In 1982, I interviewed Syrian Information Minister Ahmed Iskander in Damascus, shortly after the regime had killed at least 10,000 people in the city of Hama.
On his office wall hung a painting of an old Hama neighborhood with one of the waterwheels for which the city was famous. “That is our lovely city of Hama,” he told me calmly. “It’s perfectly peaceful. You should visit it someday.”
He knew that I knew this neighborhood had been leveled to the ground.
Back then, under the regime of Hafez al-Assad, there was no Internet or Skype to send out pictures of carnage. No journalists were allowed near Hama; the government felt free to bury whole sections of the city and deny the story. Of course word leaked out about the slaughter, but there was no visible proof.
Fast-forward 30 years. Assad’s son, Bashar, is blasting civilians in Homs with rockets and heavy artillery. Once again, the regime says any bloodshed is the work of “armed terrorist groups.”
In 2012, however, we can see what the regime is doing in real time. Brave Syrian civilians are risking their lives to take cellphone videos and relay them via YouTube. They broadcast live accounts to CNN and the British Broadcasting Corp. via Skype with mortar fire booming in the background.
We watch scenes of wounded children, pulverized apartments, and hospitals filled with wounded but lacking supplies. The gut response is “Do something!” But there is a huge disconnect between what we see and what we can do.
Not surprisingly, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., are calling for the United States and its allies to aid and arm the Syrian opposition.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA), made up of defectors from Assad’s forces, is reportedly receiving some help from Persian Gulf Arab states and managing to capture or buy small arms within Syria; it even has acquired antitank weapons.
Experts such as Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy say they believe that the FSA, whose current strength he puts at 4,000 to 7,000 troops, “can contribute to a process that causes the [Syrian] army or regime to break” through a war of attrition, especially if it gets more antitank weapons.
But the Syrian army rebels are up against a huge government army of about 300,000 men. Its top generals and elite forces are all members of Assad’s minority Alawite clan (unlike the mostly Sunni foot soldiers). Backed by Iran, armed by Russia, they will fight to the end.
Meanwhile, the FSA contains separate groups of fighters with little overall leadership or strategy. The political leadership of the Syrian opposition — the Syrian National Council — is even more disunited.
So before we rush to arm the FSA, let’s be clear where we are heading: There is no way the Free Syrian Army can defeat Assad without foreign military assistance. Recall that in Libya — the parallel to which many point — it took a months-long effort by NATO to defeat the much weaker Moammar Gadhafi. Even McCain expresses caution about military action because Syria is “much more complicated ... than ... Libya.”
Anyone who calls for arming the FSA must ask: Is NATO (or any Persian Gulf country, or Turkey) ready to take on another, bigger, war in the Middle East? I’d say the answer is no.
And for good reason: A NATO no-fly zone to protect rebel-held parts of Syria would mean first destroying a massive Syrian air-defense system. This wouldn’t stop the shelling of civilians by tanks and artillery. If, on the other hand, NATO tried to institute a “no-drive zone,” this would require bombing Syrian vehicles inside urban areas, risking the death of many civilians.
Another oft-heard idea — setting up opposition “safe havens” inside Syria near the Turkish border — would also require foreign military support.
So let’s not talk of arming “the Syrian opposition” — and it may come to that — without thinking through the repercussions or recognizing it won’t stop the slaughter of civilians in the near term. Other options need to be tried first.
One idea being considered by the Obama administration is the creation of a “Friends of Democratic Syria” group, including Arab League, European, and Islamic states, notably Turkey. It would press Syria to permit humanitarian aid into Homs and also urge Russia to reconsider its veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution urging a peaceful transfer of power in Damascus. If Assad lost the support of his key Russian ally, perhaps, just perhaps, he might reconsider his future.
“I hope the Russians will make a new assessment,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who spoke with journalists in Washington. “Assad promised (Russian Foreign Minister Sergei) Lavrov to stop the violence, but the violence continued.” Davutoglu will meet Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday to discuss increasing the pressure on Syria. No doubt the “Friends” group would warn Moscow that its help to Assad fuels the civil war.
Turkey’s position on arming a free Syrian force is crucial, because it borders Syria and has given defecting Syrian officers refuge. “Until now,” Davutoglu said, “we don’t want to do anything based on a military presence. Yes, there are Syrian (opposition) officers on our soil, but that doesn’t mean we are arming or trying to organize a military force.”
“Safe havens (inside Syria) should be discussed later if all these diplomatic methods are not helping,” the foreign minister added. He saw “no role for NATO for now,” but “maybe later.”
This Turkish push to give tough diplomacy another chance is born of recognition that a military campaign would be ugly and long, and would ignite more sectarian conflict in the region. Outside military help may be inevitable, but it won’t stop the Homs horrors. Just because we can see Assad’s war crimes doesn’t mean it will be easy to stop them — or him.