Friday, October 26, 2012

TO INTERVENE OR NOT TO INTERVENE: THE DEBATE ON SYRIA CONTINUES

"This weekend Syria’s bloody conflict went regional. The killing of Lebanon’s top security official and tensions at the borders with Jordan and Turkey prove that Bashar al-Assad’s fierce battle to hold on to power is causing wider instability. This is making the west’s posture of concerned non-intervention harder to sustain. The west has long walked a difficult line on the Syrian conflict. It has called for Assad to go but done nothing actively to promote this end, fearing the risks of being drawn into a prolonged and messy civil war. The result unfortunately has been to encourage Assad to fight on, while simultaneously leading to the radicalisation of the opposition. The result is now a vicious stalemate in Syria, with huge loss of life. But with neighbouring states being sucked into this morass, the stakes have risen beyond the purely humanitarian concern that everyone must feel for Syrian citizens. Exhorting Assad to change tack has been a waste of breath. While he continues to be propped up by Russia and Iran, he has every incentive to prolong the war, even if he has no chance of prevailing militarily. Russia’s split with the international community, meanwhile, also rules out any consensus on a UN-led intervention. This, then, is a choice between unappealing options. The international community can sit back and allow the war to burn on, sucking in more radical elements and potentially sparking a series of wider regional conflicts. Or it can offer more than rhetorical support for the anti-Assad forces in Syria. This is far from a simple option. Not only would it risk a conflict with Russia and Iran, it could also end up militarising an opposition that may contain unsavoury jihadist elements. This is particularly concerning in a situation where Assad has the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the world. If anything is to be done to change the dynamics of this conflict, the west must prepare the ground for greater intervention. This does not mean boots on the ground. But it does mean arming the rebels. This will not happen overnight. If the west is to supply more sophisticated weaponry to the opposition, it has to establish a more formal relationship with them. There have to be safeguards on how these weapons will be used. And when hostilities are concluded, it must be possible to recover them. Finally, a broader case needs to be built with regional powers, such as Turkey and the Arab world, to justify such intervention. Non-intervention is only credible as a policy if it is respected by everyone. This is manifestly not the case in Syria. The Assad regime is receiving military and financial help from Iran and Russia. The rebels are being supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The conflict is at a bloody impasse, while the policy of the international community amounts to little more than hand-wringing from the sidelines. This risks prolonging a dreadful conflict and radicalising the region. Now is the moment to change course".
Leader, "Time to Change course on Syria." The Financial Times. 22 October 2012, in www.ft.com.
"The US government should tell Assad that he must launch serious negotiations for a transition government. If he does not, Western governments should supply opposition militias with ground to air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air-force. Circumstantial evidence suggests that US officials in Libya may already have been working to facilitate the transfer of portable heat-seeking missiles—the bulk of them SA-7s—from Libya to Syria. As soon as the elections are over in the US, Washington should redouble its efforts at changing the balance of power in Syria, if Assad does not begin to form a transitional government in earnest. He must come to terms with the most powerful rebel leaders or see his air force neutralized. Lakhdar Brahimi of the UN should be empowered to monitor and report on these negotiations, judging if they are sincere. Assad should be encouraged to work toward some sort of agreement comparable to the Taif Agreement — or National Reconciliation Accord — that ended the Lebanese civil war. It may be impossible to get the Sunni militias to accept such a solution, particularly as they remain so divided. All the same it is worth trying. It is unclear whether Assad will chose to fall back to the Alawite Mountains, where he can may struggle to protect Alawites from uncontrolled retribution, but where his capacity to damage to the rest of Syria is severely limited. Assad has no possibility of regaining control of Syria. He does not have soldiers enough to retake lost cities. But he insists on using his air force to destroy what remains of rebel held towns. This is senseless destruction. He has no hope of recapturing them. It should be stopped. He has been carrying out a scorched earth policy that is killing thousands, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless, and destroying Syria’s precious architectural heritage. I have long resisted supporting US intervention, believing that the US should refuse to get sucked into Syria. It cannot determine what is fair. No one truly understands the “real” Syria today, as Syrians are only beginning to emerge from 40 years of sever authoritarianism that stopped politics in its tracks. What new social forces will emerge in the coming years is impossible to determine. Most importantly, the opposition has been too fragmented to replace the Syrian Army as a source of stability and security. Syrians need to find their own way forward and to create a new balance among the sects and regions. Decapitating the regime too suddenly, I believe, would likely result in a number of unhappy endings: a massacre of the Alawites, a civil war among militias that could bring even greater suffering, or a melt-down of security as happened in Iraq.... Assad and his increasingly Alawite manned army can no longer control Aleppo and Damascus, which are overwhelmingly Sunni. Assad may not even be able to defend the Alawite Mountains from the growing strength of Sunni militias. The fate of the Alawite region is likely to depend on whether Sunni forces can unify — an eventuality that is not assured. The US should stay out of the struggle to define the internal arrangement of Syrian factions. Who knows how Syria will look when the fighting is over? Will the Kurds gain independence or a large measure of autonomy? How will the Alawite Territory be connected to Syria? Will the city of Latakia become an Alawite or Sunni dominated city? Will the government in Damascus hold central power as firmly in its hands as it has over the last 50 years? Or will Syria find unity in a larger measure of federalism? One can change views on these questions every day — the outcome depends on decisions yet to be made by Syria’s many leaders — but it seems clear that the Syrian air force has simply become an instrument of destruction. The day of reckoning for Alawites and for Syrians at large is only being put off by the lopsided use of air power. The US has already played a decisive role in tipping the balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime. It is time to help the Syrian opposition stop the government use of air-power".
With the lastest collapse of an attempt at a cease-fire in the Syrian Conflict it is apropos I do believe to look seriously at the various proposals that have been made recently for the Western powers to intervene in a more overt fashion than previously in the conflict 1. As the usually well-informed Dr. Landis notes, it is probably the case, that there is some (admittedly low) level of Western military assistance to the rebels fighting the regime of Assad Fils. Of course any such intervention so far, cannot said to be equal to the level of military and financial assistance given by the Gulf Monarchies, Saudi Arabia and of course Turkey. To my mind the real issues are as follows: i) will the imposition of a Syria-wide 'no fly' zone, be possible? ii) will such a step have a major impact on the fighting? iii) and if 'i' and 'ii' are indeed true, what will be the positive end-result for the Western Powers of such military intervention? Will it result for example in the Western Powers being able to play 'King-maker' among the disparate groupings which form the Syrian Opposition on the ground in Syria? Or at the very least, ensure that said groups endeavor to co-operate with the Western Powers `a la the current government (so-called) in Libya? iv) what will be the response of the Western Powers if in reaction to Western intervention, even limited to that of enforcing a 'no fly' zone, Persia and its allies in the region (Hezbollah and perhaps Iraq) were to also step-up their own assistance and indeed to even take the opportunity of a non-UN sanctioned, Western military intervention to intervene overtly in the conflict? Indeed, what would be the reaction if (an unlikely contingency but still...) Moskva itself were to react by stepping up its undoubted, if admittedly limited military assistance? What if say Moskva were to supply Damascus with highly advanced air defense systems? The above referenced questions are to my mind au fond, the ones that should be asked prior to the Western Powers undertaking any form of military intervention, even the limited ones suggested by the Financial Times and Dr. Landis among others. As per the particulars of the above referenced questions: the answers to 'i' is a most definite 'yes'. The answer to 'ii' is a probable 'yes'. The answer to questions 'iii' and 'iv' are at this time completely unknown. Unless there is a greater degree of Western, sub rosa involvement, on the ground in Syria itself, it is highly doubtful that the Western powers, sans the introduction of ground forces in the conflict, will be able to ensure that so-called 'moderates' in Syria will emerge in control, once Assad, et. al., are deposed from power. Similarly, it is not clear to me, that the Western Powers or their local allies have readily usable options, in case of Persia, et. al., were to intervene overtly in the conflict on the ground. Will for example, the Western powers step-up their intervention in response to any greater involvement by Persia? Unless there is a sea-change in the thinking of the governing elites in Western Europe and the United States, the question answers itself. Id est., a most definitive non. The upshot is that the question of Western military intervention is a much more complex one than what its proponents make a claim for. It is probably the case, that the enforcement of a 'no-fly' zone will indeed allow the rebel forces in Syria to battle the regimes forces with a greater degree of equality. It is uncertain though that merely the fact that there is a no-fly zone will be enough to lead to the near-term collapse or ouster of the regime. Particularly if there were overt Persian military intervention on the side of the Assad regime. Not to speak of the possibility of Russian counter-intervention in support of the regime in Damascus. The real quandry in this debate is perhaps best expressed by the American military expert Anthony Cordesman last year:
Syria is not Libya. While the later may be geographically much larger, it is a mostly empty country with a small population and very limited military capacity. In contrast, Syria’s population is more than three times larger than Libya, has almost 30 times the latter’s population density and a much larger and far more capable military overall. All of these factors complicate any calculus on military intervention in Syria, whether in terms of the level of potential military opposition, or with regards to the risk of high civilian casualties…. It could be argued that even without further escalation, a year of Syrian instability has been a critical setback not only to the Asad (sic) regime, but also to Iran and Hezbollah. Syria’s future will be governed largely by uncertainty and prolonged malaise. Given the range of risks, the US and its allies should consider carefully the potential costs and unintended consequences of further intervention in Syria”2.
Please do not doubt that in the Leibnizian best of all possible worlds, Assad, et. al., would be out of power and spending many years working as a galley slave. There is no gainsaying the fact that the overthrow of the Assad regime would be a defeat, a very clear and unmitigated defeat for Persia and its allies in the Levant. Unfortunately, I have not yet seen anyone who has yet cogently thought about the costs and repercussions of overt Western military intervention in a fashion which does indeed goes some way to answer all four questions raised above. Until someone does, I am afraid that the best answer to the question of intervening in the Syrian conflict is still for me 'non'.
1. BBC World Service, "Damascus Car Bombing wrecks Syria Eid Al-adha Truce." BBC World Service. 26 October 2012, in www.bbc.com.
2. Anthony Cordesman, "Instability in Syria: Assessing the risks of military intervention." Center for Strategic and International Studies. 13 December 2011, in www.csis.org.

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