WESTERN POLICY IN SYRIA: THE END OF THE LINE?
"Given the mayhem in Syria, where death, destruction and displacement are routine, nothing shocks us any more. We’ve seen chemical weapons used, children tortured, refugees starved to death; we have watched the Syrian state collapse and neighbouring countries destabilised. Few expect the disintegration to stop. Ask diplomats or analysts about Syria these days, and you are likely to hear predictions of several more years of war and fragmentation. And yet there are still moments in the crisis, which will soon enter its fourth year, that have so much destructive potential that they should shock us – and force us to recognise how badly adrift western policy on Syria has been. A crucial moment came earlier this month when a collection of fighters known as the Islamic Front seized control of weapons depots and the headquarters belonging to rival rebels backed by an international coalition of western and Arab states. The US and Britain promptly responded by suspending non-lethal aid to rebel-held northern Syria, amid concern that it would end up in radical hands, if it had not done so already. Selim Idriss, the western-backed chief rebel commander, and the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition group, tried to dress up the incident in less dramatic terms, claiming they had requested the Islamic Front’s help when their people were attacked by al-Qaeda groups. In reality, though, the seizure of the equipment and headquarters was an attempted coup against the coalition. It was also the unravelling of the policy of western governments that have backed it. There is no denying today that whatever small influence the moderate rebels once had on the ground (and it was never much) is fast evaporating. The moment is more disturbing when you take this into account: those who have facilitated the finance and arming of the Islamic Front are members of the same foreign alliance that backs the coalition: Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The three countries had been urged, time and again, by their western partners to channel funds and weapons only through Mr Idriss. They have never listened. With a US-Russia sponsored peace conference on Syria planned in Switzerland in January, surely the illusion that any diplomatic progress can be achieved has been shattered – not that there was much hope to begin with. The idea of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian strongman, agreeing to hand power to a transitional authority (the basis of the peace conference) was never persuasive, especially when the momentum on the ground has been moving, even if only slightly, to his advantage. On the other side, meanwhile, the most lethal actor among the rebels is now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which is the main al-Qaeda group. Its principal competitor is the Islamic Front, not Mr Idriss’s Free Syrian Army.... After many months of denial it is plainly clear to the coalition that the west can deliver nothing substantive on the military front and barely any coherence on the diplomatic front. Just like the coalition they back, the US and its western partners have very little influence over what happens in Syria."Roula Khalaf,"The west’s policy on Syria has worked to Assad’s advantage." The Financial Times. 29 December 2013, in www.ft.com. The above referenced article by Mme. Khalaf is significant not so much for what is says as the tone of the article itself and its underlying message: that Western policy in Syria has reached a cul de sac. That any hopes, once so bright of ousting the Assad regime are no more. Given the fact that Mme. Khalaf was one of the most vociferous advocates of regime change in Syria, the fact that she has surrendered any hopes for the same is to my mind of true importance. As many reports in recent days have shown, the 'rebels' as such are for the most part made up of a odd mixture of thugs, gangsters, and Islamic fanatics of the Al Qaeda variety. Now, perhaps thankfully fighting it out among each other in portions of Northern Syria, where the supply lines into this miserable and unfortunate country are quite lucrative 1. Whatever may have been the case, circa the Summer of 2011, any thoughts now, and indeed one year ago or even two years ago of Western military intervention were and are a non-starter. And in all honesty, I fail to see any real public support for any policy of regime change, even in the Summer of 2011. Sans such support, Western officialdom would hardly have dared at the time to proceed along these lines. Only if regime change in Syria had involved something along the lines of the very limited level of Western intervention in Libya, would Western opinion have been supportive or at least not have been categorically opposed. However, Syria was not and has never been Libya and a policy of regime change always would have required a much heavier degree of military intervention. And, given the state that Libya is in at the moment, one is rather skeptical that a quick strike policy of mere overthrow, without a long-term military presence would have lead to any real degree of stability in Syria. Just as the current chaos that is Libya clearly seems to indicate 2. Indeed, so far the best prophet as to events in the regime since 2011 is none other than that towering intellect, Vladimir Putin. Sad but very true. 1. Joshua Landis, "The Battle between ISIS and Syria’s Rebel Militias." Syria Comment. 4 January 2014, in www.syriacomment.com 2. Ajay Makan, Borzou Daragahi, "Libya militias defy Tripoli on oil trade." The Financial Times. 7 January 2014, in www.ft.com.