Is Syria a Terminal Case?
Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow
The world has watched Syria being destroyed from within for more than two years. The death toll has mounted steadily, month after month, and refugees continue to pour into neighbouring countries. The country's infrastructure is being obliterated. With 100,000 dead and likely more to come, millions internally and externally displaced, and thousands imprisoned, injured, maimed, and psychologically scarred, it is getting worse everyday.
It isn’t getting better politically either. The Assad regime continues to kill indiscriminately in a desperate effort to regain control. The merciless army it has deployed to wipe out dissent is destroying entire rebel-held towns. The horrifying chemical weapons attacks it most likely carried out on innocent civilians may be only a terrible prelude to more massacres.
Syria's secular rebels are losing ground to hardened, better financed fighters with ties to networks that provide them with superior weapons to take on the regime. Radicals from around the world have been pouring into Syria to fight the regime under the al-Qaeda banner. The watching international community repeatedly talks of ‘reconciliation’ even as the armed parties express their willingness to kill or be killed to "liberate the country". Whatever their cause, the fighters speak of having only one choice: “Victory or death”.
How do we stop Syria’s sickness from worsening?
Do we continue to try any and all international legal means, akin to intravenous medicine, to urge or cajole or coerce the parties to find a peaceful resolution? When do we stop trying to force feed a patient who refuses to try to get better? The Assad regime refuses to go and refuses to negotiate with the rebels it deems terrorists. The rebels refuse to come to the table until Assad agrees to resign. The radicals are content to wage war city by city, creating new fiefdoms for its grand international design. Some Syrians loathe the regime, others the rebels, but all agree that the foreign radicals cannot under any circumstance be allowed take over their country. After two years of war, many Syrians hate all three armed groups and have lost hope that the strength to cure their illness lies within.
If we can't administer the legal medicine, do we try surgery? Do we first try to knock out Assad’s favourite strategy of aerial assault, then cut out government entirely? Or do we undertake multiple operations, taking out military airports and chemical weapons depots while arming the rebels to give the secular forces a fighting chance to overthrow the regime themselves? The rebels complain they are only lightly armed and have little chance of succeeding without surface to air missiles to combat Assad’s planes. If we leave the regime alone and hold back support for the rebels, will the radicals be the only ones to leave the operating room alive and thriving? All we know for certain is that we have no good options when it comes to dealing with the growing al-Qaeda presence. Cell growth in one country can sometimes be slowed or stopped, but the radicals then simply move to another host.
Most importantly, who has the right to decide Syria’s fate? Syrians themselves? The United Nations Security Council? A ‘coalition of the willing’? The Arab League?
The answer is none of the above. No outside force has a right to tell the Syrian people that some will be sacrificed to save the future of Syria. No Syrian has the legitimacy to sacrifice one neighbour to save the other. There is an inherent moral dilemma that has no ethical, just or right answer. Which is why while Syria's sickness may not be incurable, it is getting easier and easier to diagnose it as a terminal case.
Syria is deteriorating each day that goes by and no one seems to know how to help. Having personally seen the beautiful castle on top of the hill of Aleppo, the water wheels of Hama, the bustling markets of Damascus, and most importantly the creativity, ambition, and charisma of the Syrian people, I can only weep at a nation that has become unrecognizable.