WCU professor puts Syria issues in context

By Ingrid Bego | Apr 11, 2017
Ingrid Bego

In January of 2011, a Tunisian man by the name of Mohammed Bouazizi, died of complications after having poured inflammable liquid over his body and set himself on fire weeks earlier, protesting the corrupt regime.

Little did he know, that his actions would mark the beginning of a region-wide liberation movement in Northern Africa and the Middle East commonly referred to as “Arab Spring.”

The intentions were noble, the goals mighty, and the struggle one that continues to unfold over seven years later. The complications of the Syrian situation stem from the heterogonous religious make-up of the territory.

The country’s 19 million people are divided into Sunni Arabs (65 percent), Alawis (12 percent), Christians (10 percent), Kurds (9 percent), Druze (3 percent), Bedouin, Ismailis, Turcomans, Circassians, and Assyrians. Even though, the majority of the population is Muslim, the different sects such as Sunni, Shia/Alawi, and Ismaili, present difficulties for consensus and bring about different world players into the conflict.

The president of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is a Alawite Muslim, who inherited the regime in 2000 from his father Hafez Al-Assad. The family has been in power since 1971, in similar fashion to other authoritarian personalistic regimes around the world.

Even though a minority, Alawites, associating themselves with the Shia Muslim sect, have dominated the military and have maintained power through the Assad regime. Fearing chaos and disorder, the Alawites have been loyal to the Assad family in exchange for protection.

The international actors match the internal divisions. Supporting the Assad regime is the government of Iran, a theocracy led by Shia religious leaders. Less conventional is the other ally of Bashar Al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia.

In 2013, Putin took an unprecedented step to negotiate the handover of Syrian chemical weapons to international control for destruction. This was seen as a step to avoid confrontation between the United States and Syria. Retroactively, Putin’s offer to help negotiate solidified his relationship with Assad and placed him in a powerful position as Western democracies tried to decide their role in Syria’s civil war.

More particularly, the United States was reluctant to intervene in another Middle Eastern country after Iraq and Afghanistan, without either the authorization of Congress or the Security Council. Similarly, Western European allies have been hesitant to support a war that involved Russia, considering the threat that it poses nearby in addition to their reliance on Russian natural gas.

In August of 2013, in response to the first sarine gas attack in Syria, which left more than 1,400 dead outside Damascus, President Obama paused his decision for military action in Syria to ask for Congressional approval. At the time, 183 Republicans were against bombing with only 12 Republicans supporting it. The vote was ultimately postponed hoping for a diplomatic solution, which was achieved with the help of international community taking ownership of the Syrian stockpile of chemical weapons.

This week we witnessed another sarine gas attack on civilians in Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of people. In response, President Trump retaliated, launching 59 Tomahawk Cruise missiles intended to destroy the Shayrat Airfield in Homs province in Western Syria, from where the U.S. intelligence believes the banned biological weapons were fired.

According to the Associated Press, the strike killed at least seven people and wounded nine others. The Pentagon reports severe damage to the airport’s infrastructure and equipment. Both leaders of Russia and Syria have condemned the attack. More particularly, Russia has called the strike an “act of aggression” and “in violation of international law.”

What does this all mean for resolving the crisis in Syria? The difficulties that the Obama administration faced are no different than those that the Trump administration faces. Is the United States willing to engage in another war in the Middle East, especially in one that is backed by Russia and Iran?

This week’s U.S. military strike may relieve some of the Western guilt produced by horrific images of Syrian children gasping for air but more than likely will not lead to less violence perpetrated by a brutal leader supported by rouge actors like Putin.

Experts argue that the destruction of a single airfield is not a cost high enough to force Assad to restructure his strategic priorities. The only action that will accomplish that goal would be to directly threaten the regime and the personal survival of Bashir Al-Assad, which would require a much more comprehensive and lengthy attack.

Is the United States committed to ending the Assad regime in Syria? After electing a president with the slogan “America First,” are Americans ready to engage in another extensive war in the Middle East?

If Assad is removed by force, who will rise to fill the vacuum in power, in a country where sectarian violence will more than likely erupt, similarly to what we saw in Iraq? These questions must be answered through a strategic approach to Syria, something President Trump never discussed during the campaign and has not yet presented to the American people and Congress.

Until then, “spur of the moment” attacks will lack clarity and credibility producing little to no change in the grave situation in Syria, potentially the dark spot in our 21st century history.

Ingrid Bego lives in Lake Junaluska and is a political science professor at Western Carolina University.