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The West is already meddling in Syria

From economic sanctions to weapons inspections, international forces are already there, making things worse.

Patrick Hayes

Topics World

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Last week, US president Barack Obama rejected calls for military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria, despite saying he found the situation there ‘heartbreaking’. Yet while there are currently no NATO bombs falling from the skies or US troops’ combat boots on Syrian sand, the pressure being heaped upon Syria to behave in a way that suits the ‘international community’ (aka the West) is palpable. Here are five key ways in which the West is already interfering in Syrian affairs.

1) Crippling economic sanctions

Ever-harsher sanctions on Syria are, in the words of British foreign secretary William Hague, acting as an ‘economic noose’ around the neck of the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Major sanctions began last year with key officials in the Assad regime being put on an EU sanctions list, preventing them from entering any EU countries. The US – which had imposed economic sanctions on Syria even before the current unrest – followed suit. Now an arms embargo has been placed on Syria, alongside a ban on all imports of Syrian oil to the EU, which was Syria’s largest trading partner. The latest EU sanctions include the freezing of the assets of the Central Bank of Syria and restrictions on the gold and metals market. With only a handful of trading partners remaining, Syria’s economy is grinding to a halt – and there is talk of harsher sanctions to come.

But the idea that you can have economic sanctions that only affect the Syrian administration and not the Syrian people is simply naive. While basic foodstuffs are typically exempt from sanctions, starving the government of funds means it can provide little support to its population. The patronising logic appears to be that the people of Syria will, in a state of increasing impoverishment, become more motivated to join the rebels and turn against the government. However, such intervention could breed a stronger sense of nationalism, and bolster the sense that it is the Syrian people as a whole who are under siege from meddling foreign powers.

2) Using ‘neutral’ bodies like the IAEA and the ICC

When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) starts demanding that its operatives should have carte blanche to investigate cotton-spinning plants that look vaguely like uranium-enrichment plants from satellite photos, you know something is up. Putting paid to the idea that it is politically neutral, that is exactly what the IAEA began to do in Syria last year. No one has seriously suggested Syria is close to developing nuclear weapons and there is no evidence that the government is continuing to work on a nuclear programme. This timely interference by IAEA is yet another way of turning the thumbscrews on the Syrian regime and isolating it from the ‘international community’.

Equally, UK prime minister David Cameron and French president Nicolas Sarkozy have called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to start building a case against Assad that could see him brought to The Hague to face charges of crimes against humanity. Assad may soon find himself fighting not just to maintain power, but also to keep himself from an international showtrial.

Last weekend, the former chief of the UN, Kofi Annan, entered Syria on a ‘special peace mission’ to try to stop further bloodshed in the country, calling for a ‘negotiated settlement with Assad’s government’. This call for ‘peace’ is far from neutral – indeed, it has angered many rebels on the ground who see violence as the only way of overthrowing Assad’s regime and determining their own futures.

3) Creating an opposition through the Syrian National Council

Finding the fragmented nature of the Syrian opposition to Assad to be problematic, over the past few months Western leaders have been doing their utmost to support the creation of an ‘official opposition’ they could do business with. Turning a blind eye to the serious problems that a similar experiment with a National Transitional Council in Libya has caused, many Western countries – and international bodies, such as the EU – now officially recognise the Syrian National Council (SNC).

While this suits the so-called ‘Friends of Syria’, a collective of Western foreign ministers that members of the SNC are jetting around the world having discussions with, the legitimacy of the SNC has been questioned by many in Syria. As the leader of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riyad al-Asaad, puts it: ‘The SNC needs to review its positions and stop acting like it’s the only player in Syria… The Free Syrian Army are the people on the ground, not the SNC.’

Tellingly, the Istanbul-based SNC has responded to the rebels by claiming: ‘All international countries and powers would not support anything that is purely a militia.’ The message from the SNC to the Free Syrian Army is clear: you may be on the ground fighting this battle with the Syrian people, but we have gained the far more important mandate of the international community.

4) Using the Arab League

Why on earth would autocratic and repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which continually crack down on protesters, condemn the Assad regime for its brutality? The Arab League – a coalition of Middle Eastern countries – expelled Syria from its council last November, and has imposed tight sanctions on it. The League finally managed to attain Assad’s agreement to put 60 monitors on the ground to observe that the Syrian government was keeping the peace against its people.

As well as attempting to quell the uprising, preventing it from further agitating their own populations and destabilising the region, the Arab League’s condemnation of Assad is a key way to gain praise from the West. This serves to divert the attention of the international community from these regimes’ own political turmoil and heavy-handed attempts to deal with it. Obama has applauded the Arab League for its actions as a result.

This is a clear example of how Western powers are using Syria’s not-so-friendly neighbours in the Arab League to ratchet up the pressure on Assad and his cronies in order to determine the course of the conflict.

5) An attached media and celebrity combatants

‘When you see that kind of mass violence and murder on the street, you must do something’, says Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, distressed by watching images of the Syrian conflict on her television screen. Jolie has condemned Russia and China for vetoing UN resolutions condemning Assad. She is the latest in a long line of celebs in the West who suffer from the diffuse desire to ‘do something’ and call for intervention.

Furthermore, increasingly attached Western war reporters are now also seeing their role as one of crusaders, aiming to go far beyond their traditional role of simply reporting the facts on the ground and allowing readers and viewers to make up their own minds. It’s not just Western governments intervening in the Syrian conflict, but also Western journalists and celebs goading their governments to act.

While Western troops may not be directly intervening on the ground, Syria is besieged by external forces trying to direct its future. But for the Syrian people to be able to genuinely forge their own futures, and determine the direction of their country themselves, all of this interference needs to be brought to an end.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes. He will be debating ‘To intervene, or not to intervene?’ at the Liberty League Freedom Forum, taking place between March 30 – April 1 2012.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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