Preventing a Syrian Civil War

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Last week, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution on Syria, dealing a blow to the stability of the country and its neighbors. The double veto could even lead to civil war.

The inability of the Security Council to act has created a dangerous political vacuum, sending a clear message to President Bashar al-Assad that he can continue to kill with impunity and signaling to Syrian protesters that they are on their own.

While Russia and China have emphasized dialogue over confrontation and are proposing a more “balanced” resolution, the reality is that the Syrian street has been explicitly calling for the fall of the Assad regime for months.

Russia’s and China’s actions are in many ways a response to the West’s loose interpretation of United Nations resolutions against Libya, which led to military action against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. While the vetoes may give some political satisfaction to Moscow and Beijing, the failed resolution has come at the expense of the people and long-term stability of Syria. This is international politics at its worst.

Since the Security Council began deliberating a resolution on the crisis in Syria in August, the death toll has doubled, rising to more than 2,900, while the number of those missing or in detention has reached the tens of thousands.

Susan E. Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, may hope that “the people of the Middle East can now see clearly which nations have chosen to ignore their calls for democracy and instead prop up desperate, cruel dictators.” Most, however, are likely to see only a collective failure on the part of the international community.

The longer the current situation lasts, the more likely it is that Syria’s delicate ethnic and sectarian fabric will be torn apart. Opposition figures, including those from the Muslim Brotherhood, are fearful of increasing reprisals against the Alawite and Christian elite, which they would be unable to prevent.

The government’s efforts to sow strife, including a spate of assassinations of academics and a campaign of rape targeting women and girls in predominantly Sunni towns, is making nonviolent protest seem untenable to the opposition.

The West’s strategy at the United Nations has so far focused on opening up Syria to international scrutiny — to bear witness and report on the atrocities there. But within the Syrian National Council there is growing talk — in private for now — of the need for the protection of civilians “by any means necessary.” These means would include international monitors, but could extend to the establishment of safe zones for civilians, and if necessary the establishment of a no-fly zone, or even as a last resort, foreign boots on the ground.

Washington has instead continued to pursue a strategy of “leading from behind.” It does so in part out of a belief that a more gung-ho approach may in fact deflect from efforts by members of the opposition’ and paint them as the West’s stooges, as the government has claimed. But as the killings mount, this policy is merely heightening suspicions that America is not serious about supporting the protests and preparing for a post-Assad Syria.

This strategy is not working. America and Europe must push Syria’s neighbors to support punitive measures against Assad and apply diplomatic pressure on Russia and China.

Russia’s warning after the United Nations vote that Mr. Assad should carry out reforms and restore peace or face “some kinds of decisions” from Russia presents an opening. Arab states were crucial in pressuring Russia and China when it came to achieving effective United Nations action in Libya and must do the same now.

Washington should also encourage Turkey to play a more forceful role; the increasingly exasperated Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now seems more likely to do that. Specifically, Turkey should reduce trade with Syria and place targeted sanctions on the government.

The United States should also recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate opposition leadership of the Syrian people and encourage key Arab, regional and European powers to do the same. The decision by European foreign ministers on Monday to welcome the council as “a positive step forward” is a useful riposte to Syrian threats against those who formally recognize the group, but it does not go far enough.

The Syrian National Council’s 230-member body represents a broad and inclusive, if imperfect, cross-section of the Syrian opposition — including secularists, Islamists and, critically, the young generation of street protesters risking their lives. International recognition would make it more effective and send a strong signal of support to the opposition.

In addition, the United States should push the Syrian National Council to be as inclusive as possible, particularly in attracting members of the Alawite and Christian communities.

Determined American diplomacy can still prevent the pressing danger that these communities, unable to live with their losses and fearful of the future, will resort to violence.

Syria’s combustible ethnic mix was once grounds for American hesitation in supporting the opposition; now, with violence spiraling out of control, it has become a reason for further American involvement.

If the United States and its European and regional allies do not act quickly, Syria will descend into chaos.