1956 All Over Again?

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For over a year now, the media has been filled with images of violence and brutal suppression which have emerged from Syria. The West and the Arab world have both been shocked, yet nothing has been done- other than enforcing ineffectual sanctions on the state. In recent months the city of Homs has become the focal point of President Bashar al Assad’s crackdown on dissenters, escalating from relatively low key attacks to a siege and constant daily artillery bombardments, with up to 300 shells landing on the city every day. The most conservative death tolls have placed civilian losses at 5-10,000 deaths, but some fear that a more realistic figure would be double that.

The obvious question must be asked, then; why is the international community not intervening? What was different about Libya, where a successful intervention occurred only weeks after Muammar Gaddafi turned his forces on his own people, when nothing has occurred in Syria, where similar abuses of human rights have become commonplace for over a year? The UN resolution, which condemned the violence in Syria and called for President al Assad to step down, was vetoed by two of the Security Council’s members (Russia and China), leaving the option of UN involvement an unlikely one. It is yet another occasion in which the role of the Security Council, its five permanent members in particular, has come under fire for its lack of cohesion, unwillingness to intervene, and consequent ineffectiveness when atrocities occur. (AP Photo)

Perhaps a more important question is why Russia and China used their veto powers. Some observers will point to the fact that accusing others of human rights violations is a dangerous occupation when you lack a clean record yourself. After all, both China and Russia have been accused of violating the human rights of their citizens on a frequent basis. They had both opposed NATO’s intervention in Libya too, so perhaps that is the only reason for their reluctance to condemn Assad. There is another explanation to consider, and this is where the title of this article comes in.

The year 1956 is most widely remembered for Britain’s humiliation in the Suez Crisis, but another event was occurring in Budapest where political activists started a revolution deep inside the Communist Bloc. The USSR responded with a crackdown in Hungary as brutal as the one which Homs is experiencing today, and yet the same question was voiced then as now; ‘where was the West’? The question has been asked frequently since, but answered with a fairly simple conclusion – distracted by the Suez Crisis occurring at the same time and, the West, unwilling to antagonise the Soviet Union, intervening to try to save a revolution in Budapest was not worth the risk. Although admittedly it was a very complicated scenario, there are striking similarities between then and now.

Syria lies between Israel and Iran. With Israel’s increasing sabre-rattling over Iran’s nuclear programme, perhaps the West is not keen to intervene directly in Syria as this would risk Iran and Israel both being drawn in, creating a wider and more volatile crisis than the one already present. If China and Russia had not vetoed the UN resolution, the obvious next step would either be to implement harsher sanctions or to intervene, either with air strikes (which were so successful in Libya) or with ‘boots on the ground’. The latter is an extremely unpopular option after a decade of troubled military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, so is highly unlikely. The use of airstrikes also seems an unlikely option: geographically, it was possible to conduct airstrikes on Libya without any of its neighbouring states feeling threatened (not that they had reason to be) but the case is completely different when it comes to Syria. Its close proximity to Iran means that if air strikes were carried out over Syria, Iran’s anxieties may heighten. It could possibly deeming itself ‘in range’ – especially when you consider Israel’s desire for a pre-emptive strike against Iran, and wide Arab condemnation of Iran’s alleged nuclear programme. All of these reasons would raise the stakes of any military intervention to protect the citizens of Homs, and perhaps go a long way to explaining why political rhetoric has been the only activity so far. Diplomatically, intervention could cause a much larger shock wave than the violence which is at present contained in Syria alone.

Will Homs end up as another Budapest? The apprehension around Iran, and Israel’s desire for a pre-emptive air strike against that country appears reason enough to divert attention and concern away from Syria onto a larger, regional issue. Sadly, this may account for the little that has happened so far, and bodes even less well for the future of Homs.

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