Thursday, 29 August 2013

A Syrian Answer ?

99 years and 1 month ago today, July 29th 1914, Europe stood on the brink of war. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia the day before and triggered a chain reaction of events which would lead to Britain's entry into what became known as the First World War less than a week later.

I wonder, if sites like politicalbetting had existed then, whether the majority of those posting would have wanted the Empire to rush into war for the sake of Serbia though it is certain almost no one could have foreseen the catastrophic consequences of that war many of which we still live with today.

2013 is manifestly not 1914 but once again the calm of a European summer is threatened by the sounds of war and this time it's Syria and the on-going civil war.

Yesterday morning, the bellicose rantings of those advocating military action were at a peak and it seemed plausible that any minute the skies over Damascus would echo to the sound of incoming cruise missiles. However, the slight figure of United Nations Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon put paid to all that with the simple observation that the Inspectors sent to Syria to determine whether there had been a chemical weapons attack at all should be allowed to complete their work.

That said, there seems very little doubt based on the Intelligence Community report that an attack happened and that the Syrian regime was directly responsible:

Assuming this is corroborated by the UN Inspectors, the stage will shift to New York as the western powers seek a UN Resolution authorising the use of force to stop the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This might in the first instance be a demand that Damascus reveals all its chemical stockpile and that these weapons and the means of producing more are dismantled and destroyed under UN supervision.

It is only IF the Assad regime fails to comply with this that military force would be used to avert further humanitarian suffering. Of course, the view among some is that once chemical weapons are discovered to have been used, this represents a crime against humanity and the UN already sanctions actions against such crimes so no resolution is needed.

In practice, as happened with the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, a new UN Resolution has the not unwelcome effect of building a general consensus for the action. The question this time is whether a Resolution can be worded sufficiently strongly to carry general support (allowing for Russia and China to abstain) while making sure Damascus knows there is intent behind it.

This is the second Act of the drama assuming the Inspectors confirm that a chemical attack took place. From this, one of two outcomes is possible - either the UN will agree a Resolution which will probably demand that the Syrian Government hands over all its chemical weapons and that these weapon along with the means of producing them are dismantled and destroyed under the supervision of the UN (akin to what happened to IRA weaponry after the end of the Troubles).

The other outcome is that any Resolution is vetoed by Russia and China and then Washington and London will need to decide if they want to go ahead with military action or not and that point David Cameron will be forced to seek the assent of Parliament for such action.

If we are going to make a difference in Syria, then I think three things need to happen:

1) Force or the Threat of Force: Assad (who I don't think is very important) and his Army Commanders (who I think are the real power) need to decide if they really want this confrontation. They will know that against the might of American airpower they will be swiftly and brutally overwhelmed and it may even be that by the astute use of missiles, the regime's capacity to wage much in the way of war will be denuded without a single western plane needing to fly.

2) The Opposition needs to start thinking: The Syrian Opposition, as was the case in Libya, is a rag tag and bobtail of disparate political, regional and religious groups united only in their hatred of Assad and the Alawites. They are, for better or worse, the only game in town but the growing apparent influence of Islamist elements concerns many outside Iran. No one wants Syria to be a pro-Iranian Islamist anarchy after Assad so the Syrian Opposition need to realise that they need to be seen as a credible representative alternative to the Ba'athist Government. The West will have no truck with a movement more interested in revenge than governing for and seeking to improve the lot of the whole Syrian people.

3) We need to talk about Russia: The notion that Russia props up Assad is only half right. I strongly suspect Putin doesn't care about Assad personally (though he might offer him a place to go when the time comes) but he does care about Russia's military and commercial interests. Those military interests are primarily the naval base at Tartus which the Russians have used since 1971.

Tartus is the last Russian naval base outside the territory of Russia and the only Russian refuelling point in the Mediterranean. To lose such a facility would be a huge blow to the prestige of the country and to that of President Putin.

The Opposition and the West need to accept that, like it or not, they may need to tolerate a continued Russian presence in Tartus and continued Russian influence in a post-Assad Syria. My guess is Putin will die in the ditch for Tartus but not for Assad. A sensible Opposition would recognise this and publicly state that it would honour the existing 1971 agreement with Moscow. Some Washington hawks might not be happy but it might be the key to unlocking the door allowing Putin to distance himself from Assad.

I suspect that once Russian co-operation is gone, the Assad regime will either come to the negotiating table or go down in flames. It's to be hoped they choose the former option.

The priority must be to end the brutal fighting in Syria and begin the process of economic, social and political reconstruction under a new Government representative of the wider Syrian population.

In a sense, the chemical weapons aren't important - tank shells and bullets kill people too.

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