Ivor Roberts writes in the Tablet of Britain.. After a suspected chemical weapons attack on his own people by the Assad regime in Syria, the clamour for the West to act is growing. But there is unease about the consequences of military intervention both for the volatile Middle East and for the uneasy alliances of the wider world
He continues with an analysis of the complex issues of the dilemma facing today’s leaders. It is a lengthy but well worth read in the midst of often ahistorical sound bite clarion calls ….
August, rather than T.S. Eliot’s April, seems to be the cruellest month. In exactly a year’s time, we shall be marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the conflict from which all the calamities of the rest of the last century sprang. The Nazis massed on the Polish border in August 1939; the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and Saddam Hussein went into Kuwait in the same month in 1990.
This August has brought us the horror of chemical warfare in Syria, in the Ghouta area outside Damascus, where the prime suspect is the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The Assads have form: Assad père, the former Syrian ruler, Hafez al-Assad, was accused of using hydrogen cyanide gas in Hama in 1982, when he besieged Muslim Brotherhood forces there, with casualty figures varying between 10,000 and 40,000. There have been unverified but credible accounts of uses of chemical weapons already in this conflict by government forces and indeed by the opposition as well.
The use of chemical weapons is banned by the 1925 Geneva Convention; their use against civilians constitutes a crime against humanity. The question is, having assigned or determined responsibility, what to do about it?
And here the problems start. Indeed, the first problem is the red line that US President Barack Obama drew a year ago over the use of chemical weapons. Of course, their use is appalling. But why are the deaths, however horrible, of a few hundred by chemical weapons worse than the 100,000 deaths (of which about half are civilians) by conventional means so far recorded by the United Nations? The indiscriminate massacres, often of women and children, the shelling of civilian areas by the Assad forces for months: these are also war crimes and surely merit red lines of their own.
When the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, visited Damascus last weekend, she secured, rather against the odds, an agreement for UN inspectors to visit the site of this latest massacre. It remains to be seen whether the state of the site yields incontrovertible evidence of the Assad regime’s guilt. Logic suggests that the evidence must have been contaminated or degraded, either to point to the use of chemical weapons by opposition forces or, to mix one’s metaphors, to muddy the waters so substantially that there is no clear evidence either way.
Bashar al-Assad is many things, but he is not unintelligent. While opaqueness shrouds this lastest incident, Syria’s protector, Russia, can bat away calls for the UN Security Council to authorise the use of force. To allow a clear-cut determination of Assad’s guilt to be made would strip away Russia’s excuses. If Assad’s forces were, as seems very likely, responsible, the timing is odd, coming as it did only days after UN weapons experts were admitted to the country to carry out limited inspections.
Conspiracy theorists, drawing on models from the Balkan wars, would be tempted to say that the opposition might have faked or provoked a chemical weapons attack in a last desperate effort to compel Western military intervention. And, indeed, it does seem bizarre for Assad to cross in such a flagrant manner a publicly stated red line when the balance of success in this long-running war has seemed to be swinging in his Government’s favour. Yet even the intelligent can act irrationally. Perhaps, emboldened by Russia’s support, Assad believed he could cock a snook at the West’s red lines.
Russian support for the regime has been a major hurdle in securing an internationally agreed response to the crisis. We are now faced with the near certainty of a Russian (and Chinese) veto of any UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of force. They will be extremely wary of allowing any resolution through, even for limited action, given what they saw as Western trickery over Libya. In that case, authorisation for limited air strikes for humanitarian purposes was quickly extended by the British and French to bombing missions actively aimed at forcing Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi from power.
In the absence of a UN resolution, the option remains for unilateral action or a coalition of the willing. This is illegal, of course, as it was in Iraq, but hardly without precedent. Given the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, neither the US nor the United Kingdom will be prepared to introduce ground troops, but the talk of no-fly zones and limited air strikes suggests the direction in which President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron are heading, with or without the cover of international law.
Bombing people to the conference table was the Nixon/Kissinger strategy in Vietnam – hardly an encouraging example. In Syria, neither side has showed much interest in negotiation and the strong influx of foreign jihadists on the rebels’ side, and of Hezbollah support for Assad, has made a negotiated
settlement more, not less, remote.
So what can the war aims of the putative Western belligerents be? Punishment brings its own satisfaction and with it the promise of inevitable further retribution if the crime is repeated. But it will not, of itself, bring about a definitive resolution. Regime change is once again the real war aim, an aim that is buried under rhetoric about a more inclusive government, in which Assad and his family are sent packing by the rest of the regime’s nomenklatura.
But regime change to what? The Free Syrian Army is itself a coalition of forces without a proper military structure. In recent months it has been partially overshadowed by the influx of foreign jihadists and the disproportionate role of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra Front, the most aggressive force fighting the Government. This has led to a civil war within a civil war among opposition forces, between secularists and Islamists, with the latter in the ascendant, just as in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was able to sideline the liberal secular forces so evident in Tahrir Square at the outset of the demonstrations to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak.
All this underlines the reality that there are no moderate groups capable of filling the power vacuum in the event of the collapse of the regime. Do we really want to engineer regime change only to create a power vacuum that would be filled by Islamists?
There are complicated questions with no pat answers in the Syrian imbroglio, which is precisely why Western leaders have been reluctant to get drawn into the quagmire other than diplomatically. The crossing of one so-called red line does not reduce the complexity of the situation on the ground or the collision of disparate religious and ethnic communities.
The present-day Syrian state was carved fairly arbitrarily out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War under the terms of a map secretly drawn up by two Allied diplomats, the British Mark Sykes and the Frenchman, François George-Picot. The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the area into French and British zones of influence. Syria’s identity was, as a consequence, less national in character, rather more based on clans, religious sectarianism and family loyalties. Its religious/ethnic mix comprises Sunni, Shia (Alawites), Kurds, Christians, Druze, Armenians and Turks. While all have suffered in the recent struggle, minorities have been under particular pressure. The number of refugee, estimated at two million, is hugely destabilising for the whole region, in particular for Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
What began as a popular uprising against an odious regime has descended into an internecine conflict between Sunni and Shia, whose antagonism is mirrored externally by respective Sunni and Shia states and organisations supporting their co-religionists. As a consequence, the continuing survival of Syria as a unitary statelooks increasingly problematic. And not just Syria: Iraq’s well- documented divisions could easily lead to a reversion to the three pre-Sykes-Picot Ottoman provinces. The Kurds in both Syria and Iraq would be jubilant at the prospect. And Lebanon, where the Syrian conflict has already spilled over, could also break up.
Notwithstanding the complexities, the level of Western rhetoric has risen to the extent that President Obama, David Cameron and French President François Hollande may feel that they have to answer the call of the “something must be done” campaigners. To fail to respond to the crossing of a clearly set red line risks making politicians look weak, their greatest nightmare. But military action must be about more than dealing with the self-inflicted problem of heightened public expectations.
The real risk is that a bombing campaign, particularly an exclusively Western one, will further destabilise the region and could well suck in Assad’s allies, Iran and Hezbollah in particular. Israel could use the distraction of general military action in the area to pursue its own agenda by launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities to prevent Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon.
This concatenation of events might even bring in Russia, a consistently staunch ally of both Assads, and Turkey, and lead to the conflict spreading outside the immediate area. This may appear fanciful but similar links, alliances and miscalculations led us to the First World War. The ghosts of August 1914 have not been entirely laid to rest.
* Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy.