The Dog That Doesn't Bark: Syria and Article 51 of the UN Charter

Article excerpt

In the more than a year of Syria's internal conflict, most of the discussion in conferences (and possibly in government circles) has focused on the spectacle of yet another government's assaults on its own people going unchecked. More than 10,000 people are reported killed. Understandably in the wake of 25 years marked by ethnic and religious killings on almost every continent, large-scale terrorism against civilians, and the much-trumpeted corollary of sovereignty that governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens against mass atrocities (the responsibility to protect, or R2P), analysis of the Syrian situation has focused on violations of human rights and what to do about them. Our panelists today fit this pattern. There is, of course, another basket of issues.

First, Syria under the Asads, father and son, has engaged in serial aggression against, Israel, Iraq, and the United States in Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon. Each has ongoing claims arising under Article 51 of the UN Charter and its affirmation of the inherent right of self-defense. (1) Syria refuses to make peace with Israel and supports surrogate instruments of armed attack--Hamas, Hizbollah, and a number of terrorist organizations--against Israel. Syria supports insurgents against the government of Iraq. Syria supports Kurdish (PKK) terrorist attacks against the government of Turkey. And, of course, Syria treats Lebanon as if it were a province, to be controlled, occupied, and governed notwithstanding agreements with Lebanon and UN Security Council resolutions affirming Lebanese independence. (2) Israel, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon have a more than arguable right to use necessary and proportional force against Syria to bring its aggressions to an end and prevent their recurrence.

With respect to the internal conflict, we may usefully recall some essential facets of the struggle. Over the past thirteen months of conflict, the international community has become familiar with the opposition to the Asad government. U.S. Ambassador Ford and other American representatives have met with opposition leaders in and outside Syria during this period. Independent studies identify some 10,000 Syrian army defectors as forming the core of the opposition's military strength. (3) Therefore, despite a lack of unity among regime opponents, it may be safe to conclude that there is a potential government-in-waiting, able to take charge should the Asad regime decide it has had enough.

The regime's support inside the country is much diminished. Some reports place the number of Syrian military defectors as in the range of 40,000-60,000 soldiers. Unable to trust the Sunni majority units, the regime depends on Alawite majority forces. Such units have been used over and over again all over the country and are tiring and wearing thin: they are unable to hold territory under their control as demands elsewhere call them off territory they may recently have seized. For example, the regime has had to pacify Homs three times, and still the uprising there continues. The same is true in Idlib, Deraa, Hama, and even rural Damascus.

Syria's economy and finances are a shambles. Inflation has wiped out savings. Alawites are preparing for the day of regime collapse by arranging exile or retreat to their mountain strongholds . (4)

As the conflict has dragged on, Iran and Hizbollah have intervened, trying to bolster the regime. The same is true of Russia. (5) The regime thus depends on outside support for its continued life. Its demise would strike a blow at its supporters.

Public debate on Syria seems averse to highlighting these realities of the Syrian conflict. …