The International Community and the Syrian Revolution

The Syrian revolution is more than fifteen months old, with the average number of Syrian civilians and combatants (from both anti- and pro-regime forces) killed rising higher every day, yet many still find themselves unable to agree on how to respond to the crisis. The international community remains powerless to halt the slaughter, the complexity of the situation in Syria contributing to its reluctance to fulfil its obligations and help protect the Syrian people.

However, a proper understanding of the international community’s position on the revolution must begin with a quick review of the measures it has taken against the Syrian regime. These measures and sanctions should be viewed from the perspective of the regional geo-political balances of power if we are to clearly understand the reasoning behind the international community’s reluctance.

I. Regional interventions in the Syrian revolution

The Assad regime’s refusal to surrender power, no matter what the cost, coupled with its inability to ensure its own survival unaided, led it to solicit friendly foreign intervention in the form of the Russian-Chinese-Iranian axis. In response, the US-European axis came together, in concert with Turkey and some Arab states. But it lacks the level of coordination which exists within the pro-Assad axis.

Despite repeated attempts by the Arab, regional and international communities to set out initiatives that would help the regime surpass the crisis, it was soon clear that Assad had no intention of permitting any solution that came from outside Syria itself. Syria became a battlefield, a place where international and regional scores were settled, which further added to the complexity of the country’s political situation: no longer just a struggle between an oppressive regime and a revolutionary people, the conflict took on far reaching regional and international dimensions.It now became clear to the majority of Syrians that resolving the battle for Syria (a battle that was so far confined within the country’s borders) required an international and regional consensus. Support for the revolution was no longer simply a matter of supporting a people fighting for their basic rights, but rather an excuse to intervene in a wider struggle for influence in the region.

Some Western and Arab states regarded what was taking place in Syria as an opportunity to marginalize Syria’s dedicated allies, Russia and Iran. In other words, a proxy war against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe. Russia and China meanwhile were extremely effective in frustrating efforts by the US and its European and Arab allies to pass a UN Security Council resolution that would grant them yet another foothold in the Middle East and bolster the West’s military presence in the Mediterranean region. Iran’s unlimited support for the Syrian regime, exemplified by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s statement that his country would defend its regional ally no matter the cost, can be best understood by examining the consequences of Assad’s fall, i.e.: Iran would lose one of its most important strategic allies in the region.

Many Syrians believe that while the survival of the revolution depends on Syrians themselves, the fall of Assad depends on a regional - international consensus. It is the Syrian’s duty to keep the flame of the revolution burning through peaceful demonstrations until a consensus can be reached.

II. Arab and international sanctions

With the Syrian regime persisting in its use of excessive force against its population, and in light of the international community’s unwillingness to stage a military intervention in the country, the US, EU and Arab League imposed a wide-ranging set of sanctions on the country. These included travel bans on members of the Assad family & Syrian officials, freezing their bank accounts and assets, an embargo on the purchase of Syrian oil and degrading Syria’s cyber-capabilities. The EU recently drew up a list of fourteen products that cannot be sold to Syria, including luxury goods and information technology capable of being used for internal repression. It also imposed partial diplomatic isolation.

It should be mentioned that these sanctions have not met with the full support of the Syrian opposition. Those who doubt the need for sanctions and their efficacy, claim that they only damage the revolution itself. The regime knows how to look after itself. It has long experience in the use of smuggling networks, not to mention the fact that both Lebanon and Iraq voted against the Arab sanctions, while Jordan abstained. On the international level, Russia, China and Iran continue to supply material, technological and military support to the regime.[1]

Supporters of sanctions, meanwhile, are left hoping that the measures can yet create a stranglehold on the regime, leaving it unable to fund its anti-revolutionary operations, while pressuring Syrian businessmen to abandon their support for the regime.

Despite the almost total lack in availability of economic figures, and thanks to the regime’s information blackout, there are a few indicators that give us a picture of how hard things are in Syria; a sense of the undeniably dreadful depths of the crisis. The most obvious, and perhaps most important of these are IMF figures which show that the Syrian pound has declined to 45% of its value at the outbreak of the revolution.[2] Large sums have been withdrawn from private bank accounts and the cost of everyday goods has risen to unprecedented levels. It is clear that Syria has begun to encounter some grave economic problems.Yet we should remember that many Syrians regard economic sanctions by themselves as incapable of forcing the regime to make meaningful concessions, let alone to precipitate its fall. If a solution to the crisis is to be reached, these sanctions must be accompanied by serious international pressure.

III. The Responsibility to Protect

The current Syrian crisis is a perfect case study of how the principle of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) could be used to justify international intervention.[3] The Syrian regime, which is continuously carrying out acts of violence against its vulnerable and isolated civilian population, has essentially ignored its duty to protect its citizens. Between the outbreak of the revolution in March 2011 and May 12, 2012, the Syrian security forces killed at least 12,782 individuals and detained 24,319 more (figures from the Centre for the Documentation of Human Rights Violations in Syria[4]). The government’s forces have bombarded densely populated residential areas with artillery fire, deployed snipers and helicopter gunships against civilians and tortured injured protestors in hospitals.

These violations are crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The Syrian regime has failed to carry out its duty to protect its civilian population, so this responsibility now passes to the international community.[5]

But the international community still hesitates to accept this responsibility, for the following reasons:

1.      Concern over the form that a post-revolution government might take. This includes the fear of potential internal and regional instability and the new government being dominated by Islamists, as has occurred in other post-revolution Arab countries. This is exacerbated by the internal disputes within of the Syrian opposition which is preventing it from devising a road map which would reassure the international community and Syrians who have not declared support for the revolution because they fear an uncertain future.

2.      Past experience with military intervention in other countries: The continued instability of Libya and the Libyan state’s inability to impose its authority and disarm the population. The Libyan model acts as a powerful disincentive to any form of direct military intervention, especially to many in Europe.

3.      Doubts over the effectiveness of indirect military intervention[6], given the fact that the opposition does not possess a centralized military force. There are also concerns over the consequences of arming the extremist Islamist groups that have recently sprung up in Syria.

4.      A preference for transition over toppling with a decisive blow: A gradual process would give foreign states time to readjust and safeguard their interests in the region.

5.      Israeli interests and Israel’s influence on American interests. From Israel’s perspective, the priority is not to protect a people being slaughtered on a daily basis but rather to minimise the impact of regime change on Israeli security.

6.      Domestic concerns: The US’s reluctance to take the lead in calling for a halt to violence, largely due to the upcoming presidential elections. Obama is looking to secure a second term and does not need the complications that will result from escalating his involvement in Syria.

7.      Economic reasons: The economic crisis in the EU and US and its impact on the international community’s willingness to foot the bill for military intervention in Syria.

8.      Sole focus on military intervention: The focus of the Syrian opposition and the international community on military intervention, which is undesirable in the current situation, is preventing them from exploring other forms of intervention.

All this is true, yet it does not excuse the international community’s unwillingness to shoulder its duty to the Syrian people. The international community is more than capable of overcoming its reservations if it senses a real threat to its security or its interests. In Libya, for instance, the international community took the decision to intervene militarily comparatively quickly, despite the objections of both Russia and China. Yet now they seem incapable of passing a Security Council resolution simply because it presents a direct threat to the interests of certain states while offering others an opportunity.

IV. The Syrian revolution

The international community tends to justify its failure by pointing to the lack of a unified opposition or a viable political alternative to the Assad regime and the Russian and Chinese veto in the Security Council. The debate over the Syrian crisis is always being sidelined by such details, when in fact it should be focussed on the reality of a population that faces death daily for demanding the basic rights of freedom, justice and equality.

This should be the essence of the issue, yet it is mostly ignored by international actors. They choose to concentrate on their fears, most of which involve comparing Syria with other Arab states such as Libya and Iraq. They express concerns about the potential for civil war and engage in doom-laden speculation and analysis based for the most part on ignorance of what is already taking place in Syria. These fears are only enhanced by the increasing tendency of the Western and Arab media to portray the revolution as sectarian and Salafist.

Yet all these political complexities, all these worrying projections of the country’s future, are by and large a direct product of, on the one hand, the regime’s increasingly repressive actions and excessive use of violence, and on the other, the international community’s unwillingness to lend support to the revolution and its legitimate demands. Of course, the traditional Syrian opposition must also bear some responsibility for failing to rise to the occasion and unite in order to provide a clear focus for international efforts to aid the Syrian people. It has failed to produce a convincing discourse or a clear road map for a post-Assad dispensation.

The regime’s continued use of violence against its people and the traditional opposition’s weakness and inability to reform itself, have made Syrians feel isolated and abandoned to their fate by the Arab and international communities.[7] This makes it inevitable that some Syrians will choose to take up arms against the regime. But despite this, Syrians still believe that arms alone will not bring Assad down, and so they continue with their non-violent demonstrations.

As for the Islamization of the revolution, this can be best understood as a phase. The vast majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, whose religiosity is conventional, traditional and apolitical. In other words: moderate, open-minded and tolerant of ethnic, religious and sectarian diversity. Sectarian diversity has been part of the Syrian landscape for hundreds of years and has remained untouched by political, economic and cultural change. Contrary to his claims, Assad is not the protector of minorities; rather, it is the Syrian people themselves.

The jihadist-Salafist movement, which openly announced itself in the wake of the US occupation of Iraq, is largely a product of the Assad regime itself. The security forces have penetrated these groups, using them to apply pressure against the US occupation, or in the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr al-Bared following Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon. It is telling that prior to Ayman al-Zawaheri’s declaration of support for the Syrian revolution in April 2012, no jihadist-Salafist organization, including al-Qaeda, had announced that it would be carrying out operations against the Syrian regime, nor condemned it.

Despite the growth of groups like al-Ansar and al-Nour[8], the real danger is not that Salafism might take hold in a post-revolution Syria (it is most likely that following the fall of the regime that nurtured it and supplied it, the jihadi movement will sink into obscurity); rather, the danger is that is the revolution might fail, or the current situation is prolonged indefinitely with no end to the violence. The reason for this is that these extremist groups thrive on time. Time allows them to spread and penetrate society and if the peaceful nature of the revolution is to be preserved, and the future of the country and the region assured, the crisis must be resolved as speedily as possible.

The indecision of Western powers caused by their fear of Salafists and Islamist jihadists  gaining ground in Syria, has deterred the former ones from supporting the revolution on a deeper level. Yet ironically, it is this indecision which is creating the ideal circumstances for a jihadist insurgency in Syria. Jihadists are moving in to fill the gap caused by the lack of international action towards the regime’s continuous brutal violence.

V. Conclusion

Any treatment of the Syrian revolution must focus first and foremost on the reality of events in Syria: a people demanding the basic rights of freedom, justice and equality in the face of a regime determined to cling to power no matter what the cost; a people in need of protection from a regime that has abandoned its responsibilities and dedicated itself to oppressing the population with every barbaric means at its disposal.

Duty and moral obligation demand that the Arab and international communities intervene urgently and effectively to halt the violence under the principle of Right to Protect. Furthermore they have a real interest in seeing a speedy resolution to the crisis. The excessive use of violence in Syria, coupled with the lack of a viable political solution and the people’s sense that they have been left to fight a state-sponsored killing machine on their own, creates the perfect environment for the spread of a violent counter-movement whose effect will be felt beyond Syria’s borders. The situation in Lebanon is a sobering reminder of this.

It is also worth pointing out that the failure of international and regional powers  to provide meaningful support to the Syrian people stems from a reluctance to stage any form of military intervention, direct or indirect. There is a concomitant failure to understand that military intervention is not the only solution and thus other avenues are not explored, such as transferring the case to the International Criminal Court.

Outlined below are some of the alternative options available to international powers:

1.      Pressure the regime and its allies to implement the Kofi Annan peace plan in full.

2.      The Syrian regime has been able to hold out because of its regional allies. The international community can help resolve the crisis by severing regional ties with the regime, pressuring Russia, China and Iran to stop sending the military, material and technological aid that allows Assad to carry out his war against the population.

3.      Pressure neighbouring states (Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan) to sign up to the sanctions, increasing their efficacy and shortening the lifespan of the regime.  

4.      Encourage international and Arab actors to work together to ensure the regime’s total political isolation.

5.      Work to boost the number of international observers and international peacekeeping forces to bring a halt to the violence and protect the right of Syrians to engage in peaceful demonstrations aimed at the downfall of the regime.[9]

6.      Applying pressure on the traditional political opposition in Syria and its regional backers to work together and come up with a clear vision for post-Assad Syria. This must include a plan with practical measures for ensuring Syria’s transition to viable civil democratic state, which safeguards the rights and freedoms of all its citizens. This will provide the necessary reassurances to those who harbour doubts about the aims of the revolution and to those unsettled by the prospect of life after Assad.

7.      Use all legitimate means at its disposal to help Syrians bring down the regime on their own.

8.     Provide support to Syrian refugees abroad, ensuring they have a dignified life and that their basic needs are met. Protecting these refugees from forcible repatriation, which might place their lives in danger at the current time.

9.      Help create a military organization for the opposition thus reducing the influence of extremist groups who find present-day Syria an ideal environment in which to expand their presence. The community should recognize the Free Syrian Army, work to organize it politically and intellectually, clarify the principles of self-defense and civil defense for which it was first created and hopefully transform it into a bulwark against increasingly influential Salafist fighting groups.  

10.  Setting up Syrian, Arab and international “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions tasked with collating evidence for the prosecution of officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The perpetrators needs to feel that they will bear the consequences of their actions: nothing else will persuade them to desist.

11.  States that are signatories to sanctions against the regime must draw up a clear road-map for lifting these punitive measures and restoring the Syrian economy to full strength following the fall of the Syrian regime. This would provide reassurance to Syrian business leaders currently supporting the regime that the Syrian economy will not go the way of the Iraqi and Lebanese economies and that it is in their interest to support the fall of the regime. 

This article was published in German by the German website "Responsibility to Protect"



[1] “The Financial Times: Iran helps Syria to overcome oil sanctions.” BBC Arabic Website, 18 May 2012,

[2] Ibrahim Seif, “Syrian economy on the brink.” 22 May, 2012. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

[3] Right to Protect is a principle adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005, in the context of the events in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Congo, Somalia, Kosovo and elsewhere. It links state sovereignty to its responsibility to protect its population.
[5] If the state clearly fails to protect its citizens, the international community becomes responsible to react immediately and firmly, as per Chapters 6,7 and 8 of the United Nations Charter using peaceful and military means. These include sanctions, referring the regime to the International Criminal Court and military intervention.

[6] i.e. offering military and technical support to the armed opposition.

[7] The slogan “Ya Allah, ma ilna ghayrak, ya Allah” (Oh God, we have no-one but you, Oh God) which appeared in the summer of 2011, a few months after the revolution started, indicates the increased feeling of deep isolation and lack of support felt by Syrians.

[8] Both are Islamist jihadist armed groups claiming to operate in Syria.

[9] Such as being able to strike without the security forces or the shabiha breaking into and looting shops.