As the world revolts, the great powers will watch
Civil wars, those raging and those yet to come, present the largest immediate threat to human societies. Some have similar roots, but there is no overall unifying cause; except, perhaps, a conviction that the conflict is a fight to oblivion. Victory or death.
Syria currently leads in this grisly league. Deaths now total well over 100,000 in the war between the country’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad,and opposition forces. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported nearly 126,000 dead last month, and said it was probably much higher. More than 2 million Syrians have left their country as refugees, and 4.25 million have fled their homes to other parts of Syria. Last week, a report by three former war crime prosecutors alleged that some 11,000 prisoners had been tortured, many to death, in “industrial scale killing” by the regime of President Assad.
We are watching a relentless horror unfold. The current negotiations between the various factions of the opposition and the Assad government in Montreux may have saved some women and children from the besieged city of Homs, but at the core remains a presently insuperable clash of aims: the regime insists that Assad remain in power, the opposition that he depart immediately. Assad’s forces appear to have the advantage.
Support from Iran and Russia for Assad’s forces is steady and significant. A Reuters report earlier this month said that aid from Russia was increasing. Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA, said in Washington last month that an Assad win might be the best “out of three very very ugly options.”
Another ugly option — according to Hayden the most likely — is continuing conflict between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam factions. It could create a larger civil war, dragging one Muslim country after another into deepening conflict over the two branches’ differing interpretations of the legacy of the Prophet Mohammad. The Shi’ite, the minority in the Muslim world, is the majority in Iraq. There the Sunni minority, which had been the most loyal supporters of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, are attacking Shi’ite centers and provoking counter attacks.
Yet in two other Muslim states, the feud is largely irrelevant. In Afghanistan the Shi’ite are no more than 5 to 10 percent of the population. The growing power of the Taliban — once thought defeated by a NATO intervention a decade ago — now threatens the central government, whose authority and armed forces are proving inadequate to the task of taking over from NATO once its troops withdraw this year. An unannounced civil war is already under way as the prize of state power once more seems achievable.
In Egypt, the Shi’ite are an even smaller community. The conflict there is between the supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and the army-dominated state power. The latter’s leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will likely stand for president in an election brought forward in a bid to establish stability, while numbers of deaths and arrests at Brotherhood demonstrations grow. The Brotherhood still has wide support. As the economic situation deteriorates in Egypt, a wider conflict is still possible — this time pitting poorer, rural areas against both the military and their urban supporters.
A similar split runs through Thailand’s politics — except that the rural poor support the present government of Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was dismissed from power by the military in 2006. Shinawatra remains popular in the countryside because redistribution policies played to their benefit, but the city dwellers charge his administration with rampant corruption and have forced the postponement of elections that were scheduled for February 2, which Shinawatra was thought sure to win.
In the new nation of South Sudan, the government of President Salva Kiir last week signed a ceasefire agreement with the forces of his former vice president Riek Machar. Almost instantly, both sides accused the other of breaking the agreement. Now a return to hostilities seems likely. The two men come from rival tribes. The new nationhood of their country has been too weak and there is too much in contention between them to unite them in support of the state, and to rule out a struggle for power.
In Ukraine a division between EU supporters and the government widens and compromise efforts fail. President Viktor Yanukovich, faced with a revived protest movement over the past few weeks, offered the premiership to an opposition figure. The opposition rejected the offer as “poisoned.” Protesters have occupied the Justice Ministry in Kiev and mounted demonstrations in cities in Ukraine’s east, an area traditionally aligned with Russia.
A civil war in a country that straddles the divide between Russian and European civilizations is today possible. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez’s legacy, presided over by his successor, Nicolas Maduro, also endeavors to woo an opposition that won’t soften. The army had been solidly behind Chavez, himself a military officer. It is less loyal now to Maduro, who has neither élan nor success on his side.
Little can be done about these and other conflicts. Intervention — aside from an occasional foray, as French forces still fighting Islam extremists in Mali attest — is now shunned rather than embraced. The impetus for peace must come from within. This is the emerging shape of the present world, which, sooner or later, will be settled by superior force — as was the civil war in Sri Lanka, five years ago. We have learned that non-intervention has as many, or even more, victims as intervention. Yet the rich world will watch, send aid, keep out.
PHOTO: Protesters, who are against the Syrian government, demonstrate outside the United Nations building in Geneva, as international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi holds talks with a Syrian government delegation led by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem January 24, 2014. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi