“1980s Lebanon on Steroids”

Where to now for Syria?

At least that is what Marc Lynch imagines Syria could become now that the Chinese and Russian UN vetoes have all but eliminated the peaceful transition option. While the resolution explicitly ruled out military intervention (due to fears of another Libya-esque regime change operation) the Russian and China vetoes, according to Lynch, are likely to paved the way for a protracted civil war. Of course, the evolution of the Syrian situation from protests to armed civil war should have been obvious months ago; Assad’s overtures to negotiations and reform and, more recently, Syria’s “cooperation” with the Arab League mission should have made it clear that the Syria president had no intention to truly consider peaceful change. Now that Russia and China have made it clear that not even symbolic support for the Syria opposition will pass through the UNSC, Lynch is correct in surmising that a violent civil war is the most likely outcome.

The important question now becomes how long would the Syrian government be able to stand up to an armed uprising – or, perhaps, how long an armed uprising would be able to survive facing the Syrian army? On the one hand, reports of Gulf support for the Free Syrian Army means that the armed opposition is not alone in facing the Syrian regime. Moreover, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, the most senior military defector, has claimed that disorganization, poor mobilization and readiness, and  continued defections means that the military support for Assad will crumble within the next month. On the other hand, the Free Syrian Army is greatly weakened by ongoing divisions within the political opposition and the lack of a geographical base in Syria from which to work. As Josh Landis notes, the Syrian army certainly has some weaknesses – Landis points specifically to the effects of the sanctions – but it is unlikely that the opposition forces would be able to immediately defeat the military or to separate the Alawite-dominated institution from the government.

In other words, a violent, bloody, and drawn-out conflict is far more likely than an immediate end. Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Endowment aptly summed up the situation well when he wrote:

That the government’s days are numbered can no longer be in serious doubt, but just how many it has left remains an open question. The regime cannot win, but it certainly can resist and prolong the conflict.

The Chinese and Russian vetoes may have reduced the relevance of the United Nations (as Lynch argues) but considering the myriad complications, various interests and past events, the failure of the UNSC to condemn the Syrian government ultimately changes little in what has long-been a tragic situation. Rather, it is simply another step in the slow descent into civil war.

Photo from Voices from Russia

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7 thoughts on ““1980s Lebanon on Steroids”

  1. Several disconcerting thoughts come to mind:

    First, the ability of regimes willing to shoot their own people to survive should never be underestimated – just look at Yemen. Saleh went into retirement on his own terms, leaving his regime behind; not much of a victory for the people;

    Second, the dangers of the Syrian conflict spreading to other countries is beyond calculation, given the propensity of all sides internationally to exploit it for private advantage;

    Third, the breakdown in civil discourse between Russia and the U.S. is reminiscent of the Cold War in that it is likely to generate broader hostilities and thoughtless nationalism rather than leading to international cooperation based on ideals.

    In sum, Syria may be small, but the behavior of all sides regarding this conflict seems likely to transform the Syrian crisis into a real threat–in the current context of a US presidential campaign characterized by an astounding degree of irresponsible rhetoric and Israeli efforts to provoke an attack on Iran–to international peace.

    1. Agreed on many points:
      1) Also look at Egypt. Mubarak is gone but the regime remains.
      2) The potential for Syria to expand into a regional conflict (Israel/US vs. Iran?) is just one reason why it would be greatly damaging for western intervention in Syria. Forget the logistical problems that were not present in Libya; intervention would unleash a major regional problem that would leave the United States strategically weaker.
      3) Perhaps, however the Russia veto here is not really based on nationalism, but rather on Russian interests and ideals. Among other reasons, a major reason why Russia used her veto is that non-intervention has become a major facet of post-USSR Russia policy. This is a type of ideal – not moral, but strategic and representative of the Russian worldview. Non-interventionism, of course, directly contradicts the en vogue western interventionism. These are more of opposing strategic views rather than a Cold War-type struggle.

      In any event, I completely agree that the situation in Syria is much larger than Syria. Considering Iran’s interest in maintaining the Syrian regime, I find it hard to believe that a major intervention by the west would not snowball into a confrontation between the west (including Israel) and Iran – particularly considering the rhetoric that has been used lately. Unfortunately, it has come to the point where I must point out that a war with Iran is probably not a good idea. Probably should be obvious, but…

  2. What discouraging news. I’ve always felt Syria to be one of the most ruthless regimes of the area. Even more discouraging are the actions of Russia and China whose national interests override the interests of the Syrian people. Assad will eventually go but how is the question. Egypt, Syria, Israel, Turkey, and Iran are on the precipice of descent into war where the collateral damage could be the world at arms.

    1. I suppose this is discouraging news, but I am not convinced that this would have changed much. There was as much emphasis on no military intervention in this resolution as the Libya resolution. Ultimately, if this resolution was to be used as a slap on the wrist to Assad, it was not destined to make a difference anyway. If it was to be used to justify a military intervention, such as in Libya, I would have opposed it as well. The regional implications of intervention are far to great and I would not like to see the US get involved in another Middle East war with great regional consequences (see: Iran.) Of course, this does not mean that I support Assad or that I believe that his government’s actions are not abhorrent. They are, but it may be a blessing in disguise for the West that Russia is taking the heat for rejecting this resolution.

  3. Please could you semantically explain to a non English native speaker the expression ”Lebanon on steroids”. It is not clear to me what is meant by it.

    1. Lebanon on steroids is a term referring to the Lebanese Civil War. When something is on steroids, it is stronger, more powerful, etc. Lebanon on steroids would mean that the Syrian civil war would be like the Lebanese version (long, brutal) but worse. Hope that helps and thanks for reading!

  4. Thanks for your interpretation, it was helpful and I came back to your website today
    I bookmarked your website just now.

    Meanwhile I read in WP that there are anabolic steroids, probably that was really meant. They are used by bodybuilders. Probably the idea is that Syria will be pumped (floated) with weapons and other stuff which will keep the civil war on fire and that this civil war is expected to be tougher than that in Lebanon. On one hand, I can image this, knowing the reputation of the regime but on the other hand Arab people assume that Syrians are more cultivated which contradicts this statement.

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