Violence between the government and armed rebels in Syria has threatened to ignite a full-fledged civil war. On Wednesday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad called for a Feb. 26 referendum on a new constitution as part of the regime’s promised reforms, but it was quickly dismissed by both opposition leaders and White House officials. We asked Iran native Valentine Moghadam, director of Northeastern’s international affairs program and a professor of sociology and anthropology, to explain the ongoing crisis.
Why is the situation in Syria of such global concern?
The recent events are of global concern for two reasons. First, there is international concern about the extent of violence in the country, primarily the state’s crackdown on the opposition, which some have described as a major human rights violation. In some international circles, there is also concern about the turn to armed rebellion on the part of the opposition and the apparent disunity within the opposition. Second, there is concern, especially on the part of Russia and China, about internationalizing the internal conflict, with the specter of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya looming large. There is also concern that Saudi Arabia has taken a strong position against the Syrian government and in favor of the opposition, whereas in the case of the political protests in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has sided with the government.
How does the Syrian crisis relate to last year’s so-called Arab Spring?
There are at least two versions of the Arab Spring. The first is a non-violent social movement for political change and democracy; this version was seen in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, as well as in Morocco (which has been having a longer, more gradual movement toward democratization since at least 1998).
A defining feature of the second version is violence, on the part of the state and opposition alike, exemplified in Yemen, Libya and Syria. Of course, these two categories are not fixed. Egypt’s democratic transition, for example, has been much more turbulent than Tunisia’s, given the role of the military. Bahrain’s Shia population continues to demand full citizenship rights, a tactic that aligns closely with the Arab Spring model exemplified by Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. But the state has responded with considerable brutality, although it has also promised to address human rights violations. What remains to be seen is how events in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria will unfold, what roles various segments of the international community will play, and — most importantly — what the balance of social and political forces will turn out to be. For it is the latter that will define the possibilities for a new democratic polity that now includes women and ethnic and religious minorities.
Last week, China and Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for al-Assad to hand over power to a deputy and allow for the formation of a unity government in preparation for democratic elections. At this point, what else could the international community do?
Saudi Arabia and Turkey will continue to provide support for the rebels, in the form of arms (Saudi Arabia) and a safe haven (Turkey). Other countries will offer diplomatic and moral support and tighten the sanctions regime against the Syrian government. Meanwhile, Syria’s international allies will seek alternative ways of defusing the situation and appeasing at least some of the opposition, although it may be too late to do so.