Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A Syrian Question

It seems once again that a quiet uneventful summer is to end to resonating drumbeat of impending conflict. This is not 1914 or 1939 by any stretch, nor, perhaps, even 1990 but the possibility of Western military action in Syria following the chemical weapons attack last week seems to be coming closer with every hour.

Last Wednesday a chemical weapons attack took place in a suburb of Damascus contested by Syrian Government and Opposition forces. As we can expect, like all civil wars, the Syrian conflict has been a master class in brutality and inhumanity. Thousands have died, hundreds of thousands now live in refugee camps in Turkey, Iraq and Jordan and the once beautiful cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and others have been pounded by artillery and riddled by small arms fire.

The Assad regime has shown absolutely no compunction in using whatever methods it has at its disposal to crush the opposition and the failure of the West to decisively intervene in the early enthusiasm has undoubtedly radicalised the Opposition forces. Assad  has unashamedly used Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon and even, it is believed, Iranian forces to bolster his weakened security apparatus. Even so, around half of Syria is now in rebel hands and while Government forces have made small advances, neither side is anywhere near victory.

The outside world has looked on in angst and anguish, polarised by the split between the West and on the other side, Russia, for whom Assad is a principal ally and the Tartus naval base a key strategic position for Russian shipping. With Russia and China vetoing any UN resolution, the international community has been left powerless.

The chemical attack last Wednesday changed this status quo. Chemical weapons are of course outlawed by the UN and just as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was a flagrant breach of international law, so, some argue, is this chemical attack and the UN Charter already provides for action to be taken against the perpetrators of such an attack.

UN Inspectors have gone to Damascus to try to determine exactly what did happen and exactly who fired the munitions. The evidence, such as there is, suggests that it was the Syrian Army division commanded by Assad's brother which carried out the attack though this is denied by the Assad regime and the regime's apologists even assert the rebels themselves carried out the attack to force an international response.

So we have Parliament recalled, the British Prime Minister talking earnestly to the American President, our hapless Foreign Secretary ramping up the bellicose utterings and we come back to the question of what we should do and what it will mean if we do it.

The shadow of Iraq and Afghanistan hangs over the debate. Had neither ever happened, I suspect the clamour for an attack would be overwhelming and overwhelmingly popular but Iraq did happen. We participated in the invasion of a sovereign country which, after an initial success, descended into brutal internal anarchy and where, it can be argued, one despotic regime has replaced another.

So, where does that leave us ? Few in the West would mourn the passing of Bashar Assad and his clique - after a promising start, he has shown himself to be the brutal apple which didn't fall far from the tree. Perhaps he has less authority than we imagine and the Syrian Army is in charge - it doesn't matter. If the Opposition were nice guys in white hats, it would be easy, but the Opposition have been brutalised by the conflict and many believe that were they to come to power, the cycle of violence and revenge would simply continue and Syria would at best be a semi-functioning anarchy and worse, it would divide with Iran controlling part, the Kurds controlling part and an unstable rump state.

Yet, unless we can persuade Assad and his cronies, by force, that political negotiation with the Opposition, rather than brutal suppression is the way forward, what alternative is there other than to either intervene directly with ground troops to sweep aside Assad and effectively occupy the country while seeking its political, economic and social reconstruction ?

We can of course play the longer game - work actively with the Opposition, providing them with the means to topple Assad from within though this will be a longer and bloodier task. It can be done but with a much more overt level of support than exists now. Needless to say, Assad would run to Russia and Iran for help and the bloody stalemate might continue for months if not years.

We could of course do nothing with regard to the conflict and concentrate our efforts on the humanitarian side especially with regard to the refugees pouring out of Syria into Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. The UN could build proper refugee colonies and make these places of safety for those seeking respite. The problem, as we know, is that refugee camps become rebel bases and so the conflict continues.

The dilemma facing all those seeking a way forward is that there is no easy answer. The two easiest options are either to do nothing or to intervene massively and comprehensively. I suspect neither is on the table as far as western leaders are concerned. Airstrikes at identified sites where chemical weapons are held is one option though this would have to be pending confirmation from the UN Inspectors that the Syrian Government did instigate a chemical attack on its people. Another would be a more co-ordinated air strike on the Syrian Army and Government with a view to paralysing its air defences and weakening its capacity to attack opposition forces.

At the same time, there needs to be a concerted international effort on the humanitarian and diplomatic fronts. The former needs supplies and aid which can be bought and paid for by the wealthy Arab states even if administered through the UN while the second needs Russia to be involved.

One option might be for an international conference aimed at seeking a political resolution to and transition to a new order in Syria. Russian access to Tartus would need to be guaranteed and Israeli security fears would need to be addressed but a united international community can bring pressure to bear on both the Syrian Government and Opposition to bring about genuine political change.