How do we solve a problem like Syria?

When the world was much less interconnected, it was already difficult to keep the internal conflicts of nations from spilling beyond their borders.  It seemed axiomatic even then for protagonists in civil wars to seek outside support.  At the same time, external forces tended to see in civil wars opportunities to expand their influence or fortify their control of a region. It was not uncommon to find that foreign powers were sometimes the instigators of these internal wars.

Foreign intervention has its own dynamics.  More often than not, it enlarges the scope of the conflagration.  It stirs up elements that hitherto had lain dormant.  Thus it made sense for the evolving modern international community to let nations settle their own civil wars and leave them free to determine what type of social order best suits their people.

Today, we cannot pretend as if a government’s way of treating its citizens were the business solely of its own people. The world has become one society, almost overnight, largely because of satellite communication and the Internet.  The technology of mass dissemination is no longer the monopoly of states and their elites.  For the first time, the peoples of the world can observe and connect with one another as human beings, rather than as segmented races, tribes, or nations.

Therefore, what happens to the people of Syria has become everybody’s business.  Not just because, as in our case, we have overseas Filipino workers who live and work there.  The more important reason for caring is that more than 100,000 civilians, many of them innocent children, have been killed in the last two years as a result of this civil war.  At the center of this ongoing tragedy is an autocratic government that has shown no qualms in using brutal force to subjugate its own people.

I have long wondered why the world seems to have a hard time coming to a consensus against the regime of Bashar Assad.  It didn’t take too long for the United Nations, Western Europe, and North America to intervene in the humanitarian crisis in Libya in order to stop its late dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, from inflicting more harm on the Libyan people.  The decision made by Nato and the United States to impose a no-fly zone seamlessly led to direct air strikes aimed at killing the Libyan ruler himself.  Those strikes did not kill him but were forceful enough to compel him to move in search of refuge. On Oct. 20, 2011, armed Libyan militias chanced upon him hiding in a drainage pipe and dragged him out to face the fury of his own people.

I had hoped that Assad might meet his end in more or less the same way.  But, far from that, he appears to have gained the upper hand.  More than two years since the onset of the Arab Spring, the dictatorial regimes of the Middle East have learned much from the events in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. Their response has been to dig in and seek allies from abroad to prop up their regimes.

The Syrian situation has become very complex as a result. Syria’s neighbors have taken opposing sides. Turkey has taken the side of the United States and is calling for a regime change, saying it cannot take in millions of refugees as the Syrian conflict worsens. Iran, on the other hand, actively supports Assad. Russia has blocked every move in the United Nations to intervene in Syria. Muslim militants find themselves on opposing sides fighting one another.  About 8,000 Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have joined forces with Assad to repel the rebels who include in their ranks some of the most seasoned jihadists linked to the al-Qaida.

To all intents and purposes, Syria today is a broken country. If Assad survives, the fight to topple him will continue indefinitely, assume new forms and take in more elements than can safely be managed by any successor government.  If his regime collapses, it is doubtful that the rebel forces will be able to quickly unite and put together an interim government that can maintain order and pave the way for a democratic and pluralist system.  The reversal of the democratic gains in Egypt shows how troubled and how volatile the transition period can be.  For all their infamy, dictatorships survive because they perform functions, not the least of which is to check the growth of unconventional political forces like the al-Qaida, and stem the spread of volatile impulses like the Arab Spring.

Nothing perhaps mirrors the deep ambivalence the world feels about the Syrian crisis than the British Parliament’s recent vote against joining the United States in a plan to launch military strikes against the Syrian government.  Despite being presented with independent evidence showing chemical weapons were used against civilians in a Damascus suburb last month, members of parliament crossed party lines to reject the plan.  US President Barack Obama himself took a step back from his earlier stance of striking Syria if the red line of using chemical weapons was crossed.  He is now seeking approval for his proposal from the US Congress, where there is a good chance it may be rejected.

In spite of our pressing domestic problems, we must find time to reflect on our responsibilities as citizens of a common world. It behooves nation-states to exhaust all peaceful means to protect the basic rights of ordinary people and allow nations to settle their internal troubles in a nonviolent way. The use of military action against another country is an act of aggression. Its outcomes can never be limited or predicted.  As vital as the votes of parliaments are in finding a solution to this problem, the voice of the global community of netizens must be heard now more than ever.

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