This is not peace

Perhaps the definition of a crisis is that the ground shifts so often that one starts to feel seasick. That is certainly a good description of the Syrian crisis, where developments are happening thick and fast – and coming from all over the world. It is safe to say that, over night, my last post became utterly redundant. The make-or-break Congress vote was cancelled, military action indefinitely postponed – perhaps forever.

What caused such a turn around? Believe it or not, the Russians may have found a solution which everyone can almost agree on; for the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons to intermational control. They would be secured by UN inspectors and then destroyed. This, on the face of it, is a simple, effective solution, acting to prevent the repetition of war crimes. It also gives the US and Russia a reason to unfreeze their relationship, which could be the key to finding long-term peace.

See the full, edited version on Prospect’s website.

On Syria – a briefing

I do not remember the Rwandan genocide, nor the Bosnian war; Vietnam and Korea remain raw for many, but are history to me. Instead, I am of the Iraq/Afghanistan generation – I have grown up in a post-9/11 world where foreign policy has been dominated by the War on Terror. The lessons I have learnt warn of the dangers of an over-powerful executive (remember the scandal of Parliament’s Iraq vote?) and fabricated evidence. The military interventions I have known have been ill-defined and impossible to end, and may well have led to more civilian deaths than would have occurred if the West had stayed away. The events I have witnessed ever since I was just six years old have, naturally, made me quite sceptical about the West’s capacity to do good in the Middle East.

However, despite all the lessons that must be learnt – particularly from Iraq – it is time the spectre of that now-past era stopped inducing rash policy decisions on and hyped-up media coverage of Syria. The situation is different now, and clear thinking is needed. To do justice to the complexity of today’s events and the immense human suffering happening right now, we need to be making decisions which are not coloured by fear. And yet the events of the past two weeks have exposed the extent to which the West is still afraid.

It all started on the 28th August when news came that the Assad regime had probably crossed the ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. For the best part of a week, governments around the world scrambled to find enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the attack had indeed taken place, and that it had been perpetrated by the regime. UN weapons inspectors, already in the country investigating alleged previous chemical weapons usage, fought for and won access to the newly affected areas – rebel held suburbs of Damascus.

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This is where things started to unravel in the West’s response. David Cameron, the British PM, rushed headlong into a parliamentary vote without waiting for either UN or US intelligence. Although this was foolish and led to a deeply embarrassing defeat, Cameron was sending a signal: that unlike Tony Blair, he respects the workings of parliamentary democracy. The defeat itself was also political rather than strategic; the proposed motion promised another vote and more evidence before any actual military action could occur, and was intended to be merely symbolic. Here, Labour was equally as foolish as the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the real problem actually came when, following their defeat, Tory cabinet members overreacted. Too quickly, Cameron et al promised that there would not be another vote on military intervention and that any British involvement in Syria was simply off the table. This, they implied, showed that they respected the voice of Parliament. In reality, they have silenced that voice on the world’s most important issue and, in the process, relegated the UK to the children’s table of global politics. When it dawned on them that this was all rather embarrassing, the government quickly employed some verbal slight-of-hand and altered its message: there would not be a second vote unless the situation changed dramatically. It is safe to say that, given the vagueness of that condition, no one actually knows whether Britain may still get involved.

Focus quickly shifted to the US, where everyone expected President Obama to announce cruise missile attacks. But he, too, decided to surprise us by asking for a Congressional vote. He, too, seems to be mindful of the image of an over-powerful executive. However, there was no need for Obama to seek approval; unlike the British PM, the Presidency is designed to control foreign policy. Indeed, Congress hasn’t declared war since the US entered WWII in 1941. So, why is he bothering? Put simply, Obama wants Congressional Republicans to share the blame if intervention goes wrong. And yet, he is taking a huge risk. If he loses the vote (many members of Congress may vote against him in light of the strength of anti-war public opinion), it is hard to see a way forward. Will he simply make use of his prerogative powers and bomb Assad anyway? This may be better than become a ‘do-nothing’ Commander-in-Chief, but would still constitute political suicide. He may take some confidence in the fact that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and effective opposition leader, has signalled his support. But it will have been a long ten days for the President when Congress finally votes tomorrow.

The future of American foreign policy, and that of the democratic, developed countries it leads, now rests in the hands of the 112th Congress. So, in fact, does the future of Syria. That is more than a little worrying.

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So there’s your round up of what’s happening on the Syria question in Western politics. Now, here’s what I think.
 
I mentioned earlier that, thanks to circumstantial conditioning, I am a sceptic about intervention in the Middle East. But I am also a natural humanitarian; and I think it is time to act for three main reasons. Firstly, despite everything, I do believe that the West still has a role in imposing some basic morality, especially when it comes to preventing the mass murder of civilians by their own government.  I cannot forget the picture of a crying child among dead bodies, and I don’t think politicians should either. We have a duty to protect.
Secondly. the use of chemical weapons is against international law. In an increasingly globalised world, it is time to take such law seriously and to enforce them. There is no chance of getting Assad and his merry men to the Hague anytime soon, and so military action is the only way to do this. There is also a moral hazard problem here; if Assad is allowed to go unpunished there will be no reason for him – or any other despot – to refrain from using such nasty weapons. Do we want that to be the message we send to the regimes of North Korea or Pakistan? Just remember, 25 years after Saddam Hussein killed 5000 Kurds in a chemical attack on the town of Halabja, he was still murdering thousands of his people and unsettling the entire region.
Which leads me on to my third and last point. Letting the war rumble on as it is will increase the rate at which it spreads across the Middle East. As I have argued before, the Syrian civil war is not just a conflict between regime and rebels, but between Sunni and Shia. Already, the level of violence in Iraq is rising after years of tapering off. Tensions in Lebanon, whose civil war took place all too recently, are beginning to flair again. The once-secure monarchy of Jordan is being destabilised by huge numbers of refugees – as is Turkey, which has problems of its own to contend with. The sooner this ends, the quicker calm can be restored and a regional war avoided.
And so, against all instinct, I am advocating Western military action in Syria. To prevent the deaths of soldiers and unnecessary escalation, it is vital that politicians keep their promises and do not put boots on the ground. To prevent causing civilian deaths and even more dangerous acrimony between Islam’s many branches, it is vital that the West does not go in for regime change but instead uses targeted cruise missiles to disable Assad’s military capabilities and stop further breeches of international law. That way, it is possible to learn the lessons of Iraq and still do the right thing.
 

Only questions

Sometimes there is a problem to which no one has an answer, to which there is no answer. So it seems with the Syrian crisis – the ‘worst war of our time’ as one Newsnight reporter put it yesterday. Sorry Obama, Cameron and Hollande, for all your good intentions you’ll just have to wait this one out – there’s nothing you can do.

Since last week’s White House confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s forces, the pressure to arm the rebels has grown and Obama has finally bowed to it. But he was right to express concern in doing so – there is nothing the West can do to stop any arms ending up in the hands of the jihadists who are already gaining strength and support. No one wants a repetition of what happened after we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this mind-blowingly accurate book) – the Taliban made us miss the Soviets, and missing Assad is a sickening thought. If we were going to arm the rebels, we should have got on with it 18 months ago before the Islamists took control.

Even without the Islamist element to worry about, it is hard to ignore the harsh fact that more weapons generally means more death. Let’s not forget; 93,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria, many of them women and children and non-combatants. But that is not to say that the reasons given for arming the rebels are flawed – they’re just as sensible as the ones against. Proponents of the policy point out that, with his forces pushing back rebel lines, even taking back much of Aleppo, Assad has no incentive to enter any settlement which could lead to a peaceful transfer of power. Change the situation on the ground and his political rational will have to shift, sending him running for the negotiating table.

Still, I am inclined to believe that arming the opposition cannot have a positive outcome and so the question remains: what is to be done? The humanitarian in me cannot counternance not taking any action at all. A Libya-style no-fly zone is pretty much out of the question; Syria is too big, too spread out, to be comprehensively covered, and Assad’s air-defence systems are very advanced (thanks in no small part to his dear friends the Russians). The West, then, should give up on the fanciful idea of changing the balance of power and start doing what it can to stop people dying. The enormous sums of money which could be spent on arms should be spent instead on bullet-proof vests and helmets, on food and blankets for the homeless, on doing something to make the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan more than a living hell. These are the things which can be done without any risk, solely benefiting a population which, having spent two years living in a warzone, desperately needs help.

We will feel that this is inadequate – that our only thought should be to stop the bloodshed. But we can’t; the situation is too complex for any interference to be successful. Indeed, the Syrian conflict needs to shed the veil of the Arab spring and be seen for what it is, a proxy war between Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad on one side and Iraq and the West on the other. Put simply, it is just a small, bloody episode in the never-ending Sunni-Shia war. It is spreading over boarders – tensions in Lebanon, not-long dormant after the civil war, are rising again, and Turkey and Iraq are struggling too. The unrest threatens to engulf the entire region in bloody sectarianism – this is no place for American guns.

It won’t be a turning point

10 months ago I wrote that a massacre in Houla, a small town in Syria, would act as a turning point in that country’s civil war. With the slaughtering of women and children, I thought, the world would not stand on the side-lines and let more deaths pile on top of these. At the time, the death toll was 19,000. Now it stands at 70,000. The world is standing on the side-lines.

In some feeble attempt at doing something, Gulf countries have been helping to arm the rebels. This has, indeed, changed the balance of power – making it more equal. But all this has done is lead to stalemate: despite rebel control of some districts of Aleppo and Damascus, the regime still holds both cities. And the shelling continues, and childen keep dying.

The West has dithered. No-one wanted to enter another Arab country in an unwinnable war. To add to worries, it became obvious that any new regime would be Islamist-dominated (as in other countries buffeted by the Arab spring), and no-one fancied being responsible for that.

But no-one could stomach not saying anything. So President Obama drew a line in the sand, which, should the regime cross it, would trigger a severe response. That line was the using of chemical weapons. Last week, news came of a nerve agent attack. The line has been crossed.

Obama reacted with a caution which, unsurprisingly, did not match the rhetoric. He commented that more intelligence was needed, but one would think that photos of blistered skin would be confirmation enough. Finally, as I have been writing, the administration announced that they would be sending the rebels ‘lethal aid’ – in other words, sophisticated weapons. This is the first time America has taken real actions.

But I’d be surprised if he went further; there’s not a lot more he could do anyway. And although lethal aid sounds minor in terms of US foreign policy, it’s far from risk-free. He is gambling that the weapons won’t fall into jihadist hands. Nevertheless, the arms won’t bring the fighters anywhere close to the regime’s artillery power. In short, the use of chemical weapons by President Assad will not mark a turning point. The war of attrition will go on.

So what’s the outlook? It is far from promising. There are two ways it could go: continuing stalemate or a sudden dramatic collapse of the regime. Either way, the conflict is likely to spill over into Lebanon and drag in Iran, while bolstering the Islamists. This does not bode well for a fragile region and a fragile world. But let’s be clear, it seems Assad can gas his people with impunity.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Blood takes the spring out of Syria’s revolution

We first watched unrest on the streets of Syria in March, five months ago. By that time Egypt and Tunisia had toppled their dictators – and the whole Arab world seemed to be ablaze with possibility. As observers in the West, we naively expected Libya and Syria to go the same way, prehaps so did the Libyans and Syrians themselves. But it was not to be.

As NATO took the rather drastic, albeit necessary, step of intervening in Libya it also condemned the Syrian revolutionaries to a fight without support. And as NATO planes pummelled Col Gaddafi, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad took to shelling his own cities and arresting everyone he could get his hands on. So far, these are the official figures:
  • 1600 dead (although human rights groups would debate this – some putting the figure at over 2000)
  • 10000 people are thought to have fled to Turkey, where refugee camps have been established near the Syrian border.
  • Another 10000 are said to have been inprisoned for political reasons

In most situations, fear is the strongest of human emotions. But Syria’s brave protesters seem not to have noticed. They may cower in their homes from Saturday to Thursday, as tanks shell their cities and the regime’s snipers pick people off. Yet every Friday the protests erupt again. And the savagery increases.

All this has slowed the fall of Mr al-Assad, but it has not halted it. The more barbarian he is, the more international condemnation tightens its grip. The more brutal, the more anger is displayed every Friday. The more inhumane, the more certain I am that he will go. Why? Because his people face more danger in letting him stay than in fighting to the bitter end. Having seen such opposition al-Assad, if he retook control, would probably decimate his country. The Syrians know this. Arab leaders know this. The West knows too. And none of them is too keen on the prospect. Assad is a failed leader – now we just need to get rid of him.

That’s the hard bit, and a point on which I offer no wise words. It is impossible to promote bigger and bigger protests when I know what the concequences for the protesters would be. It is impossible to suggest military interventions – even if NATO was not so ridiculously over-stretched intervention is a dodgy path to take. The only thing we can do, it seems, is hope that the entire regime is struck by some awful unspecified illness. Well, have you got any better ideas? The protests will carry on and economic or diplomatic sanctions may bite sooner or later. It is impossible to say how Assad will go. But go he will.