For all the controversy surrounding NATO’s intervention in Libya, the ultimate dilemma has surely hit the surface this week as reports of the full extent of Bashar al-Assad’s suppression of anti government protests in Syria come to light.

At least 5,000 people have fled into neighbouring Turkey as government troops continue their assault on the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour. Reports of indiscriminate killing, the burning of crops and calculated assassinations of supposed ringleaders are now finding their way out of a country where Western journalists have been banned.

…the scale of Assad’s father’s Hama massacre of 1982 which resulted in the death of 20,000 of his own people…

Assad is using tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters in a bloody attempt to end calls for liberalisation and democracy that have swept the Middle East since the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia. While this bloodshed might not yet have reached the scale of Assad’s father’s Hama massacre of 1982 which resulted in the death of 20,000 of his own people, it is certainly going in that direction.

…Assad is doing to his people what Gaddafi would like to do…

In a recent article for The Times, Sir Malcolm Rifkind comments that in comparison with Syria, Libya is calm. In many respects, Assad is doing to his people what Gaddafi would like to do. In Jisr al-Shughour, Syria’s ‘Benghazi’, he has maintained the upper hand, not allowing any form of armed resistance to develop. The people of Syria have no chance in the face of a professional army threatened into committing such atrocities against their own people. The Syrian intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, are said to be killing any soldier who refuses to shoot their own people on sight.

So what is that West to do? At the moment, China and Russia are vetoing the United Nations resolution condemning the violence. The US and European governments have condemned the violence on their own terms and imposed what economic sanctions they can, but any talk of military intervention, on a similar level to that in Libya is quickly dispelled.

Britain most certainly does not have the military capabilities to commit to yet another Middle Eastern country. Regardless of this, the long and drawn out conflict that Libya has become, that was foreseen by all but the government, has removed military intervention as a means to deal with such uprisings.

Simply condemning the violence is not going to prevent Assad’s attempts to hold onto his power…

And yet there is an unprecedented humanitarian disaster in Syria that cannot simply be ignored. Surely, had Syria erupted before Libya, we would now have engaged militarily there first. Simply condemning the violence is not going to prevent Assad’s attempts to hold onto power, especially due to the fact that his actions appear to have Iranian backing. So what can we do? In reality, little.

…perhaps the West has no desire to see the back of Assad…

But perhaps there are further reasons why intervention occurred in Libya and has not in Syria. Despite producing small amounts of oil, Syria is due to become a net importer next year, signalling no great economic motivations behind intervention, unlike in Libya. And, perhaps the West has no desire to see the back of Assad.

It is true that he is hardly a desirable character, and yet is this a case of preferring an enemy you know and understand to one you know little of? The Assad regime is secular and therefore does not allow Islamic fundamentalism to develop at a governmental level. Perhaps Western governments have realised the threat of Al Qaeda or affiliated organisations flourishing in Libya, and therefore do they grudgingly see Assad as an asset against such sectarianism? Only time will tell.

 

About The Author

History undergraduate at King's College London. Main interests in diplomacy and international relations but also enjoy writing about home affairs.

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