TO INTERVENE OR NOT TO INTERVENE? WESTERN POLICY IN THE SYRIAN CRISIS
"As the death toll mounts on the streets in Syria, it is important to remember how we got here. Damascus has decided to reassert control over its restive cities by using the full might of its military. This should not come as a surprise to observers and policy makers. Indeed, the surprise is that the government has taken this long to order its offensive.
In the first three months of this crisis, it is fair to suggest that the opposition was largely peaceful. By the summer of 2011, this was beginning to change. The uprising was morphing into an armed resistance as weapons started to surface on Syrian streets. The defining moment was at the beginning of Ramadan. Contrary to consensus opinion, the government was not deterred by the start of the Holy month. Hama was stormed and taken back from the opposition to the shock of the region. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made its first defining public comment on Alarabiya Television Channel immediately following Hama’s fall to the government, after withdrawing its ambassador from Syria.
Since Hama, Syrian opposition members have begun increasingly to call to demand weapons and a military response to overpower the regime. For the next 6 months, Syrian streets and neighborhoods became armed enough that the mighty Syrian army had to think twice before entering the developing mini enclaves ruled by the opposition within its cities. Not surprisingly, taking up arms suddenly became the accepted modus operandi of the opposition and the uprising. Those cautioning against such strategies were referred to as ignorant or regime supporters.
Young opposition activists who followed the advice to arm and fight the regime are now being left to fend for themselves against the military Goliath of the Syrian Army. As I wrote following my return from the country, many assured me that the armed forces were yet to use more than 20% of their capacity. As I listened to pronouncements by opposition leaders about the necessity to arm, I could not help but wonder what would happen when Damascus would unleash its full military might. We will now find out.
While Rastan, Homs and Zabadani were becoming hell for its residents, I was dismayed to see that the so-called brains of this revolution were landing in Doha airport. The purpose of the meeting is of course to focus on “the situation on the ground in Syria” and find ways of “helping the rebels”. How infuriating to see men in suites sit in the comfort of Doha hotels instructing the poor men, women and children of the restive neighborhoods of Syria on what they should do next. The fact is that since the first calls to arm the population, the brain trust of this revolution sent the people of Syria into a kamikaze mission. Did anyone really think that the Syrian army was going to be defeated at the hands of poor young men with Kalashnikovs?
Sadly, following the double veto at the U.N., many capitals have announced that they are willing to further arm the rebels. This is a travesty. The fact is that no amount of arms in the hands of such untrained rebels will come even close to defeating the Syrian army. This insanity must stop. The Syrian National Council and regional powers must come up with a different strategy if they truly care about the Syrian people who are now dying on the streets and in their homes. Some have argued that had it not been for the veto at the U.N., the Syrian army would not have responded this way over the past 48 hours. This is false. The decision to storm Homs and Zabadani was made before the vote. The central government decided to restore its control over all its cities before a Syrian Benghazi could be established.
At the beginning of this crisis, I was skeptical that the opposition was as armed as the government media claimed. By the end of Ramadan, I had no doubt that armed elements were indeed committing violence against government forces and others. This was confirmed to me by a first-rate reporter who has spent months in the most troubled cities and neighborhoods of Syria. This is not to give a pass to the government. It is the stronger of the two parties, and it must assume most blame for the violence. The leadership has been very consistent in its defiant attitude. In spite of this, many still speculate that the President will soon step down or leave the country. Such false signals have convinced those taking up arms that their strategy is somehow working and that a “win” is around the corner. This is regrettable and dangerous".
Ehsani, "Syria's opposition must find a different way." Syria Comment. 10 February 2012, in www.ft.com.
"The carnage in Syria is getting worse by the day as the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his clan continue their week-long bombardment of the all but defenceless city of Homs, killing hundreds to add to the more than 6,000 who have died in the past year....
The calls grow louder for external actors in Europe, Turkey and the Gulf to start arming the disparate defectors operating under the franchise of the Free Syrian Army and, as the regime’s assault will certainly continue, to devise ways of protecting civilians, trapped in towns they can neither defend nor evacuate. There are no easy answers to this appalling situation, but there are plenty of questions.
Until now, the western powers that flew to the aid of Libya’s rebels last year have insisted that Syria is different – in geography and geopolitical weight, and because it is a complex religious and ethnic mosaic that could disintegrate into the sort of sectarian wars that have scarred its neighbours in Lebanon and Iraq if it came under external attack....
Arming the rebels will raise the price of regime repression, and perhaps raise a pole of resistance that will become a magnet for defectors. Every regime offensive, however bloody, has shown the Assads can rely only on two loyal units staffed by their minority sect, the heterodox Shia Alawites, and that when they deploy units reflecting Syria’s 70 per cent Sunni majority, troops defect.
But a decision to arm the FSA could speed the spiral into sectarian war. It would probably also soon require further steps: such as safe havens for refugees that would then have to be defended, including by aerial bombardment. To do otherwise would be to risk another Srebrenica.
But there is a further lesson from Bosnia. Then, western powers dithered so long that by the time they took action they found that jihadis – some sponsored by the Gulf – had got there before them. In Bosnia’s case most moved on to new campaigns in Chechnya. That is unlikely to happen in an Arab heartland country such as Syria – whereas Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Qatar are likely to swing behind the rebels soon. Ayman Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s new leader, has already scented the opportunity, by calling for jihad in Syria in a new video.
It is important, therefore, that the Arab League reaffirms its transition plan and recognises the Syrian National Council, the main political front of the opposition, paving the way for western nations to follow. As a second step, and in alliance with Turkey, which has provided an organising hub for the SNC and the FSA, every effort must be made to develop the unity and the programmatic coherence of the until now fractious rebel camp. It, in both its own and Syria’s interests, must spell out a plural and multi-confessional future for the country’s minorities, not just Alawites but Christians, Kurds and Druze clinging to the regime through fear of Sunni reprisals.
It then becomes easier to ratchet up international pressure and to contemplate safe havens that should help the opposition solidify.
The situation is finely poised. It could change quickly with the emergence of a new element in the equation. One notable factor would be the defection of significant army units. The opposition’s goal must be to split the army. But it will eventually need help, including arms, to do so, and it would be better for Turkey and the Arab League to be at the heart of this than Gulf states operating solo – and tilting Syria towards the Wahhabi strain of Islam".
Leader, "Stopping the Syrian Carnage." The Financial Times.17 February, in www.ft.com.
"To be, or not to be, that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles And by opposing end them".
Shakespeare, Hamlet. Act 3, scene 1.
The crisis in Syria continues with it would appear no end in sight. Except for perhaps the regime drowning the opposition in oceans of blood, via unrestricted bombardment of civilian areas in cities likes Homs. Judging from the language that is coming out of both Moskva, Peking and Teheran, there does not appear to be any real slippage in the outside support for the Assad regime. Nor does the likelihood of increased economic sanctions by the Western powers appear to be influencing Assad, et. al, in their decision-making 1. In short, we have a situation akin to that of Libya circa one year ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina circa 1992 and Kosovo circa 1998. The question for the Western powers is: do they stand aside from the conflict and allow a civil war of perhaps uncontrolled proportions break-out, presuming that the Assad regime is unable to put down the rebellion. There are of course cogent arguments to be had for both a policy of strict non-intervention and overt intervention. In the case of the former, the Center for European Reform put out last week a note, by Edward Burke who observes that au fond the real problem with Western policy in the crisis is:
"A number of diplomatic rules have been ignored by Western governments in Syria. First, never rule out force publicly even if you have done so privately....
The West should try to rein in efforts by Gulf countries to arm a range of insurgent groups, many of which are deeply mistrusted by important minority groups such as Syria's Kurds and could do significant damage to the credibility of the opposition movement. Syria badly needs a credible shadow government to negotiate with external parties. Until one emerges, Western diplomats should discourage the distribution of weapons to disparate groups feuding for leadership.
Given the enduring strength and resistance of the Syrian regime, and the lack of any immediate military means to weaken it, it is disappointing that Western countries have all but cut off diplomatic contacts with Damascus. The West should re-start diplomatic dialogue with Syria without pre-conditions. In the end an unsavoury deal such as that made with President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen – granting him immunity from prosecution – may be appropriate for key members of the Syrian elite. Western leaders need to grapple with what an acceptable deal could look like. Issuing statements that condemn a regime is easy; but it is tough diplomatic negotiations with the government in Damascus that can best help the Syrian people" 2.
In essence having sold the pass by from the very beginning letting the Assad regime know that there was no possibility of Western military intervention `a la that in Libya. Having done so, there is very little possibility (as per this argument) for the West to recoup it position other than via diplomatic means. And that any support for arming the rebels, especially rebels supported by the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia will make a prolonged and bloody conflict more rather than less likely. Especially, since all those national and religious groups in Syria who have so far failed to join the opposition: Christians, Alawites, Shiites, will hardly be encouraged to do so, by said oppositions being backed by Sunni Arab countries who are notorious in their religious intolerance for minority groups. The example of Iraq of course being upper most in every one's mind as it comes to the fate of minorities when nation x,y or z is faced with political tumult. With all that in mind, the very best that can be done is to endeavor, to play the diplomatic hand 'long' and rely upon economic sanctions to work as a long-term proposition. Something which as per the piece in Syria Comment, may take upwards of two to three years to work.
The countervailing argument is that the absence of Western military action, now will either: i) see the Assad regime remain in power for an extended period of time, `a la the Saddam Hussein's regime circa 1992-2003; ii) or the country fall into a very bloody and prolonged civil war `a la what occurred in the Lebanon from 1975 to 1990. How likely are these scenarios? The first of the two 'i', is I believe very likely indeed. Even with perhaps military assistance being given to the rebels by the Gulf Arab states. Once again as the commentator in Syria Comment clearly states, military assistance sans trained units to properly use the same, will merely provide a license to the Assad regime to massacre and kill in much greater numbers than at present. With the excuse that the gloves are off, in the context of a military rebellion and or civil war in the offing. In that respect, the prospectus by the American intelligence firm, Stratfor, that 'the Syrian state is still very much holding and the rebel forces remain divided and do not appear to be capable of serious advances against the government', seems to support the notion that sans overt Western military intervention, greater than what occurred in Libya and akin to what happened in Iraq circa 2003, the Assad regime will remain in power for some time to come 3. With that being said, the issue then becomes: what are the risks and or losses involved in that outcome? Per se, the 'risks' involved in the Assad regime remaining in power for x amount of time are simply that of a continuation of the status quo ante, as it relates to the geopolitical balance of power in the Levant. Albeit with a Syrian regime which is both politically and militarily weaker than previously. Which from a Western perspective is all to the good. But not so weak that it could be easily overthrown. Once again, akin to the situation that existed in Iraq circa 1992 to 2003. Not by any means the best of situations in the Near and Middle East, but by no means the worse of the same. Or as Voltaire once aptly put it best: 'le mieux est l'ennemi du bien'.
To sum up, I would like to analyze this situation in light of a recent appraisal of the variables involved in the successes and lack thereof in recent Western military interventions in the tiers monde, by the Member of Parliament and writer, Rory Stewart, in the London Review of Books. As per Stewart:
"The last two decades of intervention suggest one thing: that interventions are intrinsically unpredictable, chaotic and uncertain. They can work: the international community played a prudent and constructive role in Bosnia, and the Bosnia of 2005 was far better than that of 1995. But in Iraq and Afghanistan, disorder and chaos seemed predestined. Guilt at lost lives, embarrassment, pride, fear of Islamists and hubris all prevented the West from acknowledging failure: instead of pulling back, they dived ever deeper. And their occupation bloated, warped and corrupted the fundamental structures – social, political and economic – of the countries they were purporting to help" 4.
With all that being said and understood, it seems to this observer that the time for overt Western military intervention has not yet arrived in the case of Syria. And indeed that the West will be better put to endeavor to exercise as much restraint over the Sunni Arab Gulf states as possible. A programme of covert military assistance to the rebels by these countries has the possibility (admittedly unlikely) of causing a very difficult and bloody situation to become worse not better. The very last thing that the nations and the peoples of the Levant need, require or desire is a replay of Afghanistan-style jihad in Syria.
1. Angus MacSwan, "Iranian Ships reach Syria, Assad allies show support." Reuters. 20 February 2012, in www.reuters.com.
2. Edward Burke, "Russia is not completely wrong about Syria." Center for European Reform. 17 February 2012, in www.cer.org.uk.
3. Bokhari, "Geopolitical Weekly: Jihadist opportunities in Syria." Stratfor: Global Intelligence. 14 February 2012, in www.stratfor.com.
4. Rory Stewart, "Because we weren't there?" The London Review of Books.22 September 2011, in www.lrb.co.uk.