By: Ronny Choi Since its start in 2011, the Syrian conflict has escalated and indirectly involved various countries with conflicting interests. While it initially resulted from the suppression of protests by the Assad government, the conflict has developed into a full-scale civil war between the pro-government military and the various rebel forces operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella group. As of June 17, it is believed that the death toll of the conflict has reached 93,000.[i]
At face value, it is easy to label the Syrian conflict as the latest of the Arab Spring movements. The conflict seems like another revolution against an authoritarian regime. However, unlike other Arab Spring revolutions the nature of this conflict differs in the sustainability of the war effort by the regime in power. To begin with, the Assad regime has used a range of heavy weapons and deployed a well-equipped air force.[ii] On the international level, the Assad regime has the political support of Russia, which has supplied arms to the regime.[iii] Unlike the regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Syrian government has had the military strength to maintain a drawn-out conflict, preventing swift overthrow by revolutionaries.
On the other hand, the US, which has only provided indirect aid to the rebels, but has pledged to increase its assistance, including military support, due to the Assad regime using chemical weapons against the rebels.[iv]
However, recent events preceding the G8 conference, which centered on this conflict, have suggested that foreign military intervention is unlikely. Prior to the ongoing G8 conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly disagreed with the US stance on providing support to anti-Assad rebels. At the same time, Putin called attention to the “compliance to the norms of international law” of Russia’s aid to the Assad regime.[v] He also countered the US claims of chemical weapons use and appealed to international concerns about extremist rebel groups, citing in a pathos-loaded argument an instance of rebel cannibalism.[vi]
The conflicting interests of Russia and the US also put Britain, a traditional US ally in foreign and Middle Eastern affairs, in a difficult position. Britain’s relations with Russia are already a sensitive issue considering the recent outrage over the British government’s handling of the Alexander Litvinenko murder on British soil.[vii] In light of this, the British leadership may be cautious in advancing British interests. While a confrontational demeanor would be detrimental to British-Russian relations, excessive acquiescence may contradict such nationalistic domestic interests.
The implications for the political landscape of the Middle East, recently host to several pro-democratic Arab Spring movements, are also great. The Syrian conflict has certainly been the most drawn-out movement in the Middle East, and at this stage, the specter of a failed pro-democratic revolution is not unimaginable. Many foreign governments are more concerned with establishing peace, even if this means the current regime stays in power. This is evident in the sense of compromise conveyed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who, instead of taking a hardline stance, sought to find a “common ground,” between US and Russian policy.[viii] Meanwhile, the results of the G8 conference will largely determine the stance that major powers take towards the Syrian conflict.
Ronny Choi is a rising sophomore majoring in political science in the College of Arts and Sciences. His academic interests also include history and philosophy, and he hopes to further explore these subjects in the coming years.
[i] Oweis, Khaled Yacoub. “Putin says West arming Syrian rebels who eat human flesh.” Reuters. Web. Accessed June 17.
[ii] “Who is supplying weapons to the warring sides in Syria?” BBC News. Web. Accessed June 16.
[iii] “G8 meeting: Obama and Putin push for Syria summit.” BBC News. Web. Accessed 17 June.
[iv] “US says it will give aid to Syria rebels.” BBC News. Web. Accessed June 16.
[v] Carter, Chelsea. “Putin Warns US, West against arming rebels.” CNN News. Web. Accessed June 16.
[vi] Oweis, Khaled Yacoub. “Putin says West arming Syrian rebels who eat human flesh.” Reuters. Web. Accessed June 17.
[vii] Harding, Luke. “Alexander Litvinenko’s widow criticizes Vladimir Putin’s Downing St visit.” Guardian News. Web. Accessed June 16.
[viii] “G8 meeting: Obama and Putin push for Syria summit.” BBC News. Web. Accessed 17 June.