Syr­ian death match: Kill or be killed

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Austin Bay

In a col­umn penned last April, I called the Syr­ian civil war a death match and ar­gued that a death match is not ne­go­tiable. That essay ad­dressed the pre­dictable demise of a high­lytouted cease­fire agree­ment ne­go­ti­ated by for­mer U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Kofi An­nan and ar­gued that ne­go­ti­a­tions seek­ing com­pro­mise were not go­ing to end Syria’s civil war. The prospects of saber­rat­tling theatrics spiced with guar­an­tees of gilded asy­lum for regime thugs were not promis­ing, ei­ther. Harsh words and al­lur­ing of­fers of plush ex­ile in France would not con­vince the As­sad regime to ne­go­ti­ate in good faith.

An­nan’s April agree­ment failed to stop the gun­fire and the killing.

Check the cal­en­dar. It’s Novem­ber, As­sad re­mains in power, and the killing hasn’t stopped, it has ac­cel­er­ated. In late March 2012, the death toll in the then year-old con­flict was 10,000 hu­man be­ings. Last week, as the US held its pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, the body count sur­passed 36,000.

The math de­scribes the con­flict’s mur­der­ous arc.

The death match has be­come more des­per­ate and in­tense.

Diplo­macy aimed at crip­pling the regime by im­pos­ing ef­fec­tive eco­nomic sanc­tions and an arms em­bargo has also failed, thanks to the As­sad regime’s pow­er­ful friends: Iran, Rus­sia and China. Iran pro­vides weapons, money, se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers and proxy forces in the form of Le­banese Hezbol­lah guer­ril­las. Rus­sia and China run in­ter­fer­ence in the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil.

Tur­key’s tough talk, tank bri­gades rolling to­ward the bor­der and oc­ca­sional ar­tillery vol­leys have not curbed the regime’s will­ing­ness to kill. When cross-bor­der gun­fire by Syr­ian se­cu­rity forces wounded sev­eral peo­ple at a refugee camp inside Tur­key, the Turk­ish gov­ern­ment con­sid­ered in­vok­ing NATO Ar­ti­cle 5, which com­mits the al­liance to de­fend an ally when it is at­tacked.

Tur­key re­peated the threat af­ter Syria downed a Turk­ish re­con jet in June. When Syr­ian ar­tillery hit a Turk­ish bor­der town and killed sev­eral Turk­ish civil­ians, Tur­key fired back. The As­sad regime, how­ever, reads Tur­key’s ver­bal threats as blus­ter.

The regime knows the Turk­ish mil­i­tary is quite ca­pa­ble of cross­ing the bor­der and es­tab­lish­ing a buf­fer zone or, for that mat­ter, top­pling the As­sad regime.

The regime, how­ever, has coun­tered with sev­eral threats of its own.

First came the im­plicit threat to em­ploy chem­i­cal weapons. The threat amounted to this: top­ple us and we un­leash mass death.

The regime has also pre­sented Tur­key with a deadly dilemma tai­lored to Tur­key’s own eth­nic strug­gle. The Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK) has been at war with Tur­key since

Diplo­macy aimed at crip­pling the regime by im­pos­ing ef­fec­tive eco­nomic sanc­tions and an arms em­bargo has also failed, thanks

to the As­sad regime’s pow­er­ful friends: Iran, Rus­sia and China.

the early 1980s.

A PKK al­liance gives As­sad a way to re­gion­al­ize the war. Should out­side forces in­ter­vene in Syria, a mas­sive PKK-led re­volt in Tur­key, Syria and Iraq would cer­tainly hin­der the in­ter­ven­ing forces. Turk­ish mil­i­tary an­a­lysts con­tend that As­sad is al­ready us­ing Syr­ian Kur­dish mili­tias as proxy forces to fight Syr­ian rebels. So why the death match? Why? Early on, the As­sad regime con­cluded it is locked in a kill or be killed war with Syria’s frag­mented but nu­mer­ous rebel groups. The regime is rooted in Syria’s Alaw­ite reli­gious mi­nor­ity group, per­haps ten per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. To an Alaw­ite, the war is about pre­vent­ing a geno­cide — his clan’s own geno­cide. Los­ing po­lit­i­cal power in Syria means los­ing con­trol of the se­cu­rity forces. If the Alaw­ites lose con­trol of the se­cu­rity forces, they be­lieve they will in­evitably face wide­spread re­venge at­tacks by their long-re­pressed eth­nic and sec­tar­ian ri­vals.

So the death match con­tin­ues. The rebels have demon­strated they, too, are re­silient, for they be­lieve their lives and their fam­i­lies’ lives are at risk to Alaw­ite re­venge. The war will continue and the death toll will rise un­til one side shat­ters. An ironic sce­nario is emerg­ing: an in­ter­na­tional force, per­haps led by Tur­key, in­ter­ven­ing to pro­tect the sur­viv­ing Alaw­ite mi­nor­ity from geno­ci­dal slaugh­ter. Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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