With recent events in Syria capturing headlines around the world, we have been bombarded with reports and statistics provided by the opposition forces fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian army. Social media reports from the opposition use terminology guaranteed to capture our attention: massacre, genocide, torture, child rape and beheading, to list but a few. Estimates of those killed in any one attack regularly vary by a factor of up to 10 and are always biased to solicit sympathy and concern for the side in the conflict providing them.
With no way to confirm the actual facts, it’s not surprising that each country’s media coverage, including Canada’s, reinforces the natural bias of that country’s attitude toward Syria. We should be conscious of the fact, known by every soldier, that initial reports from every battle are wrong.
This is not to suggest that Mr. Assad isn’t being heavy-handed with opposition forces. On the contrary, he is conducting a military campaign using the superior weapon systems available to him, and has no interest in making this a fair fight. An old Russian military adage says, “Never send a soldier where an artillery round can go first.” Many Syrian officers were trained in Russia and, unfortunately, they frequently follow this advice. If the opposition Free Syrian Army is using civilian population centres for sanctuary and bases for operations, they will be targeted regardless of the inevitable casualties.
Our Western proclivity for anointing a “good” side and vilifying a “bad” side in any conflict has been hasty, as usual. Mr. Assad’s Alawite religious sect makes up just 10 per cent of Syria’s population and its members are considered pagans by many of the country’s Sunnis, who are 75 per cent of the population. Yet, in recent polling funded by the leadership of Qatar (which is currently experiencing frosty relations with Syria), the conclusion was that 55 per cent of Syrians support Mr. Assad.
Meanwhile, numerous countries have dispatched special forces to advise and train the opposition’s Free Syrian Army. Weapons are being paid for by some countries and delivered by others into opposition enclaves. Public support for the uprising by al-Qaeda’s leadership and reports that extremist fighters are showing up with the opposition forces have been conveniently ignored, as was the case in the Libyan conflict. There are even early murmurings that the opposition’s Syrian National Council should be recognized as the country’s legitimate government.
Perhaps it would be a good idea to first determine who we are dealing with in the opposition. It was supposed to be “doctors, lawyers and business people” making up the opposition in Libya – that turned out to be wishful thinking, which should be a red flag as we line up with al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria.
Six weeks ago, the Arab League marched into this melee, anxious to show some muscle after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did the heavy lifting for it during last year’s uprising in Libya. The Arab League called for Mr. Assad to step down, for the imposition of limited sanctions and for a naive deployment by an unarmed observer mission.
Canadians have participated on more observer missions, mostly under a UN mandate, than any other country in the world. I commanded one myself. We know what works and what is doomed to fail. Observer missions only work if the belligerents agree and want to stop fighting. Observers can facilitate communications between the two sides – or three sides, as was the case in the Balkans – host ceasefire discussions, monitor troop locations, arrange for humanitarian aid delivery and many other tasks made possible by the conflict participants’ desire to actually co-operate.
The observer mission deployed by the Arab League, on the other hand, was a joke from the start. With both sides continuing to fight and having no intention to stop, it became a “show and tell” exercise for Mr. Assad’s forces, which actually escorted the observers to see and hear what they wanted them to see and hear. While new to the game of observer missions, it only took the Arab League observers a few days to realize they had been duped into a mission that was guaranteed to fail. In the end, the mission’s boss quit and went home, while the rest took sanctuary in a Damascus hotel.
So what was the Arab League’s next brilliant idea? To get the UN to deploy a joint unarmed observer mission. Was no one in authority, anywhere, paying attention to the fate of the first mission? Perhaps only in Russia and China, which were roundly condemned for vetoing a Security Council resolution that would have authorized the joint mission. Their critics suggested that if only the resolution had passed, we would be on the way to stopping the killing. Wrong! The threat of another observer mission, no matter how “joint,” would not create a meaningful ceasefire. In fact, experience shows it would likely increase the killing, with each side attempting to take as much territory as possible once they believed there was an actual ceasefire on the horizon.
The only solution to the Syrian conflict goes through Moscow. When NATO bombing failed to force an end to the conflict in Kosovo 13 years ago, it was Russian diplomacy that convinced Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his little-damaged security forces from the region. Mr. Assad doesn’t have many supporters these days – it would be wise for Western governments, including Canada, to redirect our efforts from sabre-rattling to coming up with some carrots to convince Vladimir Putin to visit Damascus.
Retired major-general Lewis MacKenzie was the first commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.