Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Arming Syrian rebels fraught with risk

Hugo Dixon
Jun 3, 2013 09:04 UTC

The UK, France and maybe America are edging towards a policy of arming Syria’s “moderate” rebels if planned peace talks with the Assad regime don’t produce a breakthrough. The idea would be to tilt the civil war in favour of moderates and against both Assad’s Iranian-backed regime and al Qaeda-style jihadists. But the scheme, while superficially attractive, is fraught with risk.

The West’s three nuclear powers clearly don’t have much appetite for intervention in Syria. Nobody is pushing for an Iraqi or Afghan-style invasion. There is also precious little desire to impose a Libyan-style no-fly zone – not least because it would be impossible to get United Nations’ authority for such a policy given Russia’s steadfast support for the Assad regime.

The West is anyway struggling to clarify why it should get involved in this increasingly grisly sectarian war. Syria doesn’t have much oil or gas, unlike Libya and Iraq. Nor is Assad threatening the West with al Qaeda-style attacks. It could even be argued, on the basis of realpolitik, that it could be in the West’s interests if Sunni jihadists and the Iran-Assad-Hezbollah Shi’ite axis exhausted each other in an orgy of mutual destruction.

There are, though, two reasons why the West might not wish to stand by as the death toll, already over 80,000, climbs ever higher. First, civil wars have a tendency to drag on. The one in neighbouring Lebanon, where I spent last week, lasted 15 years and left over 120,000 dead. Given Syria is about five times Lebanon’s size, a similar rate of killing would result in more than 600,000 deaths. Although humanitarian considerations are rarely the driver of foreign policy, it would be good if Western intervention really could cut the killing of innocent people – admittedly a big “if”.

The second, more hard-headed reason for the West not washing its hands of Syria is concern for spillover effects. There are already signs of Lebanon being sucked into the conflict: Hezbollah-dominated areas have seen rocket attacks and skirmishes with Syrian rebels in recent days.

How to help the Syrians

Hugo Dixon
Feb 20, 2012 09:17 UTC

When the Syrian revolution began, the activists employed almost entirely non-violent tactics. They also rejected the idea of foreign intervention. Nearly a year on, the revolution’s character has changed. There are still protests, boycotts, strikes and funeral marches. But the opposition’s main strategy for overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become one of out-muscling it. To achieve that, it is calling for military help from abroad – a request that will be pressed when the Friends of Syria, a contact group of mainly Arab and Western countries, meet in Tunis later this week.

The switch in strategy is understandable, though regrettable. The endless killing and torture have taken their toll. Homs, Hama and several other cities are being bombarded by Assad’s forces in what look like medieval sieges and could have similar grisly outcomes. The people worry they will be massacred if they don’t take up arms to defend themselves. Meanwhile, they have seen how foreign military intervention in Libya tipped the balance there and got rid of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

The Assad regime probably likes the fact that the opposition has embraced armed struggle. This solidifies its support among its core constituency – the Alawites, who represent about 10 percent of the population – as well as other minorities such as Christians. The regime can argue it has to hit back hard, otherwise it will be massacred. What’s more, it has seen brutality work in the past. Assad’s father survived a rebellion in Hama 30 years ago after killing around 20,000 people.

A breakthrough year for nonviolence

Hugo Dixon
Dec 19, 2011 04:38 UTC

The views expressed are his own.

The most electrifying event of the year, for me, was the Egyptian revolution. I’d long had an interest in Gandhian-style struggles. Here was a nonviolent struggle unfolding in real-time against Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. Tens of millions of people were gaining their freedom.

The media coverage of the events in Tahrir Square focused on the Facebook revolution. But when I went to Cairo shortly after, I discovered that the use of social media was only part of the reason why the dictator had been toppled. Behind the protests was a cadre of activists who had been trained in the techniques of nonviolent struggle. This realization was a eureka moment. If it was possible to overthrow dictators with comparatively little bloodshed – less than a thousand died in Egypt’s revolution — many millions more elsewhere might be able to gain their freedom given proper planning and training.

2011 was a banner year for nonviolent struggle. Not only did it witness the successful Arab Spring revolutions against dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen; it also saw three Arab kings – in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait — liberalize their political systems to head off similar protests. And the brave people of Syria went out on the streets again and again, despite being arrested, tortured and killed in their thousands.