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Syria at the Boiling Point

Syria at the Boiling Point

President Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, on a trip abroad in 2009. She has reportedly left Damascus. (Photo by Ammar Abd Rabbo).

Syria appears to be reaching a boiling point. A series of significant events and trends have emerged in the past month. Heavy fighting has erupted in Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the largest city — both places of privilege and, until now, stability in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. High-level officials have begun to defect. These have included at least two brigadier generals, at least one of whom, although a Sunni, was from a family long allied with the Assads. The rebels claim that there are others sympathetic to the rebel cause who remain in place in order to operate from within the military hierarchy. This would seem to have been confirmed by the recent bombing that killed the defense minister, the deputy defense minister (Assad’s brother-in-law), a military aide to the vice president, and the head of an intelligence agency. Whoever planted the bomb clearly knew when and where key leaders would be meeting and, moreover, had access to the room. That fact alone is probably more significant than the identities of the specific officials killed. It was subsequently reported that Assad has felt compelled to move his family out of Damascus. At the same time, government troops have reportedly removed chemical weapons from storage sites, but it is still unclear whether they intend to employ them against the rebels or simply seek to prevent their falling into rebel hands.

None of this means that the Assad regime must collapse in the immediate future. The situation could keep boiling for quite some time, or government forces could regain the upper hand. The regime may have enough political resources in reserve to keep the fight going for a considerable length of time. Russia, after all, continues to honor existing contracts to supply and maintain weaponry, although it has cut off new contracts. Given Assad’s likely fate in the hands of the rebels (as represented by the fate of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi in Libya), he has every incentive to keep on fighting (unless he can be convinced that he has no future in Syria but could get a safe and reliable exile in, say, Iran or Russia). On the other hand, Syria’s army — like Egypt’s in 2011 — could decide that it would fare better without Assad, depose him, and then continue to fight the rebels, side openly with the rebels, or pretend to side with the rebels while working to keep power in its own hands. Or more and more of Assad’s supporters could simply switch to the other side or stop fighting altogether if they become convinced that he is going to lose or they tire of having to kill civilians. Much could depend on whether (or how many) members of social groups normally identified with the regime, such as Alawites, Christians, and Druze, believe that their fate will necessarily be the same as Assad’s (with less prospect of a comfortable exile) or could be improved by a timely shift in loyalties.

As the fighting within Syria continues, diplomacy at the United Nations has produced few concrete results of late, but there are things happening behind the scenes. The United States has avoided a direct role in the conflict, a natural consequence of a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq(and Syria resembles Iraq in just too many ways). Although three senators — John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — have urged a more active role, albeit not one involving U.S. troops on the ground, they have found no support even among Republicans. U.S. officials, however, have encouraged the scattered rebel leaders to organize themselves more and to coordinate their efforts better. To this end, the United States has provided communications equipment to rebel forces. The U.S. Institute of Peace has met informally with Syrian opposition leaders to help them plan for a post-Assad government in case the regime should collapse quickly. Other countries, such as Qatar, have provided arms to rebel troops. The CIA, while not involved in arming rebels, reportedly is involved in vetting rebel groups in the hope of avoiding the arming of any group affiliated with al-Qa’ida.

Apart from these actions, the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, formally declared the situation in Syria a civil war, or, to use the exact terminology, a non-international armed conflict (NIAC). The ICRC, as an independent, humanitarian entity, has great weight in such questions, even if its opinion is not legally binding. While many find this particular decision a bit obvious and perhaps a bit late, it has implications. For one thing, it raises the legal status of the rebels, who are now combatants rather than insurgents or terrorists. More importantly, once a conflict has been recognized as “war” (or “NIAC”) under international law, participants in it (on either side) may be subject to prosecution for war crimes under the law of armed conflict (LOAC, also known as international humanitarian law, IHL). They might already be subject to prosecution for crimes against humanity, but this introduces an additional set of crimes. Of course, whether the prospect of facing a tribunal in The Hague is more frightful to Assad than the prospect of being slaughtered in a storm drain like Qadhafi is open to debate, but it does further limit his options and it may convince some of those supporters who are wavering in their loyalty (and may also be subject to charges) to jump ship while there is still time.

The possibility of prosecuting Assad raises another perennial issue — the dilemma of peace and justice. For the sake of justice, Assad deserves to be tried and punished for any crimes he may have committed. As a practical matter as well, sure punishment should serve as a warning to other national leaders not to slaughter their citizens. But what if it should turn out that offering him a safe and comfortable exile with immunity from prosecution is the only way to end the war? The lives of thousands could hang in the balance. Such dilemmas will never be easy to resolve either in pragmatic or moral terms.


P.S., Actually, it transpires that the ICRC did not make its NIAC designation in July; it was made months earlier and communicated privately to the parties concerned. In July the ICRC chose to reveal its decision to the public as a way to remind the parties to the conflict of their legal obligations.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.

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