Opinion | Syrian opposition needs our help, chemical weapons or not

An attack against the Assad regime is long overdue, argue opposition supporters in Denmark

The Syrian uprising started in 2011 when protestors began calling for democracy and liberty. But it was just as much an uprising against corruption and poverty. The situation in Syria differs from insurrections elsewhere in the Middle East in that Syrian demonstrators were not looking to overturn the Assad regime. They were simply seeking reforms, and it was initially peaceful. But the protestors found themselves being shot at, and many were tortured or killed by Syrian intelligence forces. Among them, 13-year-old Hamza Ali Al-Khateeb, whose broken body was sent back to his parents. 

It was atrocities such as these that made it clear to Syrians that the regime had no plan to meet the people’s demands that the government be popularly elected. The Syrian regime rejected negotiation and dialogue, and instead responded with violent displays of force. These brutal attacks against demonstrators led to the establishment of militias that could offer some form of protection. These groups developed into the Free Syrian Army, a group that was sympathetic to the demonstrators’ demands. Early on in the revolution, there were no extremist groups. 

Also in this early period, the attitude toward the West was generally positive. The opposition requested that international community act against the regime. Rebels could often be seen carrying signs with messages like ‘NATO save us from Assad’s shabiha’, or calling for a no-fly zone to be established. The Syrians haven’t asked to be invaded; they have asked for intervention and protection. For this reason, comparisons with Iraq are misleading. 

Syria is about supporting a popular uprising and protecting civilians from the military. Today, two and half years after the revolution began, the death toll has reached 100,000 and it has become clear that the only way to get the regime to sit down at the negotiating table and discuss a political solution is to force them into doing so by military force. 

Many Syrians had hoped the West would intervene in the same way they did in Libya. To their disappointment, China and Russia vetoed any proposal by the UN Security Council to do so, ruling out further UN involvement. Russia and China are both financial and military backers of the Syrian regime. And like Assad’s government, they are authoritarian regimes that are sceptical of the West and their values. Among Syria’s other allies are North Korea, Iran and Hizbollah. 

The spirit of UN principles

Since the UN Security Council vetoed intervention, the US and the West have struggled to decide how to approach the situation in Syria. Part of this is due to the UN’s reputation among many as the guarantor of world peace and justice. To ignore the UN is to ignore international law. The situation in Iraq is often held up as the primary argument against Syrian intervention. In that case, action was taken without the UN’s imprimatur. And if we can just ignore the UN, then what kind of a guarantee do we have that international law and security can be maintained? 

The conflict in Syria undermines the role of the UN as the guarantor of world peace. We see what happens when the members of the Security Council do not see eye to eye on human rights, one of the founding principles of the UN. It is obvious that neither China nor Russia feel obliged to abide by these principles, and in so doing reject the whole idea behind the UN and international law. 

When it comes to Syria, they have coldly pursued their own interests and supported one of the most brutal regimes of modern times. In cases like these, it shows more respect for the UN’s principles to act without the approval of the Security Council, lest it establish a precedent that allows other dictatorial regimes to treat their people as they wish without fearing reprisal.

Hesitation breeds extremism

Once it became obvious that Western democracies would not step in, we saw the emergence of new groups on the ground in Syria, including Jabhat Al-Nusra. To begin with there were just a few of them, but gradually more appeared. (They still remain a minority of the Syrian opposition, however.) Jabhat Al-Nusra gained popularity in some parts of the Syrian population because they had the military equipment and training that allowed them to offer protection to civilians. Up until now, though, we’ve shown the Syrians that that even with their safety and security on the line they shouldn’t count on the Western democracies to help out. 

The use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity. But this is how you could describe the behaviour of the Assad regime since the conflict broke out. Vastly more people have been killed with conventional weapons, not least by air raids. As soon as an area is liberated, the Syrian air force bombs it into oblivion, making it impossible for any sort of civilian groups to organise themselves into a government. This benefits not just Assad but also extremist insurgent groups. The longer we wait, and the less we do, the greater the gains for these radical groups will be. 

And this brings us to our point: something must be done to stop the regime’s attacks, regardless of whether they use conventional or chemical weapons. The time for intervention is well past due. 

All evidence indicates that the regime has used chemical weapons. It appears that they tested the waters with limited attacks in order to see just how far they could go and how easily they could avoid reprisal. The regime’s strategy here is to use loyal militias, whose direct connection to the regime is notoriously hard to prove. 

If the regime hadn’t been to blame, it is highly likely they would have given access to the site of the attack right away. In addition to the UN inspectors on the ground, the US, France and the UK all have intelligence about what happened. Without this type of credible information, it’s unlikely they would intervene, particularly after presenting falsified information leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. If we don’t do something now, we risk an even deadlier attack. The risk involved with waiting is too great. We must act!

Even though an attack against military targets would likely save thousands of lives, it is not enough. 

An attack is not enough

One of the cornerstones of the Syrian uprising is the revolutionary councils. It is necessary to support these organisations as they seek to establish a democratic society from the chaos of war. They seek to ensure law and order, solve conflicts, distribute aid and establish courts.

Syrians themselves work hard to establish democracy, both in and outside of Syria, for example by holding small-scale elections in refugee camps. On the diplomatic front, the opposition is represented by diplomats associated with the Syrian National Coalition, a group that has been recognised as a legitimate representative of the Syrian people by Denmark and other countries. Recognition should bring with it direct support. We have established that the attacks carried out by the Assad regime have taken away its legitimacy, but the way it is has ruled over the past 40 years puts it on the same footing as the mafia in southern Italy – and every bit as unfit to rule. 

If Syria is to have a chance of maintaining social structures after the fall of the regime, the revolutionary councils need logistical and financial support. One of the reasons why problems arose after the Iraq war was that the ruling Baath party had been dismantled. This has led to the misguided conclusion that doing the same in Syria would be a mistake. We instead propose dismantling the regime and supporting the civilian structures that the Syrians themselves have set up. Syrians will never accept allowing the intelligence service to remain in place. This is precisely one of the institutions they have been rising up against. 

We urge the Danish government, then, to support the revolutionary councils. Military intervention is not enough, and this is one area where Denmark can make a difference. 

Attacks against military targets will not prevent the regime from carrying out more massacres. In order to prevent more massacres from taking place, we must give people living in liberated areas the means they need to protect themselves. 

A complicated decision

During the debate over whether to attack Syria, those opposing action often highlight the complicated nature of the situation on the ground, or they argue that we shouldn’t get involved in a civil war – as one side fighting in a civil war can’t be more legitimate than the other. Yes, the situation in Syria is complicated and there are numerous regional considerations. The conflict has its sectarian elements; many of Syria’s Alawite minority support Assad, while the same holds true of the Shiite regime in Iran and Hizbollah. Assad has played the religion card in order to make it appear that the opposition is a horde of Sunni extremists. 

This has been successful to some extent and it has clouded the picture of the conflict and the make-up of the opposition. Some extremist opposition groups have carried out sectarian attacks against Shiites. According to human rights groups, though, these attacks pale in comparison with the atrocities carried out by the regime. Religion is not what motivates the opposition, and it never will be. The groups intent on making this a sectarian conflict are by no means in the majority in the opposition.  

Here in Denmark, the media and other influential voices consistently seek to reduce the conflict to geopolitical interests. Some claim that the US, the UK and France are only interested in what’s going on there because they want to dominate the region. Others say that it’s all about Israeli influence. We don’t think you can just reduce it to power politics. We agree that the West has carried out any number of reprehensible military attacks in the past, but we remain convinced that not all of the democratically elected leaders in the US and Europe can stand cynically by while Syrians suffer. 

What’s more, an attack on Assad would, regardless of the motivation, give an emotional lift to the Syrians who the past two and half years have fought for a fairer legal system, more democracy and greater freedoms. Those who only choose to see the situation in Syria as geopolitical interests being played out are washing their hands of the consequences of refusing to act. This type of rationale often ends with people breathing a sigh of relief and declaring that there’s just nothing that we can do. Its only benefit appears to be to allow us to say that we were able to see right through the situation and come to the conclusion that the whole thing comes down to interests, and that, fortunately for us, we don’t need to do anything because in situations like these no-one ever does what’s right. 

This, we believe, is an all too easy way out. We in the Syrian Opposition in Denmark have always held that active intervention against Assad is required, and such intervention must be based on solidarity with the Syrian people’s demands for liberty. 

Syria and the rest of the Middle East are undergoing formative changes. The events of today will be decisive in preparing the ground for democracy in the region, as well as its relations with the West. Just as the liberation of Europe from Nazism has served to bind Western countries, so too will what we do to help Syria have an influence on relations with the region. Will we stand idly by or will we support a people’s dreams of democracy? We hope we are witnessing a turning point in Syria policy, and we hope that the Syrian uprising, the Arab Spring and our support for the Syrian people will serve as confirmation that we live in an age where the most realistic thing to do is to be idealistic. 

The Syrian Opposition in Denmark was founded in January 2013 and is committed to supporting opposition groups that work for liberty, democracy and political pluralism. We also seek to influence the debate about Syria in Denmark and globally by providing information to policymakers and scholars.