Intervention in Syria: a cautious acknowledgement of its benefits
When one reads about the shootings in Syria, the killings, those who have gone missing at sea, the burning metal plates on which Assad’s lackeys place a victim in order to extract information from them – one cannot help be emotionally torn. Something must be done – and fast! But what?
The Syrian national council (SNC), so far recognised by 6 UN member states as the government-in-exile, is a split body. It has not yet formally accepted foreign intervention as a viable strategy to end the Assad regime, but then has the same teething problems as did the Libyan national council – that is organising amongst a rainbow coalition of varying different political directions, many of which are totally at odds.
An opposition of the size we’re talking about, in Syria, combining Islamists, Communists, liberal secularists and anything in between is always going to have complications operating, but analysis on the Syrian case shows divide is far more intrinsic and unceasing.
Even if consistency on foreign intervention was brought to fruition by the opposition groups, the legal case for western-backed military intervention would be frustrated by Russia and China – nations with too many business and diplomatic interests in Assad’s Syria, whose priorities are not to rock this particular boat (Russia having recently sent a flottila to Syria to symbolise its opposition to regime change).
Furthermore, Assad’s muscle men on the ground have been taking on protesters with bullets, utilising small mob groupings to contain dissent on the ground. Not only would intervention – like the one rumoured for Syria, reported PressTV (often hard to take seriously) – be tricky from western backers, far more so than in Libya where a No Fly Zone (NFZ) had obvious and immediate benefits, there is no safe base for rebels to coordinate resistence from. There is, as yet, no Benghazi of Syria.
As the American commentator David Dietz put it:
The problem isn’t a lack of military might or intelligence capabilities, but rather a lack of political resolve […] there is no clear group to save or a unified opposition to back [and] [t]he protesters are not based in an iconic square or area like they were in Egypt.
All this speaks to the great difficulties that dialogue between concerned nations and the Syrian opposition groups will have. But for some of the less thoughtful critics of military engagement in Syria, one is forgiven for suspecting that how complex intervention would be really doesn’t matter anyway.
Mehdi Hasan, in a piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, published in December last year, treads through the same motions as those I’ve explained above.
There is no call for [foreign military intervention] by opposition leaders, a NFZ would be of little value as Assad is operating with use of small clans on the ground, and a carpet bombing campaign would not help the opposition.
All well and good, but his primary belief shows itself right at the end of the piece, in fact the very last line, where he says: “The sad truth is, it is not our job to topple Assad.”
This simply overrides all previous considerations Hasan has made regarding how operationally difficult it would be to engage foreign action – and like the opinion of Alex Callinicos that the West did not have the moral authority to avert humanitarian crisis in Libya on the grounds that western capitalism destroys people at home, therefore opting for nothing to happen, allowing Gaddafi to unleash hell on his own people as revenge for daring to speak out against him, so Hasan believes it is a good and responsible principle that when a people are losing a fight for the freedoms we enjoy, the west should sit on its hands and watch because it is “not our job to topple Assad”. Well how terribly principled and privleged.
And because this seems to be the rule of the day, particularly for the political left, one is forced to seek information elsewhere on how to try and overcome the operational difficulties that engagement of the military would have right now. Seemingly, Michael Weiss has made the best effort to date, in his report Intervention in Syria? An Assessment of Legality, Logistics and Hazards.
In it he exemplifies the attacks that Turkey has experienced upon its embassies in Damascus, which raises questions of self-defense – and if ever there was a more prescient time for Turkey to do something, it is now after more than 10,000 refugees from Jisr al-Shughour fled to Antakya, in mid-June.
Problems here are obvious. Turkey has never conducted a humanitarian intervention on its own and it is unlikely to start now. Therefore a UN security council resolution authorising a NATO-led intervention or an Anglo-French-American-Turkish would assist in the defense of those parts of Turkey under attack – grounding the legal step that would later assist in halting the crimes perpetuated by Assad on his own people, in spite of sanctions and calls from foreign leaders to stand down.
Next for Weiss’ report is to note the Northwest province of Idleb as the best place to build up a “safe zone” (like Benghazi to the Libyan rebels) as anti-Assad sentiment is reasonably high. The Syrian military is already quite weak, numbering 450,000, ground troops at 100,000, reliant on soviet-era weaponry, including Naval facilities, and therefore is unlikely to be able to resist an intervention by a coalition of willing nations under legal writ.
Sanctions have done little to curb Assad’s brutality, and 10 months of peaceful protest by an opposition in Syria has resulted, at least, in 5,000 killed, 50,000 missing, 59,000 declared incarcerated and 16,000 dispossessed. The Arab League is to consider ending its monitoring process in Syria as violence continue, the Free Syrian Army has publicly threatened to escalate attacks against the Assad regime, and French President Sarkozy has said that Assad is committing massacres. Assad is ignoring all diplomatic calls to stop the violence – and when an autocrat breaches this level, history shows there are few peaceful alternatives left in the armory.
As Luke Bozier said recently: “Assad is a stubborn player, and he will have to be forced out.”
On top of all this, chemical weaponry is a real possibility. Syria has amassed a large cache, and is rumoured to have been building up more.
As I began, something must be done – time is running out and people are being slaughtered. The Syrian rebels need to appropriate what worked in Egypt and Libya by occupying a “safe zone”, they need to come together to commit to a working set of principles and arrangements vis-à-vis on agreeing a plan for engaging with foreign military powers. All legal procedures need to be completed, all alternatives need to be exhausted, and proven to be unhelpful (like sanctions – if more proof were needed), and the case for responsibilities beyond our own borders needs to be made once more. It worked in Libya, we should all like to see it work in Syria.