Liddick: Solving Syria

by Morgan Liddick

Eventually the problem of Syria will have to be solved. Fifteen months and 12,000 bodies after the Syrian people decided they could no longer stomach the brutality of the Assad family, one of the most beautiful and historic parts of the Middle East is beginning to look a lot like Bosnia. Remember Sarajevo? We don’t have to search our memories; just wait for the cellphone videos smuggled out of Haffa or Homs. It’ll be neater; loyal elements of the Syrian Army will have had time to bury at least some of the bodies, and the regime’s thuggish irregulars will have disappeared, but …

Blood will tell. It always does.

Syria’s nasty internal war, seen at the beginning as just another manifestation of the turmoil hopefully styled the “Arab Spring,” has multiple roots and broad implications for the region. It has the potential to profoundly affect our national interests, for good or ill. And it is not a story where the lines between good actors and bad are always clear-cut. There are victims and villains, yes; but even the victims are not above a bit of villainy if the stars align properly. So we must be mindful that, much as with an earlier effort in Afghanistan, any aid we render has the potential to come back to bite us.

But caution doesn’t excuse further dithering. The U.N. “peace plan,” never given much hope, has now pretty clearly and comprehensively collapsed, reminding us all once again that negotiations don’t work when the parties are wolves and sheep – unless the sheep are heavily armed, which in this case, they are not. Instead, Syrian Army loyalists and Assad’s assassination squads have the upper hand, and pretty clearly intend to maintain it by any means necessary, with the help of their unholy trinity of friends: Russia, China and Iran.

The first may only be in it for the money – for decades, Syria was one of Russia’s best customers for arms sales – although Moscow may regard support for Syria as a way to keep its hand in a turbulent region. China probably sees an opportunity to grow its influence too, using its UN Security Council veto to good effect; they advance themselves at our expense if they can. Then there’s Iran, whose relationship with Syria is close and central to its ambitions as a regional power.

The Assads are Alawites, an offshoot of Shi’a Islam whose adherents control Syria’s government and military. Most Sunnis don’t even regard them as Muslims, but for the theocrats in Tehran there’s enough of a weird-uncle link to regard them as brethren of convenience, making support for Syria’s ruling clique something of an article of faith – especially as the opposition is, and always has been, overwhelmingly Sunni. Thus, the conflict has about it the whiff of religious war – a vicious, uncontrollable business once it gets rolling. Remember this is the Middle East, where distinctions we might see as mere inside-baseball quirks are matters of blood and death.

Then there’s the matter of emulation. Both in the past and at present, the Syrian regime has used violent suppression, both open and covert, against its opponents. Protestors are routinely shot; opposition leaders are “disappeared” if they can be found; whole neighborhoods are leveled by artillery fire if they become too lively. Never doubt that Tehran, which has recently employed similar tactics against its citizens, is watching the Syrian carnage intently, and nervously. Leaders there understand, even if we do not, that success of Syria’s opposition sends a powerful message to kindred spirits elsewhere, including Iran. Assad’s fall may expose their weaknesses, something they dread and we should encourage.

Direct intervention in Syria would be unwise, and very likely counter-productive. Providing humanitarian aid would be worthwhile, possibly through the good offices of the Red Crescent. So would monitoring the delivery of any such aid. We should publicize and excoriate any further atrocities by the Syrian government, and demand that both Russia and China help rein in Damascus’ butchers. We should support Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council efforts to mediate the dispute.

As to providing weapons to the opposition to allow it to defend itself, this would require our government to keep its eyes and ears open and its mouth shut – something that seems impossible lately. We should leave this to those better able to do so.

But time is of the essence: if we procrastinate, others may act instead. Syria’s neighbor Turkey may decide instability on its southern border is not a good thing and take steps of its own, which may lead to even more instability and danger, possibly including a regional war. This is a situation calling for more than hand-wringing and haranguing about helicopters.

Much more, and soon.

Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at

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