Putting the Syrian Spring on ice

From EU sanctions to Arab League posturing, external meddling in Syria is weakening the democratic uprising.

Patrick Hayes

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is the latest dictator in the Middle East to become persona non grata on the world stage.

Human Rights Watch has condemned his regime for its ‘crimes against humanity’ and its brutal crackdowns on thousands of dissidents. Jordan’s King Abdullah, hardly a democrat himself, says Assad should stand down. The European Union is imposing greater sanctions on Syria, and the country is now likely to face the humiliation of being suspended from the Arab League, in which it used to play a leading role. Will Assad go the way of Gaddafi? Is actual Western intervention the next step?

The United Nations seems to have little appetite for a repeat of any Libyan-style intervention, which would probably be firmly vetoed by China and Russia anyway. And the US, while voicing its disapproval of Assad, claiming he has ‘lost all legitimacy’, seems to have resigned itself to being little more than a spectator in the Syrian drama. However, it appears a compromise may soon be reached, with the UN possibly putting monitors on the ground to check on the regime’s treatment of its citizens. This would be in addition to the weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency currently pressuring Syria to allow its agents to poke their noses into the country’s every nook and cranny.

The Arab League, the EU and other outside actors claim to be acting in the interests of the Syrian people, but it’s far from evident that this is the case. Turkey’s threat, for example, to cut off its supply of electricity to Damascus is far more likely to impact on the lives of Syrian people than it is to topple Assad’s regime. The EU’s blocking of the sale of Syrian oil to Europe will help to cripple the economy, again making life even harder for Syrians. And the impact of the EU’s extension of sanctions, which would impose travel bans on Syrian officials suspected of carrying out violence, could perversely be to intensify tensions inside Syria: deprived of the opportunity of finding a bolt-hole abroad, Assad’s henchmen may instead decide to fight on in Syria in order to maintain their decaying regime.

The patronising logic behind EU and other sanctions seems to be that if the Syrian people suffer as a result of them, they will be more likely to rise up, having reached the conclusion that they will be materially better off living in a country approved of by the West. Such an approach could easily backfire, of course, as the contempt Syrians feel for their leaders becomes weakened by the contempt they feel for outside forces seeking to strangle their economy and make daily Syrian life tougher. Indeed, Assad is already exploiting all this external hostility in an attempt to cohere Syria around the need to ‘stand united’.

The logic behind the Arab League’s expulsion of Syria is murkier still. Having booted out Gaddafi’s Libya in March this year, the League effectively paved the way for UN intervention there and ultimately for NATO’s airstrikes. Its unexpected hardline approach to Syria reeks of being a tactical approach by the League’s member states. After all, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and Algeria are all members of the League, and, particularly in the case of Bahrain, they have all been pretty brutal in their own crackdowns on protesters. Who on earth are these countries to preach to Syria about how it should treat its citizens?

Some commentators have celebrated the ‘newfound gumption’ of the Arab League, arguing that ‘Syria’s protestations, that the suspension reflected “US-Zionist-Western agendas”, might have resonated if this had been yet another set of American sanctions’.

Yet this so-called gumption is born more of desperation and a survival instinct than any renewed confidence or love for liberty on the part of the Arab League. Syria’s suspension from the League carries little penalty, other than giving Assad and Co some bad PR. It would appear that the true desire of the other dictators in the League is to take advantage of Syria’s situation, using it as a smokescreen to distract attention from their own crumbling regimes and authority, while also gaining a semblance of legitimacy by being seen to act tough on the world stage.

In truth, however, ‘tough guys’ are noticeable by their absence in the Arab revolts. As Brendan O’Neill has pointed out previously on spiked, the Arab Spring has revealed for all to see both the impotence of America, which is proving ‘incapable not only of directing events, as it would undoubtedly have sought to do during a moment like this in the past, but uncertain of what direction it would like events to move in’, and also ‘the crisis of authority, the moral and political rot, of the regimes that held power in the Arab world for most of the post-Second World War period’.

Syria makes it clear just how lacking in confidence and moral authority the strategy of open Western intervention has become today. In this instance, the strategy, to the extent that there is one, seems to be to isolate, monitor and starve Syria – often through measures fronted by neutral-sounding organisations such as the UN, the IAEA and the Arab League – rather than to make explicit political and moral demands of Assad’s regime.

Not that all of this intervention-in-denial will make a massive difference in Syria, as Jordan’s King Abdullah pointed out in a frank interview with The Times. Should Assad leave, ‘you’ll probably get the same again’, said Abdullah. He also expressed his fear of a ‘Pandora’s box’ being opened post-Assad, due to the ‘fabric of Syrian society… Kurds, Druze, Sunni, Alawi, Christians and Sunni elite’.

Should Assad be forced out by external pressure, King Abdullah would have a point. In emphasising a peaceful transition of power, in trying to turn Assad into a Gaddafi-like ogre, in intervening in Syria allegedly on behalf of the people living there, the Western bodies calling for Assad’s departure are effectively preventing any fundamental change in the fabric of Syrian society from taking place. They just want a power switch, an end to the instability, with no consideration given to remaking Syria anew.

That kind of more meaningful change can only come from the Syrian people themselves taking the democratic initiative and continuing to engage in a struggle to overthrow Assad’s regime. It is through such a process of collectively exercising their autonomy that Syrian people can assume leadership and create genuine solidarity and a shared vision for a democratic alternative to the current authoritarian regime. Outside intervention, whether it takes the form of sanctions, weapons inspectors or UN observers, only gets in the way of the crucial dynamic being played out between Assad and the Syrian people. Opportunistic outsiders are helping to put the Syrian Spring on ice.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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