Today we are able to sit with our laptops and tablets and watch the horrors of a regime slaughtering its own people. But despicable as this inaction is, posting filmed clips on YouTube has become one of the only viable means for the Syrian people to call out for help. And what we’ve seen of Bashar al-Assad brutal crackdown provides much reason to despair. Five days ago a video was released that showed incompetent UN monitors standing by as security forces fired on protestors in the town of Khan Sheikhoun; another focused on a single UN monitor—he was crawling, and was then dragged, away from the firing soldiers.
It is empirically noticeable, if just by watching these YouTube clips, that the current UN course of action is not working. The international community recognizes this; the question has become what to do next. There seems to be a consensus, evidenced in NATO’s recent decision not to act, that a military intervention along the lines of Qaddafi’s ouster in Libya is not viable for Syria. If Libya is not the correct model, then perhaps it is fitting to turn to Egypt. But the realities in Syria are different from those that had enabled the success of the protest movement in Egypt—unlike Egypt, the people of Syria cannot muster the force and leverage necessary for the collapse of the regime. Unable to topple Assad alone, the Syrian people require foreign support. This is because of three critical elements.
The brutal nature of Syria’s military apparatus.
While the Egyptian Armed Forces supported the state and the Egyptian people above the ruling family, the Syrian army by strong contrast supports Assad’s regime. Tied to the Alawite party, the Syrian army has proven itself ready and willing to take action against civilians. The forceful action it has taken and the military checkpoints it has constructed around the country have considerably crippled opposition attempts to create a mass, unified movement. The Syrian army truly believes that it can stem the opposition forces, and it has no reason to begin to think otherwise now. This means that the Syrian opposition movement, unlike the protestors in Tahrir Square, must confront a powerful military power. And AK-47s cannot destroy tanks.
Syria’s formidable regional status.
The Mubarak regime was disrespected and even detested by Egyptians and by much of the world because of Egypt’s failing economy and unpopular foreign policy. The Syrian regime, in a stark difference, maintains support from Russia and China because of its trade relationships and oil agreements. The Assad regime also remains popular among some Syrians because of his belligerent attitude towards Israel. Syria is the only country in the Arab world free of Western influence or support, precluding America from threatening to withdraw support from Syrian forces as it did with Egypt. The Assad regime uses its regional power to retain credibility, and has recently been emboldened by blaming hostile world opinion on biased, faulty media. Assad, then, has no reason to surrender.
The diverse and dispersed nature of Syrian society.
The Egyptian revolution was guided by a secular, democracy-seeking middle class that had a broad enough appeal to attract up to 10% of Egypt’s population at the height of the uprisings. Syria suffers from a less cohesive society, and the weakly organized revolution has been framed to a large degree as a call to end the rich-poor divide and prop up Muslim fundamentalism. It has been less peaceful than Egypt’s uprising as a result, and has attracted far fewer and more scattered participants. Facebook has been banned and the Internet has been shut down, precluding the Syrian revolutionaries from making up for their societal divisions with networking acumen. Fundamentally, the lack of a civil society in Syria has made Tahrir Square style protests all but a dream for the struggling opposition movement.
The name that has been attributed to the Syrian opposition, the “YouTube Revolution”, accounts for much of the movement’s failings. Egypt’s revolution succeeded because of its tangible successes on the ground—it could amass as many people in the street as it could viewers on YouTube. And we, watching these videos of Assad’s atrocities from abroad, must recognize that defensive military action, not watching posted YouTube videos, saves lives. If the international community were to take forceful, coordinated, and targeted military action, the challenges that now threaten the life of the protest movement would cease to be so formidable and so forbidding. Stopping to watch and beginning to act will make Syria’s challenges surmountable; and, after all, how dare we continue to watch as people die.