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Recently, the conflict between the Syrian government and the Free Syrian Army, the rebel force born in the Arab Spring, has come to a head. The International Committee of the Red Cross has classified the conflict as a “non-international armed conflict”, or civil war, former UN secretary general Kofi Annan resigned as special envoy to Syria, citing the uncompromising attitudes of both sides in the conflict as his reason, and both forces have led major offensives, the rebels in Damascus and the regime in Aleppo.
Despite these major developments, the international community has done very little to intervene in the conflict and attempt to prevent further bloodshed. Any motions proposed by the Security Council have been vetoed by Russia and China, and any sanctions that have been put in place have been largely ineffective. The ceasefire plan outlined by the Arab League and UN utterly failed, as neither side is willing to cooperate with the other – the Syrian regime continues to brand the rebels as “foreign-backed terrorists”, whereas to the rebel forces the regime are a dictatorship to be overthrown at any cost. These attitudes have hindered any attempt at a ceasefire, as neither side sees an end to hostilities to be in their own interests.
However, there is a great difference in the attitudes of both sides to the involvement of foreign powers. The Syrian government has warned foreign powers away, threatening the use of chemical weapons against outside forces in the case of exterior aggression. However, they import weaponry from Russia, one of the main opponents of international intervention in the civil war.
On the other hand, the revolutionaries have received major international support, from the EU, the Arab League and the US, for example the UK giving £5 million in funding to the rebels, although none is to be used for armament. The international community have great interest in the way the Syrian war unfolds, and without international support, the rebels will surely lose the war, being wildly outnumbered and outgunned – while the regime has armed forces numbering 325,000 regular soldiers and 100,000 irregular soldiers, the Free Syrian Army have only 70,000 soldiers, as well as very few arms, and in some cases relying on DIY weapons such as slingshots.
Although there has been great international support for the uprising, there have been many reports of human rights abuses from both sides of the conflict. The Assad regime receives the majority of the criticism for these, for example firing indiscriminately on civilian centres, murdering unarmed demonstrators and using torture. However, the Free Syrian Army is not entirely blameless, as some of its allies, which include jihadi groups from the middle east, have themselves committed war crimes. However, as the revolution has received a large amount of support in the West, these have largely been ignored or characterised as inevitable consequences of war.
There is also a religious element to the war – the Syrian regime has a large amount of support from the Alawi community, of which President Assad is a member, while the rebel forces have often been considered to have strong Islamist elements. International involvement in the crisis could have the effect of polarising the conflict further, as Syrians may not take kindly to western involvement in their war, especially the more radical Islamist elements of the conflict. A delicate touch must be used in order to prevent the conflict from becoming a breeding ground for anti-western sentiment, such as in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The ordinary Syrian people, those not involved in fighting on either side of the conflict, are the real victims. However, any attempt to intervene has been blocked by Russia and China, both nations attempting to protect their investments in the region. Furthermore, incidents of self-immolation in Tibet and Sichuan could indicate that the influence of the Arab Spring is heading towards China, and that they could be attempting to stem the flow in Syria. the Russian reaction is far more simple – their only naval base on the mediterranean is to be found in Syria.
Throughout the war, the UN has been ineffective at preventing civilian casualties and war crimes – something that I see as a vital function of the UN. Although the situation is very complicated, the UN should have done more to protect the individuals living in Syria. The way that a single nation can destroy international peace plans for their own benefit shows that the current international model has failed, and that we need to consider who the UN serves – the ordinary people, or the nations that answer to it.