Why We Must Do More Than Just Watch Syria Burn

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 3 2012 5:23 PM

Assad’s Barbaric Endgame

Syria is burning, and there are no easy options. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

Syrian rebel fighters in Aleppo.
Syrian rebel fighters take their position during fighting with government troops in the old city of Aleppo in late September.

Photo by Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images.

Aleppo was burning last week: On YouTube, you could watch the flames consuming the walls of the 600-year-old souk, the central landmark of one of the world's oldest cities. If you looked further, you could also find film of what appears to be Syrian government planes strafing the city and a video made inside the ruins of the passport office in the heart of the historic center. Ominously, Human Rights Watch has documented at least 10 government attacks on bakeries in Aleppo—in other words, attacks on places where people are standing in line for bread.

The bombardment of civilians in Syria is not new. According to the Syrian opposition, at least 30,000 people have been killed since the conflict began 18 months ago. Nor are civilian casualties unusual in a civil war. What are new and unusual—at least in the annals of recent warfare—are the Syrian regime's tactics, which now include the deliberate targeting of civilians. One has to go back to the Battle of Britain or the firebombing of Dresden to find another war in which one side purposefully set out to kill enemy noncombatants—women, children, and the elderly—from the air. But even those comparisons aren't really analogous. Unlike the air forces operating during World War II, Bashar al-Assad isn't trying to kill enemy noncombatants. He's trying to kill his own people.

Several explanations are available for Assad's use of extreme military tactics. Some believe that the Syrian president's strategy is designed not just to defeat the rebels but also to scare off anyone else who might have ever wanted to join them or to persuade his opponents that their cause is futile. Others think he is motivated by bitterness: If he can't control a town or neighborhood, then he prefers to see it reduced to rubble. Some see a grim silver lining in this strategy: If Assad is destroying Aleppo, that may mean he no longer expects to win it back.

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Recently I've also heard another explanation: Aside from creating fear and destroying defiant towns and cities, Assad is deliberately provoking and defying the West in general and the United States in particular. By firing on his own people and carrying out mass slaughter, he is crossing every "red line" the international community has ever set. Each new atrocity sends a message to the Syrian opposition: Nobody in the outside world will help you. By that logic, Assad will soon be using chemical weapons, if only because we've told him not to. And what then? For two days, Assad's armies have been shelling Turkey. Will Nato react to a military attack on one of its members?*

There are no real military options in Syria, and I understand the arguments against arming the rebels. To date, the Syrian opposition has failed to coalesce around a single idea, structure or leadership. Nobody wants to pump more weapons into a region already awash with guns, especially if it's not clear who might wind up using them or for what purpose. Yet keeping our distance does not remove us from the conflict, nor does it absolve us from responsibility for the outcome.

The Syrian civil war is already a sectarian war and may become a proxy war: The authoritarian forces of Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, could wind up fighting a bitter war against Islamists, armed by the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia. If the West is absent, if we can't provide moral and material support for a liberal, secular alternative—a constitution that guarantees minority rights, an inclusive political order and an open economic system—then there might not be one.

We are not entirely powerless. Some areas of Syria, abandoned by the Assad regime, are now controlled by local coordination committees. We should be there to help them—and not just with emergency aid. Some months ago, I argued that Syrians should start thinking about transitional justice: how, exactly, former regime allies would be treated if the rebels win; and how victims would be compensated. But it's also possible to start thinking, now, about the economics of postwar Syria, a country whose budgets will be drained and whose infrastructure is in ruins. By focusing on concrete problems, the opposition, the rebels and the coordination committees may find that they can unify around the solutions.

It sounds absurd to plan for the post-Assad future while Assad is devastating his cities and murdering his citizens. But if no one is proposing a better future, he may win.

Update, Oct. 4, 2012: This paragraph was appended to include the news of tensions between Syria and Turkey. (Return to the updated sentence.)