The anarchy factor in Syria (TORONTO STAR OP-ED) Itamar Rabinovich TEL AVIV, ISRAEL 05/02/12)
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TEL AVIV—The failure of the Obama administration, its Western allies
and several Middle East regional powers to take bolder action to stop
the carnage in Syria is often explained by their fear of anarchy.
Given the Syrian opposition’s manifest ineffectiveness and disunity,
so the argument goes, President Bashar Assad’s fall, when it finally
comes, will incite civil war, massacres and chaos, which is likely to
spill over Syria’s borders, further destabilizing weak neighbours
like Iraq and Lebanon, and leading, perhaps, to a regional crisis.
What is actually happening in Syria refutes this argument. In fact,
the lingering crisis is corroding the fabric of Syrian society and
government. Anarchy is setting in now: it is preceding — and
precipitating — the regime’s eventual fall.
The United States and others are substituting high rhetoric and
symbolic punitive action for real action on Syria. Sanctions on those
involved in electronic warfare against the opposition’s social media
are not the answer to the shelling of civilian neighbourhoods in Homs
For several months, Russian and Chinese obstruction in the United
Nations Security Council was both a real obstacle to more effective
sanctions and a convenient veil for inaction. More recently, former
UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s mission on behalf of the UN and the
Arab League has come to play a similar role.
Annan prepared a six-point plan for ending the violence and launching
political negotiations. He dispatched a group of monitors to Syria in
order to supervise the plan’s implementation, and the UN is about to
beef up that mission. But, predictably, the Annan plan is not
working, as Annan himself, in a report to a closed-door session of
the Security Council on April 25, came close to admitting.
Yet while the Annan mission has given the government some breathing
room, that’s not enough to save it. On the surface, the regime
appears almost intact, but in the country as a whole it is
collapsing. Some areas are now beyond its control, public services
are unavailable, and the economy is in free fall.
Assad’s fall does not yet seem imminent, but it has become
inevitable. The regime has lost all legitimacy and its effectiveness
is weakening. When it finally crumbles, the powerful state built by
Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, will hardly exist.
A cliché has been heard throughout the Syrian crisis: “Syria is not
Libya.” But another analogy may be more suitable. Syria may well
become a second Iraq, not by design but as an unintended consequence
of current policy.
The American occupiers of Iraq, through their policy of “de-
Baathification,” left Iraq without an army or a government, which
proved to be fertile ground for Sunni insurgents, Al Qaeda and
violent Shiite groups. In Syria, the ground is being prepared for a
similar outcome, with a growing number of radical Islamists crossing
into Syria and joining the opposition.
In this context, it is important to appreciate the difference between
the “political” opposition and the local opposition groups waging the
fight against the regime on the ground. Groups like the Syrian
National Council are loose associations of individuals and groups,
many of them outside Syria.
These are the groups criticized by the Obama administration and
others for their failure to present a united front, formulate a
credible agenda or be seen as a viable alternative to the current
regime. But these groups have limited influence over the local
opposition groups inside Syria, which are equally diverse and divided.
It is among these groups that radical Islamists have gained a
foothold. Fear of another Islamist takeover is a second main argument
against toppling Assad, but the longer he stays in power, the greater
the gains made by Islamists on the ground.
The Obama administration, focused on the November presidential
election, is not interested in having to deal with a major crisis in
Syria in the coming months, and is preoccupied with the risk of being
drawn into another military entanglement. Other actors, too, seem to
prefer the apparently limited current crisis to the unknown
But the compelling moral case for a humanitarian intervention is
increasingly being reinforced by sound raisons d’état. Furthermore,
military or semi-military intervention is not the only option on the
table. As the sanctions imposed on Iran outside the Security Council
clearly show, effective action can be taken to tilt the balance and
end the deadly stalemate in Syria. The current preference for
inaction, while perhaps understandable, threatens to lead to
precisely the outcomes that its advocates want to avoid.
Itamar Rabinovich, a former ambassador of Israel to the United States
(1993-1996), is currently based at Tel Aviv University, New York
University and the Brookings Institution. (© Copyright Toronto Star
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