’s support is limited to financial and non-lethal assistance. Bâli frowned upon the Turkish government’s recent act of forcing down civilian planes and limiting its airspace. With these “foolish” acts that put pressure on Syria and Russia, she added, Turkey is risking escalation and the possibility of bringing in Russia or the NATO powers, in unfavorable ways. Turkey has most recently invoked Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, which calls for a consultation among NATO members. In the meeting this month, Turkey presented plans for a no-fly zone. The government of Turkey has also set up a de-facto buffer zone by making it clear to Syria that if it operates near the border with any artillery shells from either side, it will face Turkish fire.

As for the position of the Syrian population, this is divided as well. There remain factions of Islamic extremists, and there is no telling whether there will be any democratic union even if Assad leaves. “Russia maintains that there may be further anarchy and war on the basis of religion,” Treisman said. The biological and chemical weapons of the Assad regime are at least being protected; if the regime falls, this may no longer hold true. “The Alawites will still be there,” he added, referring to the historically oppressed Syrian minority religious group. Russia sees no good choices here, and she is reluctant to sign on as cheerleader to the U.S. pattern of repeated intervention to change regimes and overthrow leaders using military force, under the veil of multilateral humanitarian intervention, as she feels was the case with Libya, Treisman said. He concluded, however, that Iran, as a supplier of arms to Syria, and Saudi Arabia, as a supplier to extremist fighters, hold more significant roles in this crisis than does Russia.

Through the panelists’ well-informed and logical analysis, it became clear that a diplomatic solution is not promising, insofar as regional sponsors on both sides do not feel tremendous pressure for a negotiated solution. Moreover, opposition groups have inflated expectations. According to Bâli, “Syrian parties are their first source of frustration, and second comes the international community’s inability to come together.” Does International Law even provide justification for a potential intervention in this region? Bâli concluded that “where the scale of humanitarian crisis on the ground is large, this is sufficient grounds for intervention.”

Kaye’s prescribed plan of containment seems most feasible after all. We must indeed first stop the flow of arms on both sides, regain focus on the many thousands of lives lost, increase funding for refugees, find more sustainable ways of humanitarian support, try to change sectarianism, provide an off-ramp for the Alawite, the Christians and other minorities, and offer some hope that the people’s welfare will be protected. To the extent that we can create a solution that underscores these points, we will have somewhat succeeded.

When asked by an audience member about the likelihood that Syria will end up democratic, Treisman listed such determining factors as the country’s level of modernization, sophistication and higher media; he said the extreme sectarian divides would be the largest obstacle to overcome. If that is the Syrians’ intended outcome, then perhaps the only way the Syrian civil war will produce an orderly democratic outcome is by burning out. Raustiala closed the panel with this uncomfortable quasi-truth. Our panelists likened the crisis in Syria to the civil war of Lebanon, it being perhaps the closest regional model; but my colleague Rujuta Gandhi suggests this dire situation actually resembles the Rwandan genocide from a distance.

 Will Syria Become the Next Rwandan Genocide?

by Rujuta Gandhi

Crisis in Syria Panel hosted by the Burkle Center for International Relations. Photo by Emily Moon

There lies an irony in the effect of media – it creates a small world, yet non-physical distances remain a discomforting reality. While Syrian diasporic societies and the global community alike receive news of the perpetuating fatalities in Syria, a row of digits is not prompting an adequate response – marking the beginning of a timeline that could foreseeably mirror the Rwandan genocide. However, the panelists compared the crisis in Syria to the Lebanese civil war. Both conflicts are abundant in political and sectarian conflict, which affects neighboring countries. In Lebanon, the Christian Maronite government fought against Muslim organizations. The Palestinian Liberation Organization, one of the Muslim organizations, was charged with attacking Israel and prompting their intervention. Similarly in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite government fights against the Sunni Muslim majority. Recently, Syria shelled Turkish border towns, inviting a warranted response.

Current events parallel the length and chronology of the Syrian conflict to the roughly sixteen year Lebanese civil war, but future occurrences may set the crisis in par with the Rwandan genocide. Syria’s death toll has surpassed 33,000 since fighting began last year. Although starkly different from the 800,000 killed in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the future may hold the same fate for Syria. Recent reports expose Syria’s use of cluster bombs, indiscriminately maiming the population. The coming winter and ongoing food shortage will also quickly inflate the figure. Furthermore, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon announced that 2.5 million Syrians require assistance. Without intervention, violence in Syria will ensue until the factions tire of a net stalemate, causing thousands more in fatalities, or worse, a genocide may occur, resulting in hundreds of thousands of lives lost.

Syria and Rwanda have comparable sociopolitical tensions. Hutu-Tutsi discrimination existed since Belgium’s colonial rule and detonated with assassination of Hutu President Juvénal Habayarimana. The Tutsi minority served as a scapegoat until investigation revealed that Hutu extremists shot down the plane as a pretext for genocide. As a former French colony, Syria is equally affected. France bestowed subsidies, legal rights, and lower taxes for Alawites while permitting subjugation of Sunni Muslims. A potential assassination of President Assad or another leader may trigger a response proportional to that in Rwanda. If such a response occurs, Bâli agrees that the Alawite population will be in danger.

Furthermore, according to Genocide Watch, Rwanda met the eight stages of genocide: classification, symbolization, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, extermination, denial. The organization has already declared a genocide emergency, and Syria is arguably at the seventh stage: extermination. President Assad also denies mass killings.

The international community is wholly aware of the daily atrocities in Syria but hasn’t addressed the humanitarian situation within the nation. Instead, the diplomatic and political aspects are seemingly more important both globally and locally.

While Kaye acknowledged both humanitarian and geopolitical interests in the Syrian crisis, the former was denied attention for the bulk of the conversation. Kaye, Bâli, and Treisman geared the conversation toward future and potential Turkish, Russian, U.S., and Iranian diplomatic and military involvement.

Reactions to murders in Rwanda were knowingly set aside, while nations and institutions negotiated solutions. Today, there is an atmosphere of regret for their lack of humanitarian intervention. Remorse will emerge again if leaders do not provide medical and dietary support to victims of the Syrian crisis. Although a diplomatic solution may be safe, it does not mean that leaders will not be sorry.

Do you think the international community is doing enough?

More on intervention:

The Brookings Institution’s Michael Doran and The Council on Foreign Relations’ Max Boot list five reasons to intervene now; The Stimson Center’s Mona Yacoubian suggests a different kind of shift in paradigm in this Foreign Policy piece.

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Lilit Arabyan is an alumna of UCLA, with a B.A. in Political Science and degree emphases in International Relations and Middle East Studies. She is a co-editor with The Generation.

Rujuta Gandhi is a senior at UCLA majoring in Global Studies with a minor in Political Science. She is also a co-editor with The Generation.

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