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Violence in Syria a global concern

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.

– by Matt Collette

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