Syria’s protesters were rather late to the party, but after 40 years of al Assad family rule and 48 years of emergency law, it is perhaps time. After Hasan Ali Akleh did his best Muhamed Bouazizi impression on January 26th, activists organized protests for the 4th and 5th of February that fizzled under pressure from state security services, but slowly small gatherings and hunger strikes swelled. Today, the town of Dara’a seems to be the hot spot for anti-government protests – the government has sealed off the city – after at least 3 deaths (some reports have 5) on 18 March. The total number of Syrian casualties is 10 (or 11) – including an 11-year-old boy – now after the army repeatedly and violently disrupted protests. As the protests are spreading to other parts of the country, the international community has started to pay a little attention to the violent response of the Syrian government. The United Nations has called for a probe to investigate the violence while the European Union and the United States have both offered the requisite verbal responses (“unacceptable” and “legitimate aspirations of [the Syrian] people”).
Of course, this could all just fizzle out. Steven Starr writes that the lack of a coordinated opposition in Syria could be the undoing of the protest movement as the desires and demands of various factions within the ‘opposition’ are conflicting. Josh Landis follows up by suggesting that the lack of coordinated leadership could allow the Syrian government to restore control, as long as it does not use too much force. Said another way, the Rubicon has not been crossed and full-scale, anti-government demonstrations are not inevitable. Other commentators disagree though, saying that the fear barrier has been broken and the Syrian people have irreversibly ushered in a “culture of dissent.” It is difficult to tell whether Syria will be more like Morocco or Libya, though it certainly has the potential to go both ways; when Bashar came to power, many viewed him as a reformer (despite a decade of human rights abuses, many still do) and, on the other hand, no one can forget the brutal way his father put down the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in the village of Hama in 1982 (17,000-40,000 dead)
It is the specter of Hama that worries me when I read about the 20,000 person demonstration in Dara’a and speculation like this (my emphasis):
No one will be able to tell with any degree of certainty what will happen in the next few days or weeks in Syria. Will the momentum continue to snowball and bring more Syrians to the streets? Will the regime make an example of Dara’a and show the populace the price one pays for dissent? Or will a critical mass of Syrians decide the time is now for Syria to join its free brethren in Egypt, and Tunisia?
Now it seems to me that Bashar is no Hafez (Bashar’s father) and one would hope that in the post-Libya, 24-hour news world, Bashar would not push to make an example of the growing number of dissenters in Dara’a, but what if he does? Obviously, the Obama administration is more likely to speak out against human rights abuses in Syria than Bahrain, but would the world act in response to a Hama II? Say the Syrian government goes to Dara’a and massacres 20,000 protesters while the US and the rest of the world is still bogged down in Libya: would the United States initiate Operation Odyssey Dawn II? Would the Obama administration really authorize a 4th war after receiving heat for starting the third war? Does America have the capacity to engage in four simultaneous wars?
The problem is obvious: the Libyan intervention was meant to be a warning to other countries that the US and its allies would not sit idle and watch Qaddafi-like behavior. But it seems as though the vigorous debate surrounding the precedent-setting intervention has badly damaged the credibility of the United States to follow through. The intervention in Libya was perhaps meant to deter other countries from acting similarly, but the hesitance displayed by the Obama administration and the eagerness to hand responsibility to another actor after the initial bombardment has revealed the inherent weakness of the so-called precedent. If Syria were to murder a handful of protesters in Dara’a, the west would not be as quick as they were in Libya (though quick is perhaps not the right word) to engage militarily.
By slowly, hesitantly and not fully engaging Qaddafi, has the west demonstrated that it cannot handle another intervention? At the same time, though, Obama has repeated since the decision to intervene in Libya that the United States will not stand by and watch a dictator massacre his people, thus implying that, if need be, the US will intervene elsewhere as well.
And so I return to my original question: would Obama intervene in Syria if Bashar made “an example” of the people of Dara’a?
Photo from The Real Timer