Symbolic air-strike in Syria

Donald Trump has acted swiftly in response to Assad’s recent use of chemical weapons in Syria, by bombing the airfield from which the attacks had been launched.  A failure to respond would have appeared to condone a war crime.

His action was measured, and largely symbolic.  He had warned the Russians (and by extension the Syrians) of his intentions, which reduced the damage inflicted and reduced the risk of provoking Russia.  Russia’s subsequent protest is probably equally symbolic: not an overreaction and politically necessary.

There were both benefits and drawbacks to Trump’s strike. The benefits were twofold: the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated, so some punishment was appropriate, and it will probably deter Assad from repeating such attacks.

There were two obvious drawbacks: he bypassed the UN and he bypassed Congress.  He may have taken the view that this was unavoidable. The stalemate in the UN Security Council would have prevented any action from being taken against Assad, and a request to Congress would have delayed him at a moment when swiftness was called for (though he should still ask for retrospective approval).

Trump’s action will have done nothing to help the process of finding the solution to Syria’s problems, but won’t have harmed it either.  On balance, it seems to have been a sophisticated intervention, in circumstances where the ideal course of action (a meaningful response by the UN) was not possible.

Seen as a gesture against the use of chemical weapons, Trump’s action is probably better than doing nothing.  It is important, though, that America doesn’t broaden its involvement in Syria.  Its only agreed role there is the battle against ISIS.  Russia would feel obliged to escalate if Assad is further threatened and, as noted in a previous post, peace talks cannot begin meaningfully until order has been restored in Syria.

Syrian Peace Process

On 12 February, after talks in Munich, world powers agreed a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin a week later.  Much subsequent commentary is dismissive, for example the Telegraph’s remark that “The “nationwide ceasefire” supposedly agreed for Syria belongs in a special category of futility”, and has pointed out that the Syrian situation is still a grave risk to world peace. Although the civil war in Syria started as a local uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government, its subsequent trajectory has been much worsened by the involvement of external powers.  Western foreign policy has been misguided and many of the other participants in the conflict are pursuing their own interests in wider political struggles.  The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an example of a tension that could erupt to widen the war-zone.

Misguided Western Foreign Policy

The Syrian civil war has been partly fuelled by a Western foreign policy of intervening in the Middle East to encourage the spread of democracy, whilst having no regard for whether it is yet viable in the countries concerned.  The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq made way for sectarian strife and identity politics.  The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya had the same effect.  Encouragement for those who wished to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would, if successful, have repeated the pattern.

The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings seemed to be a clear expression of people’s wish for democracy in the Middle East.  Of course the population wanted democracy, because they thought it meant that they would have more say in how they were governed and that they would be able to overthrow the corrupt rulers who were looting their countries.  What they all failed to take into account, though, was that they couldn’t each have the government they wanted as they all have radically different ideas of what that might look like.  The fault lines within Islam, and between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, meant that the Middle East was a tinderbox even before the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya.  The flames of war are now well alight and Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL or so-called Islamic State) has emerged as a new threat, as a global sponsor of terror as well as a fighting force in Iraq and Syria.

Combating Daesh in its global aspirations

Daesh preaches a warped variant of Islam as it tries to gain support for creating a caliphate across the whole of the Middle East, if not the whole world.  It is appropriate to use the name ‘Daesh’ for the organisation led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because its other names imply that it is Islamic.  It has been roundly condemned by Muslim leaders.  We need to avoid feeding the perception that all Muslims are terrorists because that is exactly what Daesh is wanting.  Its acts of terrorism are designed as propaganda to create hostility towards all Muslims, because treating them all badly will cause some to be radicalised and join the jihad.  This strategy has been very successful in recruiting Western Muslims, as Islamophobia is now rife in the West (as exemplified by attacks against Muslims in Britain, Donald Trump’s popularity in America and the rise of the Front National in France).  Western military involvement in Syria also helps Daesh by enabling it to argue that the whole of Islam is under attack, thereby making it a religious duty to oppose the non-Muslim West.

The Daesh-sponsored terrorist attacks need to be dealt with in the countries where they take place.  They reflect different social and political problems.

Combating the Daesh military presence in Iraq and Syria

The world’s most complicated involvement with Daesh is where it started, in Iraq and Syria (whose borders were arbitrarily established by the British and the French in 1916, under the Sykes-Picot agreement).  In that region Daesh has a constantly growing army that has shown itself to be capable of seizing and maintaining control over large swathes of territory.

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the West and Russia are all opposing Daesh in its home territory, but there are also conflicts between these actors.  It will not be possible to reach a peace agreement there until order has been restored.  Bashar al-Assad’s authority will probably be re-established with Russian support, at least temporarily, even though that is unpalatable to the Western governments and their allies – who are recklessly still trying to encourage the spread of democracy in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, for example, has threatened to remove Assad by force.

Any visible Western military involvement in Iraq and Syria is likely to strengthen Daesh’s global aspirations by enabling it to depict the West as anti-Islam.  The Syrian government invited Russia to help it to restore order, but Western countries have no mandate to operate there and they are effectively helping Daesh propaganda by doing so.  Britain’s decision to bomb Syria was politically and legally unsound, described by James Meek as an attempt “to turn to purpose the inarticulate emotions of hate, rage and fear”.  Daesh must have been delighted with the result of the Parliamentary vote.

Although it would be possible to crush Daesh by using military force in Iraq and Syria, that alone would not bring peace (and Daesh would continue as a promoter of international terrorism).

A possible peace process

Peace negotiations in Syria would have to offer something tangible to the Sunni Muslim groups, who have genuine political grievances arising from their mistreatment by the Iraqi and Syrian governments.  The Russians have made it quite clear that the ceasefire that was proposed on 12 February will not become effective whilst there is any resistance to Bashar al-Assad, but those groups whom the Americans describe as ‘moderate’ opposition will not stop fighting merely to return to the pre-war situation.

Perhaps Assad’s opponents could be persuaded to have a cease-fire and negotiate if they were offered an enforceable process with clear parameters for reaching a new constitutional settlement for the region, possibly redrawing the borders (but it is much too soon to make specific proposals on what the outcome of the process might look like).  It would have to include all the participants, including neighbouring countries – and that has previously been recognised in earlier attempts to start peace negotiations; it is likely that Daesh would be refused a seat at the table, but it could be involved by proxy.  All the parties need to accept that the process almost certainly would include the restoration of Bashar al-Assad’s control, at least temporarily, and that it could not rule out giving him a continued role in at least part of the territory – because that decision is not for external powers to make; his future should be an outcome of the process, not a precondition for launching it.

Combating ISIS

French President Francois Hollande reportedly described the recent attacks in Paris as an “act of war” by the organisation calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) – which has claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 128 civilians.  But ISIS is not just an army that can be defeated militarily.  France and other Western countries are facing three distinct but connected problems of which ISIS forms a part: ISIS aims to establish a religious caliphate; it co-ordinates acts of terrorism in several countries; and it is active in Syria’s civil war.

ISIS (which is also known as ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh) has been described as being a descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Osama bin Laden claimed that Al Qaeda was engaged in a ‘just war’ and he also claimed religious legitimacy.  Both of these claims are rejected by authoritative figures in Islam and by most moderate Muslims; and in practice ISIS is predominantly fighting other Muslims.  Western political leaders are naturally encouraging moderate Muslims to preach against ISIS and reduce its allure.  Islamic leaders have to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.

It is attractive to disaffected Muslims to believe that they are fighting against Western oppression in the name of their religion.  Terrorism has long been part of the Islamist strategy, intended to provoke the West into sending troops to the Middle East so that other Muslims could then be persuaded to join the struggle in what would be seen as a holy war.  The Paris attacks are the latest in a long line of provocations dating back to before 9/11 – and the latter was successful in its aim of provoking George W Bush into declaring a ‘war on terror’ and sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.

The provocations are also helping right-wing political parties in Europe.  It has been reported that Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has experienced a surge of support as a result of the combination of the immigrant crisis and the acts of terrorism.  Anti-Muslim feeling benefits Europe’s far right as much as it benefits the ISIS strategy.  Ultimately the revulsion of most people will be the safety valve that prevents either ISIS or Europe’s far right from gaining permanent power.

ISIS is fighting alongside other groups in Syria and Iraq which also espouse Sunni Islam but which don’t necessarily share its vision of a caliphate.  The ISIS army in Syria can be fought with conventional weapons, including ‘boots on the ground’, but Western military assistance – even in the form of airstrikes – helps to feed the ISIS narrative of Islam as a whole being threatened by the West.  Russia has been invited to help the Syrian government to restore order and that seems to be the most viable strategy for resolving what should be seen as a local military conflict.  It is not yet clear what the solution might look like; changing the government in Syria, and even redrawing regional borders, might be negotiated once peace has been restored.

The French response to the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 has taken the form of increased airstrikes in Syria.  That may be politically popular because it looks like doing something, but Francois Hollande would be wiser to attend to France’s own problem: the need to coexist peacefully with its own Muslim population. David Cameron is now reported as wanting to make the same mistake: to obtain Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria, even though that is exactly what ISIS wants.  Doubtless the airstrikes would inflict some military damage on ISIS in Syria, but they would also provide powerful propaganda to help it recruit more followers in the wider jihad against Western liberal democracies.

Time for realism in Syria

William Hague’s thoughtful article in Tuesday’s Telegraph (13 Oct 2015) is based on the mistaken assumption that a Western military intervention in Syria could be helpful.  When you have a hammer it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail, but when you meet a screw it is better to use a screwdriver – which is slower, and involves many twists and turns, but ultimately leads to a secure solution.  Whereas military interventions have sometimes worked in the past, in this case they are a dangerous delusion. The narrative of a holy war to protect Islam against a Western attack is used by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL) to recruit more followers.  Air-strikes alone will not defeat it but past conflicts have illustrated how the locals will tend to join in any struggle against foreign ‘boots on the ground’ – even if that means making alliances with groups they would otherwise disagree with.  Now is the time to develop a better strategy.

Freedom and democracy are desirable goals, but survival of the civilian population is the highest priority.  The West should remember that the Christians in Syria are fighting alongside Assad, not against him, because they understand the overriding need for stability.

The Syrian government has killed many of its people.  War crimes have been committed, and not only by the government, but those responsible cannot be held to account until security has been restored.

Russia is self-interested but nonetheless wears the fig-leaf of having been invited by the Syrian government to operate in its country to help to restore law and order.

William Hague’s suggestion of “assistance from the West to the more responsible opposition groups” and his proposal for “the UK to join the military effort against Isil in Syria” would merely prolong the war and more people would die as a result.  There are grave risks of escalation in proxy wars, not just between different factions of Islam but between Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers and even between America and Russia.  Now is the time for realism.  Since Russia’s escalation of its support for Assad it is now next to impossible for freedom and democracy in Syria to be established by the use of force against the government.

William Hague rightly makes the point that ‘safe havens’ are an unrealistic option, partly because Russia would veto their authorisation by the UN and partly because they are difficult to defend by force unless they are reinforced by troops who are prepared to put their lives at risk – unlike the position in Srebrenica in 1995.

The refugee crisis has made the world aware of the scale of the Syrian problem, but only people who have enough money are reaching Europe.  The refugee camps in neighbouring countries are the only sanctuary for those who are less wealthy.  People cannot return home until there is a credible ceasefire.  William Hague makes a very sound point that these refugee camps are receiving insufficient aid.

A ceasefire has to be negotiated between all the combatants.  The American strategy seems to be to eliminate both ISIS and the Assad government, so that neither would be invited to peace talks, but this is totally unrealistic.  ISIS is thriving in the power vacuum of Syrian instability and is still gaining adherents.  The Assad government has Russian support and is unlikely to be overthrown in the short term.

For the West, working with the Russians in the UN Security Council would be a better plan.  Support for international law would give the West some dignity in a difficult situation.  Although this gives Putin a diplomatic coup, it might also leave him with the ensuing problem of developing a viable peace plan – which would mean finding some way of dealing with ISIS.

Hopes for a UN relaunch in Syria

Yesterday President Obama made a speech to the UN in which he endorsed the aims of the organisation and offered his support to it as the best hope for achieving a more stable world order.  Then President Putin made his speech, also supporting the UN.  If they put these words into practice the Security Council can function as it should, in contrast to its failures in recent decades.

Their speeches also indicated that they disagreed with each other on a number of fundamental issues.  Whilst President Obama admitted the error made in invading Iraq in 2003, he still advanced the notions that democracy is the only form of government and that the UN should intervene in the affairs of countries where governments behave badly towards their people.  But President Putin endorsed the position taken by both Russia and China that what happens within a country is not the business of the UN.

The Syrian situation is an immediate test of whether the fine speeches made by Presidents Putin and Obama can lead to the practical resolution of a complex problem.  Both Britain and America have argued that Syria’s President Assad should be overthrown because he has killed so many of his people.  Russia, though, has acted to support Assad’s regime as the “legitimate” government of Syria and is working with it to combat the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL).  Although Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine is open to criticism, and President Putin’s behaviour as Russia’s leader has not been in the best interests of its people, the West should work with him in Syria.  Replacement of the Syrian leadership is probably desirable, but that will have to wait until the region has been re-stabilised.

It is doubtful whether solving Syria’s internal problems is really within the scope of the UN, though the International Criminal Court might play a role at a later date.  In the meantime, a peaceful political solution will necessitate compromises by Assad to respond to concerns of the Sunni majority, or the war will continue without foreseeable end; the UN can and should play a role in facilitating peace talks.

Such an approach in Syria offers a chance of resolving its crisis and would be an important step forward in establishing international law.  Although the West passionately believes in democracy, it is not a panacea.  A country’s lack of democracy is not a valid reason for interfering in its affairs.  Wars can be avoided if countries comply with international law and if the only interference in the affairs of other countries is with the UN’s permission, to enforce that law.

Being provoked into intervention

Lord Richards, a former chief of Britain’s defence staff, is reported as opining that “David Cameron lacked the “balls” to take the military action in Syria that could have prevented the rise of Islamic State” (IS or ISIS).   This suggests a breath-taking arrogance, lack of vision and irresponsibility.  Evidently some ex-military men, like some politicians, love to appear strong and regard wisdom as a sign of weakness.

ISIS would also love to see Western ‘boots on the ground’ again in Iraq, knowing that they would eventually have to go home again demoralised; by continuing to provoke outrage in the West, ISIS is successfully mobilising Western public opinion to support just such an intervention.

Saddam Hussein was ‘defeated’ in a few months, but that action led to an enormous subsequent loss of life and an increase in regional instability – including the rise of ISIS.  Doubtless the Syrian government could also have been toppled by military means, but the fallout afterwards could have been even worse.  Both Russia and Iran were supporting the Syrian regime, so there was enormous potential for matters to escalate out of control.

As Simon Jenkins observed, in this week’s Spectator, “the drumbeat for sending troops back to Iraq has begun…  It’s taking pride of place in the American election” and, based on his track-record, Cameron would want to appear equally ‘strong’.

On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are being encouraged to demonstrate their virility by taking the country to war, without the agreement of the United Nations – but is it courageous or merely irresponsible to sacrifice the lives of one’s country’s troops and countless civilians (whilst one’s own life is not at risk)?

Sadly, politicians have often been unable to resist the temptation to look big for a few months so the ISIS strategy is likely to work.  As Simon Jenkins said: “Here we go again”.

Intervention in Syria is a Bad Idea

In response to contributors to Prospect Magazine who still advocate intervention in Syria on “moral” grounds, Hugh Winter submitted this comment:

President Obama’s concept of a ‘surgical strike’ against Syria cannot be classified as meeting a ‘responsibility to protect’. The Libyan intervention, for example, involved a forcible disarmament of the regime by prolonged bombing; civilians were protected, and it led to regime change.  A ‘surgical strike’, in contrast, would not protect Syrians from their government.

Those who call upon the example of Libya when calling for intervention in Syria would presumably call for further bombing when they realised that civilians were still being killed after a ‘surgical strike’; they would probably hope that regime change would follow.  And regime change would create a situation like that in Iraq, now 10 years after its regime was toppled, where there is continuing sectarian violence: 4,574 civilian deaths last year, and 4,137 up to the end of July this year, according to the Iraq Body Count and the BBC respectively.

Arming the opposition in Syria would pour fuel on the flames and cause even more deaths.  Supported by Russia, the Assad regime is going to ensure its survival by using conventional weapons.  Pursuing disarmament, by contrast, would be an attempt to stem the escalation of violence.  A ceasefire is needed.

A civil war can only be ended by negotiation, and Assad would have to be involved.  We in the West might not like his regime, but peace is the first priority – and negotiations might lead to power-sharing or devolution.  The rebels are ill-advised to insist upon his resignation as a pre-condition for negotiations.

It would subsequently be necessary to prosecute any individuals who have been responsible for crimes against humanity – irrespective of whether or not that would mean indicting Assad in person.

American moral authority

The Economist asserted that “Meeting Mr Assad’s atrocities with appropriate force will help to rebuild American moral authority in the world” (Leading Article, 7 Sept: Fight this war, not the last one).  It is worth asking within which constituency “American moral authority” might be rebuilt.

From one Western perspective, as put forward by The Economist and others, a strike on Syria is seen as necessary for America’s credibility as “the world’s policeman”.  It would also help to assuage the moral indignation that people rightly feel about the use of chemical weapons: people could say that they had not condoned the use of chemical weapons – they had ‘done something’.

Another Western perspective, dismissively referred to in the article, is “an abiding scepticism about the use of intelligence and the purpose of intervention”.  Voters can be excused for such scepticism, given the sorry record of previous costly and counter-productive interventions.  If the purpose of bombing Syria were to improve international security, then it could be criticised on at least three counts: it is risky because the outcome is unpredictable, it increases resistance to the West, and it undermines the UN.

It is time for the West to consider how it is seen by the rest of the world.  A “reaffirmation of Western values” implies regime change in Iran and Syria (and in many other countries, including China), so those countries see America as a threat to world peace.  America is also openly trying to protect Israel’s interests, so it cannot be seen as “the world’s policeman” – who would have to be neutral – and it cannot legitimately punish infringements of human rights.  That is the function of the UN.

“Moral authority” should not be purely self-interested.  A sincere attempt to work towards strengthening international law would win much more support in the rest of the world and would gain considerable support in the West.  A stable international arena, rather than one which is “inherently anarchic”, would suit everyone’s long-term interests.

President Putin is cleverly leaving open the door to reaching agreement in the UN Security Council.  If he really believes that President Assad did not give authorisation to the use of chemical weapons, he would not oppose an immediate ceasefire whilst the facts are established.  The criminals, whoever they are, could then be brought to book in the International Criminal Court and peace negotiations should commence.

The only certain outcomes of a bombing campaign in Syria are that a few people (not a majority) in the West would feel better for a while, and that hostility to America and its allies would increase.

Proposed Intervention in Syria

There are obvious comparisons between the current considerations being given to intervention in Syria and the previous political processes which led to the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003:

  • The UN Security Council is unlikely to permit an intervention in Syria, just as it refused to permit the interventions in Kosovo and Iraq.  Russia and China would use their vetoes.
  • A long-range bombing strike against Syria’s chemical weapons capability is being compared to NATO’s intervention in Kosovo: intended to help civilians, but illegal in international law.
  • The Western political rhetoric is about military intervention, not about treating the use of chemical weapons as a crime which could be prosecuted in the International Criminal Court.
  • As a result of opposition pressure, the British government is waiting for UN weapons-inspectors to establish the facts – unlike the political impulsiveness of the decision to invade Iraq 10 years ago without waiting for proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction.
  • The American government has talked itself into having to make an intervention in Syria, but there is disagreement about how heavy it should be and it might not be popular.

There would be risks attached to any intervention, especially without UN agreement, but it is reported that “The United States, Britain and France say they can act with or without a U.N. Security Council resolution”.  There would be less risk if a reformed UN could prevent a government from harming its own citizens.