According to William Hague, the UK is heavily engaged in international efforts to bring an end to the Syria crisis, but are we really "standing by the Syrian people", or are we merely standing back?
Over a year ago fifteen children were arrested for spraying anti-Assad graffiti on walls in the town of Daara in the South of Syria. Held and tortured for over a week, they were returned to their homes bloodied and severely beaten, some had had their finger nails removed. The oldest of the group was only seventeen; some were as young as twelve.
Encouraged by the images and messages of the Arab Spring, the people of Daara began a protest that would soon engulf the country, but hopes of democratic change have been mercilessly trampled by the Assad regime. According to the UN, the uprising so far has seen the deaths of over 12,000 people, mostly civilians. As early as July 2011 UN spokesmen acknowledged that the repression of the Syrian uprising was increasingly characterised by indiscriminate violence and that the "scale and gravity of the violations indicate a serious possibility that crimes against humanity may have been committed and continue to be committed".
In response, the UK has led the way on EU sanctions that block Syrian oil exports. Britain has also targeted Syrian individuals within the regime by freezing assets in the UK and abroad, and according to the Foreign Minister, Britain is currently providing 'practical and political support to the Syrian opposition'. Furthermore, the UK is working hard with international partners to negotiate a UN Security Council Resolution that demands an end to the violence, free access for humanitarian assistance, and an Arab-League coordinated peace process. This appears to be the only logical diplomatic way forward, but at the moment is being frustrated by the China and Russia veto.
However, for over a year now diplomatic and economic approaches have failed to put an end to the crackdown, and as the death toll in Syria rises, a Libya-style military solution is being seriously considered.
It has been argued that a military intervention in Syria would be more in tune with British interests than the NATO campaign in Libya, since Syria is Iran's major regional ally. Therefore, toppling the Assad regime would enable the UK to tighten the noose around Iran's arms imports and isolate Tehran within the region at large.
The reality is that the Syrian situation is probably beyond the means of the UK and her NATO allies. Unlike Libya, Syria is highly sectarian which would undermine opportunities of forming a unified national government after the fall of Assad, and would risk a repeat of the post-Saddam Hussein insurgencies that discredited the conflict in Iraq. Equally, with continuing military efforts in Afghanistan, it seems highly unlikely that the UK and NATO have the capacity to finance the large-scale reconstruction and stabilization effort that Syria would require after an international military intervention.
Furthermore, repercussions for the region at large would almost certainly explode from a military intervention. The potential for groups such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas to capitalise on future insurgencies, and the possibility of the involvement of bigger national players, such as Iran and Russia, make any military strategy highly risky. Moreover, the enormous commitments required for a lasting reconstruction effort post-conflict would almost certainly be to Britain's comparative disadvantage with Iran. In this case therefore, military intervention merited by security concerns emanating from Tehran would be nullified.
The internal situation is also highly complicated. Unlike Libya, there has been no unified request for international intervention from the Syrian opposition which is lacking is any viable consensus over national unity or the future balance of power. Such a lack of consent would surely bedevil any military intervention as it has the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least in the eyes of the increasingly skeptical British public. Equally, there is no strong backing of the Arab League for military action, exposing the internal contradictions of this regional organization and undermining the credible alternative of any NATO intervention.
That Britain and NATO lack the capacity for decisive political and military action is telling of their diminishing ability to dictate geopolitical events. Despite the fact that the Syrian uprising has witnessed a scale and class of crimes demanding a decisive international response, Britain is forced to stand back. The reliance on rather ineffective diplomatic and economic efforts will continue to be undermined by international commitments to the UN Security Council veto mechanism, and ultimately by Russia and China, who have not only blocked international sanctions, but continue to supply the Assad regime with arms. Unless the Assad regime puts down its weapons and opens a constructive dialogue with its opposition, or the Arab League takes a more assertive stance in challenging the regime, the Syria crisis will not be resolved. The UK meanwhile, will have to stand back and watch further atrocities unfold.