Opinion: A Peace Plan for Syria

Nick Clegg has said about Syria “I am very proud that, as a country, our reaction isn’t just: ‘Oh this is happening, it’s got nothing to do with us. We want to wash our hands of it.’ We struggle with what can we do. It is the wonderful thing about Britain. We don’t stand by. We don’t walk the other side of the street. We want to get stuck in and sort stuff out.”

I think there may be a way to bring about a ceasefire and political negotiations that avoids the obvious dangers of arming rebel groups.

Turkey has called for a no-fly zone but will not act without allied backing. The UK, USA and France should furnish the support that Turkey needs to create a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor in and around Aleppo and Northern Idlib province.

King Abdullah II of Jordan along with President Morsi of Egypt have similarly called for a no-fly zone. Jordan will also only act with allied backing. The US has already stationed F-16 and F-18 fighter jets and patriot missile batteries in Jordan as well as moving marines to Jordan’s red sea port. The US together with Egypt and Saudi Arabia can furnish the support that Jordan needs to create a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor along its border.

In a Wall Street Journal article US to arm Syrian rebels, it is noted that US proponents of the proposal think a no-fly zone could be imposed without a U.N. Security Council resolution, since the U.S. would not regularly enter Syrian airspace and wouldn’t hold Syrian territory.

With no-fly zones in the North and South of the country the fighting will be concentrated in a corridor from the outskirts of Damascus to Hama and in Eastern Syria.

President Putin has indicated a willingness to station Russian peacekeepers in Syria and it is in their interest to maintain influence with all the parties that may participate in governing Syria. The Russians have been explicit that their support is not for individuals in the Syrian regime.

Russia are perhaps the only interlocutor capable of persuading the Assad regime to accept a ceasefire enforced by peacekeeping troops and political negotiation, once it becomes clear that Assad cannot rely on air power and/or heavy weapons to crush the rebellion.

Russian peacekeeping troops (sympathetic to Orthodox Christians) could be stationed in the valley of Christians at Wadi al-Nasara in western Syria. From this strategic location, peacekeeping troops can cut the road to Aleppo at either Homs or Hama and cut the Latakia-Tartus road on the coast. Control of this area enables control of the war in Syria. They can protect the Alawite dominated coastal area from attacks by forming a mountain-based defensive line connecting the Russian Naval port at Tartus and Homs and joining the area of the valleys to the coastal strip.

Mopping-up operations would have to be conducted by both the regime and the Free Syrian Army to clear the areas under their respective control of foreign jihadist fighters.

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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  • Tim,

    Thanks for your comments and link to your interesting blog post.

    On your first point, yes this is a war. The International Committee for the Red Cross declared the conflict to be a civil war last summer – meaning that international humanitarian law now applies throughout the country and attacks by either side on civilians and detainees could constitute war crimes. The UK is already engaged in the provision of non-lethal military supplies and training including armoured vehicles, communications equipment, battlefield medical kits, body armour and testing equipment for chemical weapons, to Syrian opposition forces. Support for a Nato ally, Turkey, in establishing a protected zone between the Turkish border and major population centres in the North is deeper involvement, but a necessary one in my view.

    Your second point concerns the legality of such an action. Rosa Brooks, law professor at Georgetown University, addresses the issue in some depth in Foreign Policy magazine So You Want to Intervene in Syria Without Breaking the Law? and concludes:

    “In a 1973 article reflecting on the bloodbath surrounding Bangladeshi efforts to become independent from Pakistan, legal scholars Thomas Franck and Nigel Rodley argued that military intervention for humanitarian reasons “belongs in the realm not of law but of moral choice, which nations, like individuals, must sometimes make.” Forty years later, there’s still not much more to be said.”

    The UK needs to make a moral choice as to how best it can legitimately aid in protecting the Syrian population from the ravages of this conflict. That does indeed require clarity of thought about what such an intervention means for us and for the Syrian people in terms of risks and casualties and a clear focus on ‘responsibility to protect.’

    On your final point, there are I think three key issues:
    1. While the conflict is raging – it is enforcement of a ceasefire rather than monitoring of a truce that will be required.
    2. Peacekeeping troops can only enter at the invitation of the state and Russia appears to be the only potential candidate that might be acceptable to the Assad regime.
    3. ‘Responsibility to protect’ requires that the minority population in Syria (Alawite, Christian, Shia, Druze, Kurds, Ismaeli,Turkman, Circassian, Assyrian & Jewish) be protected from reprisals/ethnic cleansing by Arab Islamist groups. I would suggest this is a task beyond the capability of smaller neutral/non-aligned states.

  • Jonathan Brown 24th Jun '13 - 11:05pm

    Tim, I think your linked opinion piece is very good, and I agree more or less with your comment above too. Given what you’ve said there, I’d be interested to hear more of what king of intervention you would support.

    Joe, I don’t see how your proposal could be considered as anything other than invasion by the Assad regime, and it would presumably be only too willing to shoot back. Even if it gave up on the north and south, what would be to stop the government concentrating its forces in the centre, winning there, and then gradually grinding its way forward in other areas without air cover? Unless the ‘no fly zone’ turns into a Libyan ‘rebel air force supporting regime change’, then it doesn’t seem to achieve the objectives we set it. (For the record, I supported the strategy in Libya and think that things have turned out more or less as well as could be expected.)

    Tim, I’ve argued previously that I support arming the rebels, and rather than repeat myself verbatim, I’ll refer to your ‘3 princples’ to explain why.

    1) Air attacks on the regime would be war, as you suggest. The goal of any intervention – the politics that is being continued by other means – is the defeat of the regime as a necessary precondition for humanitarian relief, peace talks and reconstruction. Defeat could involve a negotiated surrender of some sort, but negotiations prior to the regime realising that its days are defintiely numbered are not going to result in anything useful. And defeat of the regime requires someone else to win. Either that’s a foreign invasion force (which seems not only lacking in all kinds of necessary support but also likely to backfire) or a Syrian opposition movement. The policy goal requires war, but that war need not necessarily be fought by us.

    2) I agree it must be legal. And I don’t think there’s any prospect of the UN security council agreeing to anything useful unless the balance of power in Syria changes, and Russia has an incentive to engage. There may be fancy legal arguments around this, but essentially I agree with you that they’re just that. Providing weapons, while hardly an activity covered in glory is a much greyer area. Even if illegal – it’s obviously conducted all over the place and by lots of different parties. Which doesn’t make it ‘okay’, but does make it something that is within the realms of what is practically possible.

    3) Post conflict. Here is actually the main argument for arming the rebels (as well as supplying fuel, medicine, food, blankets, vaccinations, etc.). Victory imposed from outside will not create a peace because there will be no Syrian social and political infrastructure to build a peace around. The opposition is not currently strong enough to win, and contains significant elements we can’t in all honesty support. But there are elements we could support, and that have proven they can govern, and with help, those elements could form the basis for an alternative government, or at the least a credible partner to take part in credible peace talks. The purpose in arming (moderate) rebels is not just to help them to win, but to build up their capacity to govern, and to establish relationships that allow us to get to know them better, and for Syrians to get to know them better. So that when the time does come to rebuild Syria, the opposition has the credibility and the presence to enable it to form the beginnings of the new state.

  • Michael Parsons 25th Jun '13 - 11:55am

    Air-strike democracy has been as pretty resounding failure elsewhere; Britain’s record in the Middle East inspires no confidence in the areas, and intervention would revive valid hatreds and contention. From our record there we absolutely lack moral authority and talk of intervention makes us look foolish and be hypocritical. Keep out.

  • Michael,

    I do not think, Britain can ignore the commission of mass atrocities and war crimes anywhere in the world, as long as it retains a permanent seat on the UN security council. What is proposed is a safe haven for refugees and non-combatants in the North and South of Syria protected by patriot missile batteries and drone surveillance. Security on the ground would be solely provided by the Free Syrian Army militias currently holding the territory.
    If there are no aerial or artillery attacks by the regime against populated areas in these safe zones, then there is no need for any defensive air-strikes or other engagement.

    As a US Marine Aviator of twenty years experience recently noted:
    …detractors miss the point, which is that a no-fly zone is only part of the solution. Its purpose is not to resolve the conflict but to prevent escalation, protect innocents and provide leverage to negotiations. In essence, a no-fly zone takes away a single tool of violence — the use of aviation — possessed by the oppressor. Moreover, in a post-Assad Syria, the opposition will not forget which nations came to its aid. That was the case in Bosnia and Kosovo, and it has been the case throughout the Muslim world during the recent government upheavals. It was also the case in Iraq, until the occupation spiraled downward into a chaotic insurgency that we initially failed to grasp.

    In Bosnia, a no-fly zone and Russian peacekeepers were a key element in bringing the Serbs to the table and enabling a resolution of that conflict.

    The case against arming the rebels has been eloquently made by others including Ming Campbell and Nick Clegg. This is somewhat of a moot point at this stage as the Gulf States and the USA have committed to supplying the guns and ammunition required by the Syrian opposition and we will see the results of those decisions in the coming weeks and months.

    The Independent has produced a useful analysis of the rebel groups and their affiliations as well as a map of the areas of the country in which they are operating Freedom fighters? Cannibals? The truth about Syria’s rebels .

    The UK can provide diplomatic and political support to Turkey for establishment of a no-fly zone in Syria’s north. Whether the Royal Air Force would need to deploy to Turkery would largely depend of the Assad regimes response to the creation of safe zones. If Turkey itself were attacked, then Article 51 of the UN Charter would be invoked and Nato may well become engaged.

  • Jonathan Brown’s third point clinches the argument for us to arm the rebels in my opinion. “The purpose in arming (moderate) rebels is not just to help them to win, but to build up their capacity to govern, and to establish relationships that allow us to get to know them better, and for Syrians to get to know them better. So that when the time does come to rebuild Syria, the opposition has the credibility and the presence to enable it to form the beginnings of the new state.” Moreover it would demonstrate that we are credible friends for the future post-conflict, coming to their support during their hour of greatest need.

    Prevaricating on providing such weapons runs a really high risk that all the moderate rebels will be wiped out!

  • John,

    as far as the UK is concerned, even if Parliament was somehow persuaded of the case, I don’t really see what material difference we can make compared to the volume of arms that are being supplied by the Gulf states and now to be supplied by the USA. An argument can be made for furnishing vetted rebels with small arms, but no proponent of this proposal has been able to get around the fact that once these arms are in country there distribution and ultimate use by radical groups, themselves committing atrocities for which the suppliers of arms become culpable, cannot be controlled.

    Comments by C J Chivers, a former US Marine and the Pulitzer-winning author of “The Gun,” a history of the Kalashnikov assault rifle – that heavy weapons such as artillery or shoulder-launched missiles would likely be necessary to overcome the current strategy of the Assad regime and that small arms supplies would be largely ineffective, were reported last week in the Washington Post article
    Why small arms would be unlikely to help Syria’s rebels . Chivers said:

    “..as recently as a few weeks ago when we were traveling with groups. They still had, in the main, only rifles, machine guns, in some cases bolt-action rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and very occasionally you would see an old anti-tank system known as a recoilless gun. These tend to be relatively short-range, flat-shooting weapons that don’t have an ability to dislodge a force that is bunkered in.”

    The article author goes on to note:

    Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the Free Syria Army, told The Washington Post regarding the Obama administration’s decision to send some military support, “We welcome the decision, but it is a late step. And if they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference? They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone.”

    The risk of sending any military support to the rebels is that it’s not clear how the U.S. could arm moderate rebels without some of those weapons ending up in the hands of extremist fighters. Groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the increasingly successful Islamist rebels who are allied with al-Qaeda, would likely end up with some of the arms, whether small or heavy. And these weapons don’t disappear once the conflict ends, nor do they stop working if they’re transferred out of Syria into, say, Lebanon or Iraq.

    So the case against sending small arms is two-fold: first, it’s unlikely to turn the tide against Assad’s forces, for the reasons Chivers explained above; second, extremists are bound to end up with some of those guns, which they could use to terrorize Syrian civilians or foreign targets. To be clear, the case against small arms is not necessarily a case for heavy weapons, which after all could also end up in the hands of extremists. But it’s easy to see why both advocates and critics of greater U.S. involvement are warning against sending small arms, which analysts such as the Brookings Institution’s Shadi Hamid have called a “half measure.”

  • Jonathan Brown 25th Jun '13 - 10:36pm

    Let’s address a couple of points about arming the rebels head on.

    1) It is true that we cannot guarantee that ‘our’ (Saudi, Qatari, Libyan) weapons will not end up the hands of extremists. That is absolutely true. It’s also (almost) besides the point. The extremists have weapons already. On both sides of the conflict. The undermining of the moderate rebels has embpowered the extremists, and a vicious circle has been created. The more successful the extremists are, the more attractive their propaganda becomes, the more recruits they attract, the more victories they achieve and the more weapons they seize. Let’s not pretend that ‘arming the rebels’ is about disarming or preventing weapons getting to extremists. It’s not. It’s about letting the moderates compete, giving the moderates the ability to provide protection to liberated areas so that people are not forced to rely on the extremists.

    2) Arming the rebels involves not just supplying ammunition for AK47s, but supplying anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I’m not trying to hide, or get away from that fact. The rebels outnumber the regime, and have proved repeatedly that they can beat an army that is essentially unwilling to fight. But they can be defeated by Assad’s tanks and aircraft. The whole point of giving the rebels the weapons they need to win is to allow them to do just that. The point is to end the war by assisting moderate rebels achieve victory, NOT to extend the war by preventing the regime from winning. (Alternatively, to end the war by giving moderate rebels the leverage and authority they need to negotiate with the regime.)

    Final few points:
    – I do no advocate demanding that the moderate rebels fight the extremists. That would rightly be seen as stoking divisions and carries further risks for everyone. It might happen, but we should not be seen to be provoking it. The hope is that many of those who’ve joined up with extremists will rejoin the ranks of a successful moderate opposition.
    – Any negotiations MUST include Iran as well as Russia, and possibly Hezbollah as well. I don’t wish to doubt the tenacity, endurance or desperation of the regime, but it is clearly receving life support from foreign allies, whose interests must be addressed if there is any chance of talks to lead to anything positive.
    – Your point about the provision of arms by others is a good one, and I cite it as evidence of the lack of understanding demonstrated by most of our media and politicians of what is going on. The fact that MPs are concerned about having a vote on the UK supplying arms to the rebels suggests that they are unaware of what is happening and of the role that the UK is really required to play. It doesn’t really matter where the weapons come from, but what they are, who they go to, and under what circumstances. Despite it’s reputation (and internal repression), it seems that the Saudi government (if not private Saudi donors) are quite keen to support moderates on this occasion. More so than Qatar. The US in particular has actually built up relationships with many of the moderates. ‘Our’ role is not to pay for or provide the weapons, but to do our best to ensure that they go to the right people, as far as is possible, and to co-ordinate all of the other things that should go along with the weapons – humanitarian aid, help with getting supplies to where they are needed, getting casualties out to safety, assisting the civilian councils with training, advice and materials, etc. and just generally encouraging the political development of the moderate rebel groups.

  • Hi Jonathan,

    we have debated the issue of arming the rebels on earlier threads, so you will know that we come at this problem from different perspectives.

    I do not share your view that the Free Syrian army can achieve an outright military victory over the forces of the Assad regime or even that such an outcome would be desirable, given the dangers of a continuing sectarian conflict in a post-Assad Syria. The US adminstration does not appear to be aiming for such an outcome, but instead wants to step up pressure on Assad until he agrees to peace negotiations, as noted by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Kerry arrives in Saudi Arabia on Syria push .

    I also regard the prospect of UK supplied weapons, particularly anti-aircraft missiles, falling into the hands of extremists as an unacceptable risk and see a no-fly zone as a preferable means of providing both protection to Syrian citizens in border areas and leverage to the Syrian National Coalition for negotiations with the regime.

    Your point about our parlimentarians understanding the complexities of this conflict and role that the UK can play is well made. I would endorse your comments that:

    “Our role is not to pay for or provide the weapons, but to do our best to ensure that [weapons supplied by others] go to the right people, as far as is possible, and to co-ordinate all of the other things that should go along with the weapons – humanitarian aid, help with getting supplies to where they are needed, getting casualties out to safety, assisting the civilian councils with training, advice and materials, etc. and just generally encouraging the political development of the moderate rebel groups.”

  • More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the country’s uprising in March 2011, according to the the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog.

    The Observatory said the toll now stands at 100,191 people, with at least 36,661 civilians killed, including more than 3,000 women and more than 5,000 children under the age of 16.

    The group said 18,072 rebel fighters had been killed. On the regime side, the group reported the deaths of at least 25,407 army soldiers, 17,311 pro-regime militia and 169 members of the Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah.

    The group counted another 2,571 unidentified people killed in the fighting up until June 24.

  • Horrendous killing of Syrian Catholic Priest and two other men by Islamic extremists in Christian village near Syria’s border with Turkey Catholic Priest Beheaded in Syria by Al-Qaeda-Linked Rebels as Men and Children Take Pictures and Cheer

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