Alexander Gillespie: How many must die?

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Modern-day Iraq, Libya and Syria were all cut of the same cloth, which was once a map of the Ottoman Empire. From this dismemberment, they all went onto be colonies of the European victors of the First World War, before gaining independence and freedom after the Second.

These utopian days were short lived. Each fell to military dictatorships, punctuated by gasps of democracy, between 1958 and 1969. Each of the three fell under the leadership of one man, at the helm of one central party, wrapped in the façade of constitutional processes which only allowed approved players to partake. All three also went on to launch themselves into endless wars with enemies which ranged from the 'little Satan' (Israel) to their neighbours.

Iraq fought Iran and took Kuwait. Libya fought Chad for over a decade, whilst Syrian forces occupied large parts of Lebanon from 1976 to 2005. Each of the three has also been an active supporter of foreign terror organisations. Iraq, Libya and Syria also shared the similarity of suppressing dissident regimes within their own borders. Murder, enforced disappearances and torture stains the historic record of each of these countries.

The current difference with all three is that two have been turned into regimes which, in rhetoric, value human rights and the right of the people to determine their own future. Whilst there remains a strong risk that both Iraq and Libya will simply repeat the patterns of their former dictators, the citizens are trying to govern themselves.

This is unlike Syria. Here, large numbers of the people (of which 30 per cent live below the poverty line and 40 per cent are under the age of 15) simply do not believe the promise of democracy sometime next year, from a man who is part of dynasty which has ruled the country for nearly five decades.

The revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests of the Arab Spring that freed Egypt and Tunisia with relatively little bloodshed is not happening here. Mr Assad has explained to his subjects that he has to hold back the tide of the Arab Spring as the threats to the 'integrity' of the country are too great to allow freedom at the moment. What Mr Assad actually means is that the threats to his regime are too great to allow democratic choices to be practiced. Accordingly, blood must be spilt.

The spilling of blood to accelerate regime change in the Arab Spring is something those challenging Assad are also willing to accept. These people know from recent history that regime change can be achieved if given international support.

Saddam Hussein, after tussling with the United Nations, overplayed his hand and fell victim to a coalition of forces lead by the United States, who were willing to risk an illegal war, not sanctioned by the Security Council, due to the perceived risks that this man represented.

Muammar Gaddafi suffered a similar fate, with the exception that this war was authorised by the Security Council due the fact that he had started, or was about to, inflict crimes against humanity to his own people. He was toppled by ground forces made up of Libyan citizens and air forces made up of old enemies.

The fact that Gaddafi and Hussein were both extreme enemies of the United States was something which Assad does not share. Assad and his father have largely keep their terror away the West, and the West, has largely turned a blind eye to the actions of his dynasty.

It is increasingly hard in the West to keep our eyes shut, ears covered and remain silent when the Assad's regime deploys lethal force to crush and terrorise both dissidents and citizens within Syria. Now, the disapprovals are loud and public. They are not however of sufficient volume to justify military force without the approval of the Security Council. The problem is both Russia and China will not authorise military intervention against, or even condemn, Mr Assad.

Both have strong views on how to deal with internal dissent as their controls in Tibet and Chechnya typify. However, when the concerns are further afield, and the threshold of violence raises to genocidal levels, such as in parts of Africa, both Russia and China are willing to approve Security Council force.

The situation in Syria is different. The bloodshed in this faraway country is not yet of a sufficient volume to make them think differently. The Syrian dissidents know that the public opinion, played through a global media, will warm to them when they have bled enough.

Assad, who needs little encouragement to try to control his people with an iron fist, may soon find himself drawn into a conflict in which the belligerents will be seeking to draw reprisals upon themselves, as Assad's lack of restraint will be there to their benefit.

Moreover, the borders of Syria are too porous and the people are too many and too angry, to allow Assad to regain a totalitarian control over his people. Those who support the dissidents will quickly start supplying the weaponry they need to continue this struggle, and we will all watch as the two sides fight it out with civilians in the crossfire. At some point, the threshold will be crossed and Assad will either fall or flee. The only questions are how many people have to die before he goes and how long it will take.

* Alexander Gillespie is Professor of Law at the University of Waikato.

- NZ Herald

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