The continuing deterioration of the political situation in Syria led the emir of Qatar to suggest last week that it would be appropriate to send in Arab troops to stop the killing. How seriously he meant this suggestion remains unclear. He may have offered this as a practical proposal, or merely was sending a political message that the Arab world could not wait forever as Syrians are killed by the dozen every day.
The Arab League will meet in Cairo this weekend to assess its month-long mission of monitors whose presence in Syria has not slowed down the killing. Whether the league tinkers with its strategy and tries to enhance the efficacy of the monitors, or gives up and refers the Syrian situation to the United Nations Security Council, makes little difference for the moment. For in both cases the bigger issue that looms is the question of whether or not to send in foreign troops or take other measures to stop the deaths in Syria.
This is really two separate questions: Is it realistic and desirable to have foreign troops involved in Syria? The Syrian National Council (SNC), a consortium of opposition groups, is calling on Arab and foreign governments to start thinking of creating a safe haven along Syria’s northern and southern borders, or even designated “cities of refuge,” where Syrian government troops cannot attack citizens. This would not be feasible without the direct participation of foreign troops, mostly from the air enforcing a no-fly zone, for starters. There is no consensus now among the Arab countries for doing this, and such a consensus seems an absolute prerequisite for any such move to be seriously considered.
Syrian opposition figures speak of the experiences in Kosovo and Bosnia in recent decades, when foreign troops protected local civilians, as precedents that could be emulated in Syria. Foreign- or Arab-enforced safe havens along the borders would allow many more troops or civilian officials to defect from their current positions and join the opposition, which would hasten the fall of the regime. Combined with this would be a series of political and diplomatic gestures that Arab and foreign governments could make, including holding regular working meetings with the SNC and ultimately recognizing it formally as the official representative of the Syrian people, a sort of government-in-exile.
The different options that other governments have for engaging with the Syrian opposition is crucially important for those Syrians who are trying to bring down their government. That is because this is seen as the most feasible way under the current circumstances to convince President Bashar Assad that he must step aside and make way for a new democratic and pluralistic governance system in the country.
The current situation is a stalemate, similar to one in Yemen. Rebels and demonstrators express strong opposition to the regime, but the regime is also able to muster considerable assets (troops and money, mainly) to kill, beat back or intimidate enough demonstrators to maintain the Assad regime in power. Breaking this stalemate is the top priority of many in the Syrian opposition, who recognize that the current level of demonstrations and limited defections from the armed forces or civil service will not be enough to bring down the regime.
There are also considerations of precedence for those who might be pondering sending foreign troops. Other countries experiencing similar tensions and death sprees as Syria might also ask for foreign armed intervention to protect civilians. The Qatari emir’s call for sending Arab troops to Syria sends the signal that this once inconceivable idea will not always remain beyond the realm of the possible. The technical issues of how to intervene to assist Syrian civilians and opposition groups are the least complicated. The really hard obstacle now is the political dimension of whether it is wise to consider such a move.
The conclusion I draw from all this reinforces what I have been thinking and saying since the first demonstrators started against the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes a year ago: Syria suffers many of the same problems and conditions that were evident in both countries (poverty, lack of democracy, corruption, a widespread sense of indignity and anger among the citizenry), and therefore is not immune to their fate.
The Libyan situation offered examples of a phased process of opposition organization and international intervention. It is true to say, as we hear daily, that Syria is not Libya. But it now seems correct also to say that Syria is increasingly looking like Libya in the trajectory of opposition moves and regime responses that is now increasingly triggering talk of drastic interventions and measures to save civilian lives.
Rami G. Khouri is a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist. This article first appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on Jan. 21, 2012