Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The bloody death of a country

U.S. intervention only hope for Syria, maybe Middle East

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After the First World War, Syria was hacked from the carcass of the Ottoman empire. After the Second World War, it won its independence. After the fighting that is raging today, it could cease to function as a state.

As the world looks on, or looks away, the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of President Bashar Assad will collapse in chaos. For some time, though, it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs, a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Middle East.

If that happens, millions of lives will be ruined. A fragmented Syria would also feed global jihad and stoke the Middle East's violent rivalries. Assad's chemical weapons, still secure for now, always would be at risk of falling into dangerous hands. This catastrophe would make itself felt across the Middle East and beyond.

And yet the outside world, including America, is doing almost nothing to help.

Part of the reason for the West's hesitance is that, from the start of the uprising in 2011, Assad has embraced a strategy of violence. By attacking the Arab spring with tanks and gunships, he turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militias. By shelling cities, he uprooted his people. By getting his Alawite brethren to massacre the Sunni majority, he has drawn in jihadists and convinced Syrians from other sects to stick with him for fear that his own fall will lead to terrible vengeance.

Syrian blood now flows freely and sectarian hatred is smouldering. The fight could last years. Rebel groups have lately been capturing military bases. They control chunks of the north and east and are fighting in the big cities. But the rebels are rivals as well as allies: They are beginning to target each other, as well as the government's troops.

Even if Assad cannot control his country, he has every reason to fight on. He still enjoys the cult-like devotion of some of his Alawite sect and the grudging support of other Syrians who fear what might come next. He commands 50,000 or so loyal, well-armed troops, and tens of thousands more, albeit less trained and less loyal. He is backed by Russia, Iran and Iraq, which between them supply money, weapons, advice and manpower. Hezbollah, Lebanon's toughest militia, is sending in its fighters, too.

Assad almost certainly cannot win this war, but -- barring an unexpected stroke of fate -- he is still a long way from losing it.

So far the fighting has claimed 70,000 or more lives, with tens of thousands missing. The regime has locked up between 150,000 and 200,000 people. More than two million are homeless inside Syria, struggling to find food and shelter. Almost one million more are living in squalor across the border.

Suffering on such a scale is unconscionable. That was the lesson from the genocides and civil wars that scarred the last half of the past century.

Nonetheless, U.S. President Barack Obama has suggested that saving lives alone is not a sufficient ground for military action. Having learned in Afghanistan and Iraq how hard it is to impose peace, America is fearful of being sucked into the chaos that Assad has created. Obama was elected to win economic battles at home. He believes that a weary America should stay clear of yet another foreign disaster.

That conclusion, however understandable, is mistaken. As the world's superpower, America is likely to be sucked into Syria eventually. Even if the president can resist humanitarian arguments, he will find it hard to ignore his country's interests.

If the fight drags on, Syria will degenerate into a patchwork of warring fiefs. Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction... Unlike, say, the 15-year civil war in Lebanon, Syria's disintegration threatens them all.

About a fifth of the rebels, and some of the best organized, are jihadists. They pose a threat to moderate Syrians, including Sunnis, and they could use lawless territory as a base for international terror. If they menace Israel across the Golan Heights, Israel will protect itself fiercely, which is sure to inflame Arab opinion.

A divided Syria could tear Lebanon apart, because the Assads will stir up their supporters there. Jordan, poor and fragile, will be destabilized by refugees and Islamists. Oil-rich, Shia-majority Iraq can barely hold itself together. As Iraqi Sunnis are drawn into the fray, divisions there will only deepen.

Coping with the fallout from Syria, including Assad's arsenal of chemical weapons, could complicate the aim of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Obama wants to avoid Syria, in short, but Syria will come and get him.

Syria is more dangerous today than it was in October, when there were calls for a no-fly zone in order to ground Assad's air force. Obama's policy of waiting for the conflagration in Syria to burn itself out is failing. Rather than see things deteriorate still further, he should act.

His aim should be to preserve what is left of Syria.

That means trying to convince the people around Assad that their choice is between ruinous defeat and ousting the Assad family as a prelude to talks with the rebels.

A no-fly zone is still needed to ground Assad's air force and destroy some of his missiles. It would be a big, bold signal of America's resolve to Assad's supporters.

America should recognize a transitional government, selected from Syria's opposition. It should arm non-jihadist rebel groups, including with limited numbers of anti-aircraft missiles. France and Britain would back this, even if other Europeans would not.

Russia supports Assad in part to frustrate Obama. Europe and America should keep on trying to tempt it to give him up, by promising it a stake in a liberated Syria.

There are no guarantees that this policy will work, but it will at least build links with the non-jihadist rebels whom America will need as allies in the chaos if Assad stays. Today those moderate Syrians feel utterly abandoned.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 25, 2013 A7

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