Thursday, March 7, 2013

al-Jazerra's Hadith ath-Thawra: a Discussion of Arab League and US Policy in Syria

Today I was a guest on al-Jazeera's Hadith ath-Thawra together with Hesham Marawah, of the Syrian opposition's National Coalition in Istanbul, Faisal Abdelsattar, a pro-government spokesman in Beirut, and Dr. Fawaz Gerges, Director of the University of London's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

 While the main topics of discussion were the Arab League's recent decision to legalize arming the Syrian opposition and the US' position on arming the Syrian insurgents, the main question to which the discussion constantly returned is the one everyone is asking. How can the killing be stopped and the conflict resolved?

In response to questions directed at me, I indicated the Obama administration is loathe to become directly involved in the Syrian conflict, one that increasingly is taking the form of a regional conflict with strong sectarian overtones.  The American experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the current US fiscal crisis, have created a powerful disincentives to the Obama administration committing material resources, let alone US troops, to the Syrian conflict.  Fears that American weapons could fall into the hands of radicals hostile to the US has only strengthened  its reluctance to adopt a policy of arming the Syrian opposition.

Everyone agreed with Dr. Gerges that the solution to the conflict must occur within an international framework that includes all the important actors.  However, we know that Russian and China have worked to thwart such an international effort.  Meanwhile, Mr. Abdelsater argued that the Arab League decision will only lead to more "armed terrorists" within Syria and do nothing to solve the crisis.  Mr. Marawah retorted that, unfortunately, President Bashar al-Asad only understands the language of violence.  While the violence is unfortunate, Asad refuses to agree to meaningful negotiations with the Syrian National Coalition, a point with which I agreed.

My argumemt was that the United States should take the lead in enforcing an "no-fly" zone over Syria (al-hisar al-jawi) that would prevent Syria's air force from continuing to mount air attacks on on civilian targets, which to date have killed thousands of innocent women, men and children.  An internationally imposed "no fly zone" would certianly be oppoosed by Russia and Syria but could be implemented using a variety of means.

First, the Arab league decision lends legitimacy to such an action since, while suspended, Syria is still technically part of the organization.  Now that the League has legalized supplying arms ot the Syrian opposition, a "no fly zone" takes on a new life.  If the League were to sanction a "no fly zone," then this would facilitate putting together a coalition of Arab and non-Arab nations to enforce it.

Second, Syria has already attacked towns along the Turkish border.  As a member of NATO, and according to the alliance's treaty, an attack on one state constitutes an attack on all members states.  Thus NATO could join with the Arab League in enforcing the "no fly zone."  Any Syrian aircraft, whether jet fighters or helicoptor gun ships, would be shot down were they to take to the air.

Third, the UN could play an important role in creating a "no fly zone" in Syria.  In a speech to the General Assembly on February 12, 2013, the UN Human Rights chief, Navi Pillay, said the Asad regime was guilty of human rights violations for its widespread attacks on the country's civilian population and that the members of the ruling Ba'thist regime should be remanded to the International Criminal Court for trial.

With the Security Council also having chastised the Asad regime for its indiscriminate attacks on Syrian towns and cities, there is also the possibility of seeking a vote in the General Assembly to support a "no fly zone." Even if Russia and China would veto such action in the Security Council, a favorable General Assembly vote would add further legitimacy to imposing a "no fly zone" on Syrian airspace.

Finally, the International criminal Court could gather evidence of human rights violations and begin trials in absentia of President al-Asad and other top officials in the Ba'thist regime.  This would lend further support to the imposition of a "no-fly zone."  If the regime of Saddam Husayn has taught us anything, it is that dictatorial regimes can no longer be allowed to kill massive numbers of their citizenry without any international sanctions.  This type of behavior can no longer be allowed in the 21st century.

A "no fly zone" would demonstrate to the Syria's Ba'thist regime that there is no military solution to the current crisis.  It would lead to a dramatic drop in the number of civilian casualties.  While it would not lead to the immediate collapse of the Asad regime, it would provide a major incentive for it to begin meaningful negotiations designed to lead to a solution to the crisis.  This would entail the the resignation of President Asad and the beginning of a process to bring about democratic elections and national reconciliation.

In addition to lessening the suffering of the Syrian people, negotiations between the Ba'thist regime and the Srian national Coalition would undermine the increasing strength of radical elements in the opposition movement.  These groups would lose much of their appeal.  Finally, the Obama administration would not be required to enter the fray with troops or provide heavy weapons.

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