Last week the long awaited United Nation’s report into the assassination of former Lebanese president Rafik Hariri was made public. While the report shied away from casting direct blame on Syria’s president Bashar al Assad, it leaves no doubt that there was direct Syrian involvement in this horrible crime. The report recommends further investigation which requires the assistance of the Syrian regime. This seems very unlikely.
This is possibly the last straw for the United States in a long list of Syrian delinquency. These include graciously hosting numerous Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas; continuing to support Hezbullah, stirring up trouble on Israel’s northern border and providing a conduit for terrorists seeking to cause destruction in Iraq.
Speculation is rife that America will bring Syria before the Security Council for its continued bad behaviour. There is a very real possibility that economic sanctions will be imposed. While I whole-heartily support the international community’s (really the West’s) intentions to punish Syria, history has shown that economic sanctions are not an effective tool. Saddam Hussein’s evil regime survived quite comfortably under a decade of international sanctions. Rather it was the innocent Iraqi people who bore the economic hardship. Thus a more effective policy in the form of regime change is required.
Not only is the Syrian regime a threat to its neighbours, Iraq, Israel and Lebanon but he is also a menace to his own people. Although Syria has a constitution that in theory should protect the rights of its citizens, a state of emergency has been in place since the 1960’s effectively giving the government absolute authority. More than 4 decades of martial law has reduced Syria to one of the most unfree countries in the world. According to freedom house, an independent organisation that monitors freedom around the world, on a scale of 1-7 from free to unfree, Syria scores a whopping 7. It has no free press, no real opposition parties and uncontested presidential elections. Moreover like most totalitarian regimes the Syrian government from time to time murders any potential political opponents. In fact last year 30 Kurds were killed in cold blood by security forces for staging a protest against the government.
Dictatorial regimes like Mr Assad’s need more than a slap on the wrist to encourage reform. The only way to deal effectively with them is expulsion. ‘Well you might ask who will replace Assad? Maybe they will be worse. A weak Assad promotes stability.’ I acknowledge these concerns. Unfortunately the American military is stretched to capacity in Iraq and it seems very unlikely that Europe will shoulder the burden of a long term Iraqi style occupation of Syria. So the only option is an internal coup.
Last week a liberal Israeli newspaper reported that some high ranking members of the Syrian armed forces had approached the Bush administration about a possible over-throw of the Assad regime. (These reports were subsequently denied by Syrian army officials.) I do not think this is the type of regime change that the international community should support. Syria needs a people’s revolution like recently happened in Lebanon and the Ukraine. This type of regime change and democratisation will be a slow process.
It should be managed as follows: First the international community needs to find dissentients who support the idea of a free and democratic Syria. Secondly money and public support needs to be given to these people. The Syrian people need to see them as a credible alternative to Assad, the Islamists or the military. Thirdly Assad’s monopoly on information needs to be smashed. The Americanw could set up an Arabic language radio station from Iraq to promote the spread of democracy in Syria and expose the brutality of the Assad regime. Lastly Arab public support for the end of Assad’s rule is vital to give the potential democratic revolution in Syria legitimacy.
The international community and particularly America must make it clear that our ultimate policy for Syria is regime change. The wave of international terror since 9/11 has shown us that appeasing dictators in the hope of creating stability only creates more violence. This report poses an incredible opportunity to strike another blow against tyranny and terror in the Middle East. Now is not the time to retreat from the new neoconservative foreign policy.