Saturday, April 27, 2013

Syria - Time for difficult decisions

Let's make some points very clear.

Syria's government is reprehensible.  It is a softer version of the north Korean crime family one-party state, but only in scale and depth of totalitarianism.  Bashar Assad inherited the supreme leader role from his murderous tyrant of a father.  That family, from the Alawite minority sect has run the place for my entire lifetime.

Bashar Assad loosened the screws somewhat, but has demonstrated the typical attitude of any dictator when challenged by his subjects.  He wont step down, wont disband the secret police, wont abolish the state monopoly on media, wont legalise free speech, wont legalise competing political parties, wont hold elections.

He has spread nationalist-sectarian fear amongst Alawites, fearful that anything other than the dictatorship of his family will mean their slaughter.  He has encouraged the view that anyone who opposes his "secular" rule, is an Islamist.

Assad's regime torture and executes political opponents, and it is clear that it has used its own military to attack civilian populations to repress political dissent.  By no measure can it possibly be said to claim any moral authority, unless one adapts Mao's statement to claim morality comes from the barrel of a gun.  Human Rights Watch estimated 17,000 people 'disappeared' in Syria in the first decade of his father's rule.  In 1982 he bombed the city of Hama, slaughtering between 10,000 and 40,000 people as he suppressed an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood.   Yes, one can't argue that the Islamists would be better, but the indiscriminate oppression was brutal on a scale that Western "peace" advocates would usually decry.

Bear in mind Syria has previously invaded and occupied Lebanon, and assassinated Lebanese politicians.  It is far from being a non-aggressive actor in the region, a point thrown by its supporters against Israel, but ignored in Syria.

Assad's regime has long been supported by the USSR and more recently Russia, and has always been anti-Western.

It is perfectly moral for Syrians to fight to overthrow this regime.  It kills, torture and imprisons those who challenge it.  Its apparent use of chemical weapons does cross a threshold, one of degree.  As chemical weapons kill and harm over a wide area indiscriminately in a way that is almost impossible to defend against.  It is a tool of mass slaughter, beyond that of conventional bombs and firearms which have very localised effects.

Providing arms or other support for the Syrian regime is being a party to this.  Russia already does this, it maintains a military base there and openly supports the regime.   Hardly surprising, since Russia is an authoritarian faux-democracy that arrests and imprisons its opponents, and has little compunction about using force against those challenging its corrupt corporatist crony-capitalist state.  

So let's not pretend that Syria should not be subject to international intervention in its civil war, it already has it.

Similarly, Qatari, Saudi and other Arab states have been arming and funding different rebel groups.  The very same states which would cite "state sovereignty" as a reason to oppose anyone interfering in their politics.

So the genie of intervention is already out of the proverbial bottle.

Should something be done?

The option of "do nothing" is popular in two circles.  Libertarian isolationists and the left.  

The former because they believe states should withdraw into being self-defending independent actors, and have no role in the world that they previously had a substantial role in creating and moulding.  They see no role in containing other actors, in opposing authoritarians (some think all states other than libertarian states are authoritarians, although those asserting that do so in states that don't suppress that point of view) and would, in effect, be content standing by whilst another state commits genocide - Holocaust style.   It would be fair for some to argue for mercenaries to do so privately, but few ever suggest that.

The left oppose intervention either because they are pacifists (so see anyone using force as being wrong, akin to letting your neighbour beat his wife and kids up, but you not being willing to use force to defend them), or because they are more insidiously supportive of any regime that is anti-Western.

However, there is a single moral argument in favour of do nothing, which is that the cost of intervention in money and lives, is not worth it to save people who do not pose a threat to us from a regime that is not a notable threat.  I don't believe the cost of the right level of intervention would be high, and I certainly don't believe in replicating the Iraqi or Afghanistani regime change levels of intervention.  Not because it would be wrong per se.  If it were relatively easy to overthrow Assad, it would be appropriate to do so. 

Yet the cost in lives and money from doing so would be excessive, and dangerous.   Syrians would not respond well to such an invasion, and many would mount a counter-insurgency.   I wouldn't even consider putting the lives of NATO military or taxpayers money at risk for such an adventure.

I believe there are two very sound, self-interested, reasons to intervene cautiously.

1.  Showing direct humanitarian interest in Syrians being slaughtered is important.  It demonstrates that the civilised world (i.e. countries that are significantly free, secular and open) does not turn a blind eye to governments slaughtering their own people.   It does help to deter others, and not acting does the opposite.  It gives the impression that using chemical weapons and air power to suppress civilians is ok in Syria, when the latter wasn't in Libya.  Particularly given President Obama's declaration that use of chemical weapons is a "red line".  If it isn't then can other belligerents really believe anything else the US says?

2.  Intervention in favour of some of the rebels will demonstrate a genuine Western interest in Syrians not being slaughtered, which is more likely to support a regime friendlier to Western interests.  The current regime has always been contrary to that, not just in Israel and Lebanon.  Replacing it would appear to be a good thing.  However, letting things "just fall where they may" is risky.   It is time to support non-Islamist rebels and to remove the impression of Western lack of interest in the outcome.   A Syria that is friendly towards its neighbours, that does not sponsor or train terrorists or friendly Islamists, will improve stability in the region and remove one key supporter for Iran - which itself has long sponsored terrorism against the West.   It would also add to freedom, secularism and improve the standard of living for most people in the country.  Most importantly, as long as it avoid sectarianism then it can help unify a country the regime (and some rebels) have been Balkanising.

What sort of intervention?

Bear in mind I am ignoring the UN Security Council.  Russia has ignored it with impunity to support its direct backing of the regime, so NATO should do the same.

A no-fly zone would be relatively painless, parallel what was done in Libya and the former Yugoslavia, and largely negate any chance of chemical weapon attacks or the egregious use of Syria's ample air force against its population.  It may involve some combat, as the air force is by far the most privileged and well funded part of Syria's military, not least because Hafez al'Assad was an Air Force Commander, and Syria has ample anti-aircraft capability.  However, it would help support a norm that states do not attack their own citizens with air power, and be a recognisable response to the use of chemical weapons.

Providing military logistical support and supplies to non-Islamist rebels is equally acceptable, to counter Russia's intervention, and to lift the relative power of non-Islamist rebels against Islamists and the regime.   

However, this is the difficult part.  It is clearly not superior to have Islamists defeat Assad.  It would not advance freedom in Syria or the interests of our allies.   However, separating out rebels is not so easy.   This is why careful judgment needs to be made.  

It is highly desirable to boost non-Islamist rebels, not only to take on Assad, but to stop Syria becoming an Islamist state.  That outcome is just as bad as Assad remaining in power, as it would not be pro-Western and would advance a decidedly anti-freedom, anti-secular agenda.

So it is time to work with such rebels, provide them with intelligence, arms and let Westerners join as mercenaries if they so wish.   The arms embargo should be lifted for them and there should be a deliberate effort to unite non-Islamist rebels under the Free Syrian Army.  


Western governments don't want to be involved in Syria, but they already are.  They have imposed an arms embargo, which, as in Bosnia, largely benefits the incumbent government.   Russia is already intervening, to protect its client regime.  Arab states are intervening to support various rebels.  Iran is supporting the existing regime.   If the West wants what they want, then it should stand back, but I doubt that is true.

There are three clear and moral goals for Western policy in Syria:

1.  Oppose egregious mass slaughter by any side, including use of chemical weapons and air power against civilians.   It is indefensible, and if steps can be taken at low cost to enforce this effectively, they should be.

2.   Seek overthrow of the anti-Western aggressive Assad regime.  This second-rate gangster family kleptocracy has nothing to offer Syria or the rest of the world.  Its people and Western allies are better off without this murderous dictatorship.

3.   Avoid its replacement being Islamist.  There is a small, active and well supported Islamist element to the insurgency.  It actively recruits because most rebels are frustrated by lack of progress.  It is fighting for a principle unified vision of the country.   It would be worse than the status quo, and should be opposed.

Doing nothing appears attractive, it is cheap and it turns its back on Syrians.  Yet doing so will not be easily forgotten in this country on Europe's doorstep.  There is a chance to steer events in this long running dictatorship towards a regime that could promote a more cosmopolitan, more open, secular and civilised Syria, linking Turkey to Jordan, encouraging Lebanon to be, once again, a land of prosperity and civilisation, and being prepared to co-exist with Israel.  A new Syria could also support the secular elements of the Palestinians, and resist Islamism and sectarianism elsewhere.

The alternative may be years of civil war, a winning Assad with ongoing insurgency, or an Islamist led revolution, that looks to the West as being indifferent to a regime that was backed by Russia - which to many Islamists isn't that far removed from the West.   An Islamist Syria would bolster Hamas, would encourage Iran's ongoing campaign to groom Iraq into an ally, and would threaten Turkey, a flawed Muslim dominated country which is nevertheless secular and one of the best hopes for encouraging a Muslim enlightenment.

Of course the left will oppose it, will engage in its usual anti-Western hysteria, full of conspiracy theories about there being monetary interests involved, or secret corporate deals and the like.  All nonsense, and interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone demonstrated that (and who has done well out of Iraq?  What riches have come from Afghanistan?).

It isn't about "imperialism" or shameless self-sacrifice, it is about self-interest, advancing freedom and helping to turn a malignant part of the world into one more benign for modernity.

Furthermore, ignoring the Syrian government's treatment of civilians would return the world to the age of the Cold War, when grotesque mass murders by governments were ignored, for fear of sparking World War 3 (or because those that did it were on "our side").  

The worst crime that any government can inflict is to attack its own people. Western governments cannot liberate the world.  However, when a government blatantly wages war against its own people, it is only right to take minimal steps to prevent it from attacking them from the air and to support an alternative that is likely to be better.

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