Opinion: Saving what’s left of Syria

President Obama and the European Union continue to agonise over whether to lift the arms embargo on Syrian rebels.

The al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra control several areas and bring Sunni Islamic law, religious persecution and ethnic cleansing under their slogan of “The Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut.”

Israel strikes the Assad regime even as Iran and Hezbollah equip and train a rump Alawite militia in preparation for the fall of the regime.

The western democracies mull over no-fly zones and safe havens while Russia continues to transport weapons to Assad’s forces.

The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan loom large as the options are considered.

It is not, however, these countries that we should look to for solutions, but rather to Yugoslavia. The interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo heralded the creation of independent self-governing states and were ultimately the only means of ending the genocidal warfare in the Balkans.

There is no realistic possibility of any political rapprochement among the different tribal sects of Syria in the aftermath of the war. The only potential solution is a break-up of the country into self-governing districts under a United Nations protectorate.

Militarily, this will need to be achieved by occupation of the Christian (and possibly Druze) areas, by Nato and Arab league backed Turkish and Jordanian troops. The Christian area has a million inhabitants and is the largest continuous Christian settlement in the Middle East. It separates the Syrian desert from Syria’s “green areas.” It contains a mountain range that is an extension of the mountains in Lebanon and Turkey and serves as a buffer between the coast and the interior. The Alawite areas are in the mountainous territory near the coast, the Sunnis are mostly in the interior, and the Christians separate the two quarrelling sects.

Whoever controls the area of the valleys would be able to split Syria in two, cut the road to Aleppo at either Homs or Hama and cut the Latakia-Tartus road on the coast. To put it simply, whoever controls the Christian areas can control the war in Syria. They can protect the coast from attacks by forming a mountain-based defensive line connecting Tartus and Homs and joining the area of the valleys to the coastal strip, keeping it safe from invasion. Also important, is that the oil and gas transportation lines from Iran and Iraq to the Mediterranean pass through this region.

Gladstone wrote of the Bulgarian atrocities “I entreat my countrymen upon whom far more than upon any other people in Europe it depends, to require and to insist that our government, which has been working in one direction, shall work in the other, and shall apply all its vigour to concur with the states of Europe in obtaining the extinction of the Turkish executive power in Bulgaria. Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves.” Would he not now say the same of the Assad regime?


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

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  • Jonathan Brown 7th May '13 - 6:33pm

    As pleased as I am to see someone take an interest in what’s happening in Syria, you are quite mistaken in your understanding of the ethnic or ‘tribal’ divisions in Syria, and so quite mistaken in thinking that partition along these lines would be a just or even a pragmatic solution to the war.

    In no part of Syria do Christians, Druze or Allawites form a majority. Only in a small part of Syria do Kurds form a majority. In contrast, a big majority of Syrian Kurds live outside of ‘Syrian Kurdistan’. There are majority Christian villages, majority Druze villages, etc. And large concentrations of them in parts of the country. But trying to disentangle them all… would be impossible.

    Compare Syria with the US. We can talk about ‘black America’, by which we probably mean the deep South. But nowhere do black Americans form a majority. Trying to partition the US between black and white would madness, even if it were desirable. Only in this way can we talk about ‘Allawite areas’ or ‘Druze areas’.

    I agree that Assad needs to go however – even putting aside my own biases, I can see no way in which a political solution can be achieved that leaves him or the Baath party in power.

  • Jonathan Brown 7th May '13 - 6:51pm

    Actually, I think I’ll take the opportunity of this subject finally being raised, to put forward a few more points.

    A NATO / Turkish/ Jordanian invasion is clearly politically impossible, and will remain so for the foreseeable future. It would be expensive, logistically very difficult, fraught with danger, legally unlikely to get through the security council, etc. I believe one of the main reasons we’ve seen so little action on Syria up to this point is fear of failure and fear of getting bogged down in something we don’t properly understand. An intervention such as you describe is the most likely way to cause most of these fears to come true. Also (see the the constitutionally-ingrained instability in Lebanon), ethnic partitioning would be pretty unworkable.

    This is not however to argue for doing nothing, which is by and large what the UK and our allies seem to be doing. Doing nothing carries its own risks, not the least of which is that of being drawn into something much worse in future.

    Our best bet I believe lies with helping Turkey and the (Iraqi) Kurdistan Regional Goverment push forward reconciliation between Syria’s Kurdish parties and the more secular and moderate Islamist ‘Free Syrian Army’ groups in the north, while ramping up the supply of weapons – in particular anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons – AND humanitarian supplies to opposition groups in the north and south of the country. The aim being to work with and monitor the less extreme secular and islamist opposition groups, build up their legitimacy and governing capacity by assisting them in getting civilian necessities to liberated areas, and allow them to gradually defeat the remaining Assad forces and militias. Part of this process has to be the amplification of opposition voices calling for reconciliation with all of the minorities – but especially the Allawites who are so closely implicated in the regime’s crimes.

  • Jonathan,

    “In no part of Syria do Christians, Druze or Allawites form a majority.”

    That may have been the case before the conflict but as this article notes Syria Conflict: Breakaway Alawite State May Be President Bashar Assad’s Last Resort Sunnis and Alawites both have for months been fleeing the worst hit areas of the country for safety, mainly with their communities. Observers say thousands of Alawites have left their homes in war-shattered cities such as Homs, for the relative safety of the overwhelmingly Alawite provinces of Tartous and Latakia. The beach resorts in the port city of Tartous in particular, about an hour and a half drive west of Homs, have become a refuge for Alawites seeking to escape the violence.

    Alawites streaming from hotspots into the area along the Mediterranean coast in the north of the country together with ethnic cleansing by Shabhia militia are once again creating the Alawite state of the French mandate.

    Partition along the lines of the French manadate may not be a just solution, but may well be the only means of avoiding an even greater bloodbath when the regime falls and the Alawite militias supported by Hezbollah prepare for the onslaught.

    As with Kosovo, there will be no U.N. Security Council mandate for military intervention in Syria under the doctrine of ‘responsibility to protect’. Russia and China took that option off the table long ago. However, American, European, Turkish and the GCC countries recognition of the Syrian opposition alliance , recently formed in Doha, as the legitimate government of the country, could legally provide the basis for furnishing of military assistance, without the need for a UN resolution. NATO took military action to save Kosovo in 1999 without formal U.N. authorization. There is no reason why the Arab League, or NATO, or a leading coalition within the Friends of Syria contact group, or all of them speaking in unison, could not provide a similar international mandate for military measures to save Syria today. The UN protectorate would come after the military intervention to oust the Assad regime.

    The military campaign would begin with a blockade by Land, Sea and Air to reinforce existing economic sanctions. Arms shipments crossing from Iraq and Lebanon would need to be cut-off or impeded with Free Syrian Army Units, (equipped by the Friends of Syria), manning the border crossings. A Nato naval blockade would prevent Syria from exporting oil or importing a number of goods. Nato air strikes would target the heavy weapons that the Syrian army is using to shell cities and suppress enemy air defences in at least part of the country. The air campaign would be preceded by a significant effort to destroy missiles, associated radars and air defence command systems. Nato and Arab League countries would be tasked with the creation of a no-fly zone over much or even all of the country, which could require up to a couple hundred aircraft operating in various bases on land and at sea in the region. Turkey and Jordan would need to create safe zones within Syria for displaced civilians along their respective borders
    Opposition forces would organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad from the safe zones. These safe havens could serve as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance—including weapons and ammunition including anti-tank (but not anti-aircraft missiles), body armour and other personal protective equipment, tactical intelligence, secure communications equipment, food and water, and medical supplies. These safe havens could also help the Free Syrian Army to train and organize themselves into more cohesive and effective military forces, likely with the assistance of foreign special forces and Nato ground troops readied to secure chemical weapons stocks as the regime implodes.

  • david thorpe 7th May '13 - 9:18pm

    nicely written and superbly researched as always joe-the danger of liberal interventionism of the sort advocated by gladstone-is that it ceratesa moral hazard-you intervened in syria then why not in xx country in future…..

  • Strange how our neo imperialist (sorry liberal interventionist) politicians care so deeply about human rights in countries we already don’t like but Saudi Arabia,Bahrain etc will never be threatened with intervention. Pity the poor journalists in Rwanda who are jailed for the crime of criticizing rwandan tyrant Paul kagame. Now if only they’d been jailed by a regime we don’t support they would have wall to wall coverage.

  • david thorpe 7th May '13 - 9:38pm

    @ adrian please reserach what liberal interventionism is and you would see that your whole post is completwely in agreement with mine…

  • Jonathan Brown 8th May '13 - 12:25am

    Joe, although a process of ethnic division is clearly underway to some extent, I would bet that we’re still a long way from any part of Syria being majority Allawite. The movements of refugees and internally displaced isn’t as simple as ‘x million move from the inland to the coast’. Moving to the safetey of ‘their communites’ can mean moving to the next village – not necessarily moving to a different part of the country. People are moving backwards and forwards constantly, moving family members and possessions to safer parts of the country, but returning to defend their homes and/or when things quieten down in their area. There are still a lot of Allawites in the Homs area. There are still a lot in Homs itself. The point is, we haven’t seen anything like a wholescale relocation of Allawites, or any other group, to ethnically ‘pure’ areas. Of course, there’s no way of conducting reliable research as to exactly who has gone where, but the Allawites made up perhaps 10-15% of the population before the war/revolution. There just aren’t enough of them to make an Allawi state viable.

    Furthermore, the regime is still fighting hard for places it would never expect to retain if it had any interest in pursuing partition – Deir Ez Zor, for example. You also overlook the regime’s adapting tactics: the withdrawing of conscript (mainly Sunni) soldiers from much of the close range fighting and the use of the army’s artillery in a supporting role for elite units and Shabiha militias (and Hezbollah fighters in the Homs region). One of the key things about the newly trained and organised pro-regime militias is that they are based in their own home areas. i.e. not the coast or mountains. They are not going anywhere.

    Tim Oliver is right; an intervention such as you suggest would mean war with the regime. Jordan clearly has absolutely no apetite for being a part of such a war, and I doubt that Turkey would want to play such a major role either. More to the point, having been defeated, more or less, in Iraq and Afghanistan, western militaries are in no rush to take part either.
    Partition sounds like a bold, but simple solution, but it’s really not. The regime will not give up the major cities. If it does, it’s dead. Even if the Allawites could be moved to the coast or mountains, and the other groups expelled, once the regime lost control of the majority of the country, there would be nothing to stop the rebels pursuing them all the way. And why wouldn’t they? Which means an intervention force would be required not just to fight the regime, its militias, possibly its Hezbollah allies, and its vast stocks of chemical weapons, it would also be forced to fight everyone else who would not tollerate an outside force protecting what remained of the Assad regime. And don’t forget, we’ve already created plenty of suspicious as to Western motives by prevaricating so long. People who might once have welcomed us are now convinced that we’re playing one side off against the other for our own or Israel’s interests. And they can point to lectures and articles by famous right wing think tankers in the US as evidence.

    Lifting the arms embargo and equipping the rebels is not a risk-free strategy by any means. A no fly zone may even be a good idea, although that would also be difficult and dangerous to pull off. But at the very least, giving weapons to the more organised and more responsible groups would allow us to build relationships with them over time, would allow them to defeat the regime themselves, would create the conditions that would enable moderates to come to the fore, and make it easier for oposition figures from the minority groups to create a space for the minorities in a post-Assad Syria. Turkish and Iraqi-Kurdish efforts in the northeast seem to have had some success at getting the Kurdish militias and the primarily Sunni opposition fighters to back away from each other, and perhaps lay the foundation for co-operation.

    If a future for the country that is inclusive for the minorities sounds difficult to achieve, it’s because it would be. But not only is it a more hopeful outcome for the country than genocide and partition (and I don’t see how you’d get the latter without the former), it’s also much easier to achieve.

  • Dave,

    I think Gladstone was a reluctant interventionist. He sent General Gordon to the Sudan to evacuate the Egyptian garrison there, not make a stand against the Mahdi. When Gladstone finally sent a relief force to lift the siege of Khartoum it arrived too late, Gladstone was blamed for failing to act in time and the Liberal government fell shortly afterwards.

    With respect to Liberal Intervensionism or Liberal Internationalism, I think humanatarian intervention is the first and most important strand of the doctrine. In combatting egregious human rights abuses all diplomatic avenues and available economic sanctions should be deployed in the first instance. However, when all other options have been exhausted and mass slaughter of civilian populations continues, if it is within the power of a state to act, then you are compelled to do so, even if that means resorting to militay action to stop the killing.

  • Tim,

    Syria has been at war for two years with over 70,000 official casulaties (over half civilian deaths) and around 4 million refugees displaced by the conflict. Turkey has had two jets shot down and exchanged artillery fire with Syrian troops as well as placing patriot anti-missile defence systems on its border. Jordanian and Syrian forces have exchanged fire as Syrian army units have fired on refugess crossing into Jordanian territory. Jordan is itself threathened by Jihadists and the Syrian conflict is already spilling over to the Kingdom.

    In November last year, the six member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – were first to recognise the new National Coalition for Syria as “the legitimate representative of the brotherly Syrian people”. France, the UK, EU and US eventually followed suit with full recognition.

    In December, 100 countries at the Friends of the Syrian People conference in Marrakech, Morocco, also recognised the coalition. Absent were Russia, China and Iran, which have backed President Assad or blocked action by the UN Security Council.

    The National Coalition, as the legitimate government of the country, can legally provide the basis for furnishing of military assistance, without the need for a UN resolution. The obvious partners for the Syrian opposition are the neighbouring states most at risk from a spillover of the conflict, supported by a coalition of countries that have recognised the new Syrian council.

  • jedibeeftrix,

    I would absolutely support the military projection capabilities provided for in FF2020. The UK has an obligation as a member of Nato to provide a minimum of 2% of GDP for defence spending and a further obligation to be able to fulfil its responsibilities as a permanent member of the security council when called upon to do so.

  • Jonathan,

    I would like to think you are right that a plurastic, secular administration committed to the protection of minorities can be parachuted in to take over from the Assad regime. My fear is that the more likely outcome is a long drawn out sectarian conflict, reprisal killings and jihadist control of large sections of the country.

    As far as I understand it the governorate of Latakia is 90% Alawite and As-Suwayda is dominated by the Druze community. The Syrian National Coalition that is charged with taking control of the administration will find it as difficult as the Libyan National Council to assert control over a disparate militia when the Assad regime eventually falls. Partition may not be a palatable or desirable political solution. However, the stationing of peace-keeping muslim troops in the mountain ranges separating the coastal areas from the interior may provide the best available means of preventing large scale warfare between shia and sunni muslim groups. The new administration will need to be given the time it requires to establish security in the Urban centres and on its borders with Iraq and Lebanon as well as preparing for democratic elections.

  • Charles Beaumont 8th May '13 - 3:12am

    Wow. The idea that Turkey and Jordan will happily invade Syria on demand from NATO is pretty far fetched. Nearly as far fetched as the idea that the Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al Nusra will be happy with the existence of an Allawite state in Northwest Syria. But not as far fetched as the idea that the Arab League, increasingly dominated by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, will be content to see a new Christian state emerge next door to Lebanon and Israel. This piece is interesting, but it is also a long list of crazy ideas with no chance of coming to pass. The basic assumption – that the break-up of Yugoslavia gives us a “how-to” template is also pretty far-fetched. “The interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo heralded the creation of independent self-governing states”, correct, but they were not “the means of ending the genocidal warfare in the Balkans”. The genocidal warfare ended largely because those leading the ethnic cleansing had completed their aims. Bosnia is no poster-boy for liberal interventionism and Kosovo required a troop density that could never be matched in Syria.
    I’m also wondering why Russia isn’t mentioned. Hard to see Russia merrily signing up to a three-way partition of Syria led by NATO.
    Sadly, there are no options for saving Syria other than someone persuading Russia to alter its stance.

  • david thorpe 8th May '13 - 11:39am

    @ joe

    the problem with defining liberal interventionism isnt in the definition of intervention-which is what seems to be being debated about syria-but the nature of liberak-so ok human ruights abuses/war criems-the case is pretty clear-but what if one takes the blair bush view, that bringing ‘democracy’ or regime change-is justified by liberal intervetnionis…

  • Charles,

    You make an important point in stating “The genocidal warfare ended largely because those leading the ethnic cleansing had completed their aims. Bosnia is no poster-boy for liberal interventionism and Kosovo required a troop density that could never be matched in Syria.”

    It is a repeat of this ethic cleansing that I fear is and will continue to be the fate of Syria in the absence of a decisive military intervention.

    I do not think the question is whether foreign forces will intervene militarily in Syria. Syria’s neighbours and a number of the gulf states are already engaged in hosting, training, funding and arming the Syrian opposition and rebel forces. Both Turkey and Jordan have hundreds of thousands of refugees encamped on their borders. Both states have American troops in-country preparing for intervention. The real question is whether Nato will back a Turkish led initiative to bring this conflict to an end.

    As Paddy Ashdown argued in the Times last year, the west must let Turkey lead a relief operation Syria shows the lessons of Libya still unlearnt. The Turkish armed forces have an active strength of some 510,000 personnel. Quite adequte to the task.

    When the Arab revolt reached Damascus during the First world war, it did so under the banner of a United Arabia. That dream was short-lived and ran into the realpolitik of the Sykes-Pico compact. The French mandate that followed created the conditions for the Alawite dominance of the Syrian military and ultimately the ascendancy of the Assad regime in the post-war period. The Ba’ath parties of Saddam Hussein and the Assad’s has killed any idea of pan-arab nationalism. What is required now is what the United Nations was formed for i.e. to provide for self-determination of peoples in autonomous territories, if that is the expressed desire of the Syrian people through its elected representatives. These principles of self-determination should take precedence over any Russian geo-political interests and certainly not be determined in any way by fanatical Al Qaeda affiilated groups.

  • Dave,

    “what if one takes the blair bush view, that bringing ‘democracy’ or regime change-is justified by liberal intervetnionis…”. I would reject that view utterly.

    The right to self-determination is the cardinal principle of international law, The United Nations Charter provides that nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference.

    How a group of peoples might exercise self-determination and in what form is a collective choice of an automonous group of self-governing peoples, whether it be independence, federation, protection, some form of autonomy or even full assimilation.

    Military intervention in another nations internal affairs can only be legally justified in my view when an oppressive government has both forfeited any legitamacy as a ruler of a state and is systematically exterminating its own people – even then it has to be a last resort after all other non-military options have been exhausted.

  • Charles Beaumont 8th May '13 - 6:57pm

    Joe, the right to self determination is enshrined in UN Charter. The right to secession isn’t. There is a legitimate discussion to be had about what “should” happen and also about what “would” happen. They’re not the same thing.

    A couple of questions arise: what evidence do you have that the warring factions in Syria (you describe them as tribal groups but I think that’s inaccurate) want secession, as opposed to wanting control? Take the Iraqi example: very few Iraqis argued for the break-up of the country, however violent the disputes. Second question: is your proposed solution actually acceptable to the region. You mantion jordan and Turkey suffering refugee inflow but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to invade.

    It’s not that you can’t justify military intervention. I want to know whether you demonstrate that it can achieve the objectives. Put another way, can you justify a failed military intervention?

  • Charles,

    I understand the point you make that the right to self-determinatioin does not enshrine a right to secession. My focus on this issue is not so much the right to political independence so much as the right to self-preservation in a protected area within a post-Assad Syria.

    The Christian Community are undergoing severe tribulations as graphically illustratred in this report from the Barnabas fund Islamism and kidnappings point to bleak future for Syria’s Christians in which the author writes:

    “I am myself convinced that the long-term healing of Syria’s divisions lies in a confessional state on the model of Lebanon, where minorities – both ethnic and religious – are protected and guaranteed a stake in the country’s governance, and this proposal is now receiving serious consideration at the UN.”

    As well as the safeguarding of the Christian community , Kurdish, Druze and Alawite autonomy and security will almost certainly figure high in the Syrian National Coalitions deliberations of how to protect minorities under a new administration.

    That the Syrian Kurds will seek an autonomous region akin to that of the Iraqi Kurds I think is a given. The tribal groupings I refer to might more accurately be described as extended family groupings, both Alawite and Sunni, that have long-established power bases in Syria. While sectarian tensions were not a significant factor in Syria prior to the uprising or even in the early days of protest and demonstrations, the conflict is increasingly disintegrating into a sunni-shia dispute with other minorities caught in-between.

    The Baker Institute has recently published a report from the US perspective Syria at the Crossroads . Its recomnendations include a UN-Arab League mandated peacekeeping force once the Assad regime falls to fill the security vacuum in the state; and a recognition of the importance of respecting the traditional multi-confessional and multi-ethnic nature of Syria. In this respect, the U.S. would help ensure that protections for minorities and power sharing are codified in any future constitution.

    I would dearly love to see a negotiated settlement, brokered by the US and Russia, succeed in halting the violence and bringing about a political settlement of the crisis, but have little confidence that such an approach is any longer viable or that such talks will do anything to even temporarily halt the daily slaughter we are witnessing.

    On the question of whether Turkey and Jordan will be willing to undertake a military intervention, I believe Turkey wlll consider it, in its own long term interests to solidify its the position it has taken with the new prospective political and military administration and restore the good economic and security relations it enjoyed with Syria prior to the crisis. Jordan is on the point of economic collapse from the burden of rising public debt associated with the massive and increasing flow of regugees into their territory. They have an urgent need to secure their borders and orevent the violence from spilling over into their territory. An arab league backed intervention from Jordan to clear the Assad regime forces from Deraa and the surrounding areas may be their best option in achieving their aims.

  • Jonathan Brown 8th May '13 - 8:22pm

    “I would like to think you are right that a plurastic, secular administration committed to the protection of minorities can be parachuted in to take over from the Assad regime. My fear is that the more likely outcome is a long drawn out sectarian conflict, reprisal killings and jihadist control of large sections of the country.”

    Joe, I don’t know whether you are deliberately misunderstanding what I said, but I haven’t argued that a pluralistic, secular ‘western democracy’ parachuted in is very likely. It’s not. Which is why my ‘give arms and other aid to rebel groups’ suggestion is intended to build up the capacity of the rebel groups to both defeat the Assad regime and provide services. In other words, to develop governing and negotiating experience that any post-Assad regime will need. Support can be used as a way of encouraging and empowering the moderates (secular and Islamist) both to act responsibly and to deal peacefully with each other; to lock the Syrians currently doing the fighting into a system that rewards co-operation and development rather than extremism. It may not work. However…

    “A sectarian war, reprisal killings, extreme Islamist control of parts of the country”… Are all happening already. And your idea of a military intervention would make all of these things far, far worse.

    I don’t oppose partition only because it is unjust. I oppose it because it is utterly unrealistic. The Turkish army is large, but nowhere near large enough (and Turkey is nowhere near rich enough) to be able to occupy the whole of Syria. The US, which spends more on defence than the rest of the world put together, could not defeat an insurgency in Iraq. What makes you think that a NATO-led coalition, acting without UN authorisation and in opposition to Russian, Chinese, Iraqi, Iranian and Hezbollah/Lebanese wishes could possibly hold the ring in Syria? And perhaps even more importantly, how on earth do you think that functioning states would emerge from the bloodbath that partition would require?

    The most likely outcomes of this war I believe are either that the Assad regime grinds out a victory of sorts and establishes a new kind of dirt-poor, absolute dictatorship like the Saddam one after the first Gulf war, or that the regime falls and various militias fight over a fragmented country.

    My suggestion aims – at best – to ensure that the largest and best organised militias that fill this vacuum contain at least some moderates and have some capacity to administer the regions they dominate. And that they have an interest and a forum of sorts in which to negotiate a settlement with each other. The UN and other international organisations may or may not be able to help with this. Libya represents a kind of model: by no means ‘sweetness and light’ but a framework in which over time rebuilding can hopefully take place, and political disagreements be worked out without too much violence.

    Here is a quote from Josh Landis, who knows a thing or two about Syria: ” I don’t doubt that Alawites from every walk of life are preparing for a mountain defense. I know … my wife’s family, which is Alawite … don’t want to hang out in Latakia, which they believe will become a battleground because it’s half Sunni and half Alawite and Christian.”

    He argues in the same interview, here (http://middleeastvoices.voanews.com/2012/12/quicktake-is-an-alawite-state-in-syrias-future-32398/) that an Allawite enclave could only come about as a result of the fragmentation of the Syrian state. In other words, if there is a Syrian state in the future as, presumably, your partition is meant to ensure, it will not allow an Allawite state to exist.

  • Jonathan Brown 8th May '13 - 9:29pm

    I’ve done a bit more digging, and it seems the numbers of Alawites in the coastal regions were and are probably higher than I believed, with several sources saying they comprise around 2/3 of Latakia Governorate (although still less than 50% of the city itself). However, there seems to be very little research done at all on the subject, never mind recent research, and the internet sources all seem to be quoting each other rather than original research. Nevertheless, even if we accept that Alawi refugees from other parts of the country have pushed the proportions up even higher than they were before the war started, it doesn’t change the fact that Syria’s minorities are (still) widely dispersed across the country and insufficiently geographically concentrated to make an ethnic/sectarian state viable. Nor does it alter the fact that even the coastal region is still very mixed with very many non-Alawis.

    This article (http://www.usak.org.tr/EN/myazdir.asp?id=2805) makes a lot of good points about how difficult it would be to create an Alawi state.

    This article by Robert Fisk, not someone I’m generally a huge fan of (www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/robert-fisk-alawite-history-reveals-the-complexities-of-syria-that-west-does-not-understand-8518455.html) talks a bit about the history of the Alawis in Syria – and about the complexities which make armchair generals (re)drawing maps a problem rather than a solution.

  • Jonathan,

    thanks for the links to the Josh Landis interview and the ISRO article.

    The basic premise of your argument is not wholly disimilar to elements of the policy recommendations of the Baker Institute report ‘Syria at the Crossroads’ that I have linked to in the comments above. These recommendations include:

    1. The U.S., along with the international community, should work with the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces (hereby “the Coalition”) to become a transitional government that is inclusive of all communities in Syria and is also representative of former Syrian government officials who share a common vision for a democratic, post-Assad Syria.
    2. The U.S. should work with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Arab League, and the EU to create a unified international funding source for the Coalition. The administrators of this international fund, preferably a joint EU-GCC initiative, should work closely with the Coalition to ensure adequate allocation of these funds.
    3. The U.S. should conduct high-level diplomacy to find common interests with Russia to end the violence in Syria and ease the fears of a post-Assad transition.
    4. In an effort to support moderate opposition efforts to protect Syrian civilians and abate extremists, the U.S. should consider, in coordination with like-minded countries, providing military assistance to vetted leaders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In addition, the U.S., in conjunction with NATO, should form a joint special operations command in Turkey to monitor the delivery of military assistance and provide logistical and communications support and training to these vetted FSA soldiers.
    5. The U.S. should reiterate its clear red line regarding the use of chemical and biological weapons, which is prohibited by the Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention.
    6. A UN-Arab League mandated peacekeeping force may be needed once the Assad regime falls to fill the security vacuum in the state.
    7. The U.S. should lead the efforts of the EU, the Arab League, NATO, and the GCC to buttress neighboring states in the Levant, in particular Jordan and Lebanon, that are vulnerable to political and economic turmoil as a result of the deepening civil war in Syria.
    8. The U.S. should continue to support efforts by the UN, the EU, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to address the deepening humanitarian crisis that is resulting from the outflow of refugees to Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as those individuals caught in the theater of war.
    9. The U.S. should consult closely with Israel on the evolving security situation on the Israeli-Syrian border.
    10. The U.S. should propose to the UN that individuals associated with the atrocities committed either on the side of the regime or the opposition should be investigated and referred to the International Criminal Court.
    11. The U.S., along with the international community, should help the Coalition prepare for a post-Assad state.

    This is a moderate and risk-balanced approach that suffers in my view from the same weakness of the approach you advocate. i.e. the most likely outcome is a Muslim brotherhood/jihadist dominated regime supplanting the Assad Regime with the Syria National Coalition and moderate/secular groups being sidelined.. The best organised militias that will likely gain control of the region are the fundamentalists supported by Al Qaeda in Iraq that can bring in foreign fighters and benefit from the arms supply and funding of Wahhabi and Salafi backers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

    Partion of Syria into autonomous regions was undetaken under the French Mandate. The four states in the current boundaries of Syria were Damascus in the South, Aleppo in the North, the Alawites State on the coast, and the Druze region of Jabal Druze. It is not impossible to recreate this division for security reasons, with an autonomous Kurdish area, under the auspices of a UN Protectorate.

    Bearing in mind your admonition that the complexities which make armchair generals (re)drawing maps a problem rather than a solution.The dominant ethno-religious areas are broadly charted on this map Religion in Syria. The argument put forward in my article is that control of the area of the valleys and mountain passes where the large Christian villages are would allow a peacekeeping force to control the war in Syria. A relatively small Turkish force could protect the coast from attacks by forming a mountain-based defensive line connecting Tartus and Homs and joining the area of the valleys to the coastal strip, keeping it safe from attack by militants, while Free Syrian Army units engaged the regimes forces in the Urban Centres in the interior.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th May '13 - 1:17am

    Joe, thanks for typing (or copying) out those points – I should have a look at ‘Syria at the Crossroads’ report in more detail then. Most of it looks pretty sensible to me. Re: point 3, I don’t see there being much (i.e. any) scope for a deal with Russia, but the desire to reach one if possible should remain.

    I don’t really understand your criticism of this report’s approach. You worry about an extremist dominated regime, taking over, but partition is only going to make this outcome more likely. The map you post is only useful to a point. It greatly oversimplifies where the different groups live: there is a huge degree of overlap, and the only way to create an Alawite state, never mind a Druze or a Christian one would be to slaughter or forcibly evict millions of people. I appreciate that you’re suggesting the Turkish/NATO force limit their deployment to the mountains rather than the whole country, but that’s still a massive, expensive and dangerous task. And would that deployment come before or after the ethnic cleansing of the Alawite state-to-be? Would the separation force stay in the mountains if it came under chemical weapons attack? If jihadists overan the rest of the country, wiped out any remaining minorities and then started car bombing this force, would they react? You seem to hold up the French partition as a hopeful example. But the point is, it failed. An Alawite state was impossible in the 1930s, and is even more impossible now that the sects are even more dispersed than they were then. These imperialist partitions look good on paper from the other side of the world, but don’t take into account the history, economy and social ties that exist in real life. As I mentioned before; most Syrian Kurds live outside of the only part of the country where Kurds form a majority. Christians are spread throughout the whole country. Look at what partition achieved in Palestine (60 odd years of on/off war), India (several wars between Pakistan and India – which still has one of the largest Muslim populations on the planet – and a Pakistani civil war leading to the partition of East and West Pakistan), or even Ireland. Partitioning Syria along ethnic or sectarian lines would be no easier than partitioning the US along racial lines. It’s not just drawing lines on a map: it can only happen with (far more) catastrophic violence.

    Which doesn’t of course make it impossible, but does make it an outcome we should try to avoid! I don’t see how partition will make any of the things you worry about less likely rather than more likely, and it adds several new problems to the mix. A ‘boots on the ground’ military intervention by NATO/Turkish forces will become instant targets, will likely be unable to effectively police the conflict anyway, and will make negotiations between the various opposition groups much harder. Nothing is likely to undermine a moderate/secular opposition organisation more than being sidelined by a western intervention.

    Finally (for now), here’s another good Josh Landis article on why an Alawite state is not viable (http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/will-there-be-an-alawite-state/). Here, in summary, are his 5 main reasons:

    1. Alawites don’t just live in the mountains – they now live all over the country.

    2. The regime has spent decades trying to define Alawis as main-stream Muslims, fully integrated into a secular state.

    3. There is no state infrastructre that would allow an Alawite state to function (i.e. airport, power plants, industry, nothing on which to build a national economy).

    4. No country would recognise the Alawite state.

    5. An Alawite state is indefensible. Syria could not survive without the coast, and would not settle for an outcome that cut them off from it and the port cities (which are majority Sunni).

    Whatever happens, we’ve got to the stage where we’re talking about least horrendous options, not good outcomes. The most likely strategy of achieving a reasonable result is one that supports Syrians and encourages and empowers them to solve their own problems. Militarily and politically. Partition deals a death blow to moderates of all kinds and validates and strengthens the extremists on all sides. Having basically been defeated in Afghanistan and Iraq, and having only just got away with it in Libya, I don’t think we have the ability to make an intervention work without real support from the UN (including the grudging consent of Russia, if not outright endorsement) and without some sort of negotiated political framework to support.

  • Jonathan,

    I think we need to take this step by step.

    The first priority is to bring about a cessation of the daily slaughter and forced relocation of the population in Syria.

    If we take it as a given that this can only be achieved with the removal of the Assad regime then the question is how can that outcome be best delivered.

    The opposition forces are a highly disparate group. The currently lack the numbers, arms, training, command structure, unity and wherewithal to undertake anything more than limited urban guerrilla warfare. The most effective groups appear to be the Al Qaeda affiliated/jihadists that exhibit a semblance of discipline and purpose in their operations.

    I don’t think simply increasing the flow of weapons to a select group of favoured Free Syrian Army units is enough to change the balance of power on the ground. The regime forces will continue to outman and outgun the opposition forces on all fronts. A concerted blockade and Air campaign to support a unified rebel offensive with secure supply lines in safe areas would have a much better prospect of changing the balance on the ground in favour of the opposition forces.

    The second priority is providing security to the civilian population. I think this can be quickly achieved with the establishment of safe zones in the Turkish border zone – Idlib province and Aleppo.

    An Alawite militia could establish a secure area in Latakia and Tartus Governorates. Not just for the majority Alwawites residing there, but for the entire population residing in the coastal region. . A demilitarised zone comprising the central plains of the Orontes Valley, manned by a peacekeeping force, would provide both a buffer between the Syrian desert and the coastal area and a secure area for the majority Christian population and other sects residing there. Druze and Kurd militias could similarly establish autonomous safe areas in As-Suwasyda and Al Hasakah governorates.

    If the fall of the Assad regime can be brought about quickly and decisively this will aid in reducing sectarian divisions and potentially unite Syrians in dealing with the jihadist threat to both moderate Muslim and minority sect populations in Damascus and other major population centres.

    The third major issues will be governance. Re-establishing the functioning of food, water, medical, social and local authority services. Preparation for elections and drafting of a new constitution. This is best undertaken, in my opinion, by the representatives of autonomous states with their own citizen militia providing security for their populations.

    The new constitutional arrangements for Syria cannot be imposed from outside, as they were during the French mandate, but security and the right to self-defence of minority communities must be established first as a prerequisite to equal representation in constitutional talks.

    If the Syrian people determine that a federation of self-governing states, with their own independent militia, is in the best interest of all – then mutual dependency and economic cooperation will overcome much of Joshua Landis concerns about the viability of an Alawite state.

    I do agree with your conclusion that – whatever happens, we’ve got to the stage where we’re talking about least horrendous options, not good outcomes

  • Jonathan Brown 9th May '13 - 9:52pm

    Hi Joe,

    Of course I can agree that the priorities are the ending of violence and ethnic cleansing, the provision of security and the re-establishing of basic services. The question is how to get there, and I think you make a number of assumptions that are highly implausible.

    1) It is arguable whether providing more weapons to the regime’s opponents would change the balance of power. I’ll come back to this. However, you suggest that a blockade and air campaign would work in support of a unified rebel offensive, but we’ve just agreed that the rebels aren’t unified. Furthermore, you ignore the potential of direct intervention in support of the opposition to actually fracture the opposition still further. And how do you make it work? Would we fire on Russian and Iranian ships and Iraqi planes breaking the blockade? How would we react to our aircraft being shot down and/or chemical weapons being fired in large numbers at Turkish cities?

    2a) An Alawite milita could not establish a secure area in Latakia and Tartus that would protect all Syrians for the same reasons the Assad regime was not able to establish a secure Syria in 2011: it’s only means of staying in power is to use lethal force against the population. And that is what provoked the armed rebellion in the first place. An always corrupt, incompetent and brutal state has become much more so, and that won’t change even if it’s nominally governing a majority Alawite population.

    2b) You talk about a demilitarised zone separating an Alawite/Christian proto-state from the rest of Syria, but who is going to establish this demilitarised zone? Are we back to talking about boots on the ground and not just blockades and airstrikes? Without a political agreement (which I think we’re agreed seems highly unlikely), any deployment would be a miltary invasion, resisted by the regime, and in due course probably by extremist opposition militias too. And quite possibly many of the moderates.

    2c) You still fail to address the point about the interconnectedness of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups. Latakia and Tartus are still a long way from being homogenously Alawite. How would your occupation / separation force respond to ongoing ethnic cleansing in the coastal region? Would they sit and watch, like the Belgians did in Rwanda, or the Dutch in Bosnia? Kurdish groups appear to have basically established a Kurdish zone in the northeast already, but that doesn’t much help the large number of Kurds that live in other parts of Syria. Likewise, any attempt by the Druze to create a state in the south would split the opposition still further and probably provoke retaliation by the many Arabs living in this ‘Druze zone’.

    3) The rapid fall of the Assad regime may or may not aid in reducing sectarian divisions. My guess is that it would partly depend on how such an event came about. If his fall comes at the hands of foreigners, it’s difficult to see how his supporters would conclude that they had any option other than to go all out to inflict as much damage as possible before they were anihilated (and they’d probably be right). If the fall is the result of large scale defections, co-ordinated with the opposition, then it could help. Alternatively (and more likely, if it happens at all), if it came about as a result of the opposition gradually getting better organised, better armed and better supported, and defeating the regime on the battlefield then again, it might help reduce sectarian divisions. But neither of the last two options are likely or possible if Western airpower takes out Assad.

    On the other hand, we have already seen opposition militias grow, merge and collaborate with each other on a local and sometimes regional level. Another year or two of this (aided with regular supplies of weapons that would allow them to bring down regime aircraft) might – not will, but might – create the circumstances in which more organised military relationships are created, and in which opposition leaders – battlefield, administrative/political and social – could develop reputations and experience that would give them some chance of being able to credibly represent Syrians in the post-regime political process.

    3) Governance. I think you’re being wildly optimistic if you think that militias that almost overnight find themselves in charge of ethnically cleansed will be able to make civil goverment work. The best chance of opposition groups being able to actually excerise administrative power is if they gradually learn how to do this by re-creating the state in liberated zones that they’ve fought for. Which brings us back to the game-changing (or not) nature of what you seem to think is too timid a response: supplying rebels with arms and other material.

    Let’s be clear; I’m not talking about repeating what happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s: giving weapons to the proto-Taliban and then leaving them to it. Although weapons are important, I’m also talking about working with Syrian networks and organisations on the ground to get in food, vaccines, medical supplies, heaters, blankets, etc. to where it’s needed. Going back to the weapons, this is where I think you understimate what a relatively small level of support could achieve. The regime began this war with a huge army, control of most of the weapons and virtually the entire territory of Syria. In the last couple of years, a mixture of defectors and local fighters (and a few – significant in impact if not very much so in numbers foreign fighters) have wrested control of large parts of the country, mainly with small arms. Attempts at establishing hospitals are foiled by air attack. Attempts at setting up a new civil administration are foiled by air attack. If the rebels could shoot down the planes, it’s beyond doubt that some of their attempts at organising would fail. But I think people underestimate the Syrians: many of their attempts would succeed, as indeed we can already see on a small scale in many places. If the rebels could defeat the tanks and planes of the regime, Hezbollah and Iranian advisors would not be enough to prevent the rebels from capturing most of the rest of the country. And with growing power, and support from western countries – including Turkey, and perhaps the gulf states, I think Syria would have a chance of reestablishing a state again, as the Libyans are, despite the difficulties, more or less doing. Getting the factions to work with each other will be difficult enough without setting them at each other’s throats be then trying to split the country.

    The approach I talk about is risky, there’s no doubt. But it probably presents the best chance of adapting to changing circumstances and creating the means by which various Syrian factions can establish themselves and relationships with each other. It is based upon the acknowledgement that Syria is a complex country with even more complex politics, in which whatever we or anyone else tries to do is going to be a high stakes gamble. Intervention, occupation and the carnage that would come about from ethnic cleansing and partition would – never mind the legality of invasion, the difficult in getting popular support for it or the dangers of failure our forces would face – would just create a completely unpredictable chaos in which the most logical choice for almost everyone would be extremism, whether that be Islamist, nationalist, seccesionist, etc.

  • Jonathan,

    “Another year or two of this.” This is precisely what I fear. We were horrified when casualties had risen to 7,000 towards the end of 2011. Had we known then how bad things were going to get would we still have been advocating caution and a wait and see policy. Syria is on the brink of becoming a failed state akin to South Yemen and a new stronghold for Al-Qeada on the Arabian Peninsula.

    I will try to respond to the concerns you have raised.

    1.A maritime operation can enforce strong sanctions on Syria. This approach would not close off all Syrian trade. But especially if Turkey – and perhaps even Iraq and Jordan – cooperated at their land crossings, we could not only impose prohibitions on certain kinds of trade with Assad’s Syria, but enforce those prohibitions through a naval quarantine. As in Iraq in the 1990s, perhaps we would focus on the oil trade and various high-technology sectors with such sanctions. The naval assets required would be easily within the capacity of NATO’s fleets, ideally operating in conjunction with Arab partners. Russian warships coming and going from the Tartus port would not be impeded but all other shipping could be halted.

    An air campaign inspired by the Kosovo model could be used to punish the regime and its cronies. It could go after command and control assets and places like banks, electricity grids, and Baathist party facilities. It would not be able to protect civilians throughout the country, of course. That is why Kosovo is the better analogy rather than Libya, where the geography and demographics lent themselves to the protection of Benghazi-based rebels as well as their sympathetic populations with limited amounts of airpower. But a punitive air campaign, perhaps combined with the naval quarantine discussed above, could magnify severalfold the consequences for the Assad regime and inner circle of their terrible repression of their own people.

    A no-fly zone in safe zones close to the Turkish border could be enforced with the Patriot anti-missile systems already installed there.

    2a) When I speak of an Alawite state or autonomous region, I differentiate that from a smaller version of the Assad regime. In fact, were the Assad family and his henchmen to attempt to recreate their regime in the coastal area that would fatally undermine the viability of any nascent state established there, as would any attempt by an Alawite administration to undertake ethnic-cleansing of the area.

    The Baker Institute report notes that ‘preparations are currently underway to build a viable autonomous economy in Tartus, the location of Russia’s naval base’.

    2b) The Baker Institute report notes ‘A UN-Arab League mandated peacekeeping force may be needed once the Assad regime falls to fill the security vacuum in the state.’ I am suggesting that this international force, initially Turkish, should positon itself in the Orontes Valley. The area will need to be cleared of regime troops by FSA and Turkish troops advancing from the rebel stronghold in Idlib province.

    2c) I am making an assumption that a large part of Alawite (and other minority support) stems from a justified fear of a regime dominated by radical Sunnis. The interconnectedness of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups is not just geographical but political and institutional with many of the top ranking military positions filled by Sunni and Christian generals. As such, while the coastal region may become something of a refuge for Alawites seeking safety in numbers, I would not see the creation of self-governing states in a Syrian confederation as necessitating or giving rise to ethnic cleansing or significant population movements.

    Were ethnic cleansing to be undertaken by rogue elements in any area, then I would expect intervention by the UN-Arab League mandated peacekeeping force. As you note, Kurdish groups appear to have basically established a Kurdish zone in the northeast already and a similar pattern of events is appearing in the Druze area with Druze clerics calling for strict neutrality within their community and making the border and towns of Suwayda safe regions and shelters for refugees escaping from the areas of destruction in Syria. Druze Clerics in Suwayda
    Break Silence Over Syria Conflict

    3a. The Syrian National Coalition has taken Syria’s seat in the Arab League in place of the Assad regime. It is natural enough then that the Assad regimes fall is facilitated and aided by fellow Arabs/MuslimTurks. Large scale defections do not appeat to be on the cards. The Baker Institure report observes ‘Remarkably, despite the reliance on the conscription of Sunni youth to serve as foot soldiers in the 619,000-strong military, no single battalion has defected from the regime. In conversations, former senior Syrian army officers claim that not a single officer in the military is in a position to effectively launch a coup against the president. They also stressed that even if a number of senior Sunni officers defect in the coming months, the majority of the Alawite officer corps is likely to stay with the president to the very end.’

    3b. On Governance, I would expect the exiting local Governorates to remain in place within a voluntary confedation of autonomous states. The individual states could negotiate a constitution that determined the powers of a central administration that may be limited to maintaining such centralised services as the states agree are essential to their well-being.

    As for the difference that arming rebel groups can make it is difficut to get around the fact that FSA numbers are estimated at 10,000. Although, numbers may be buttressed by local fighters it remains the case that guerilla warfare in urban areas is dependent on local community support. If the area to be liberated does not want to be liberated then all that is likely to be achieved is the levelling of built-up areas and an ongoing succession of tactical retreats to regoup and fight elsewhere. I just can’t see the FSA developing into an effective fighting force without significant air and logistical support.

    I wouldn’t argue with your assessment of the situation that Syria is a complex country with even more complex politics, in which whatever we or anyone else tries to do is going to be a high stakes gamble

    Where I would differ with your conclusions, is in my opinion that the balance of risks favours a decisive military intervention to fundamentally change the balance of advantage in favour of the opposition forces as against a potentially long-drawn out collapse into a failed state in the heart of the middle-east.

  • The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan says Turkish intelligence had determined that the government of President Bashar al-Assad had used at least 200 chemical missiles.He says”We have the remainders of these missiles, there are pictures and then there are intelligence reports, and there are patients who are brought to our hospitals who were wounded by these chemical weapons.” Turkey claims evidence of Syrian chemical weapons use.

    If this level of use is verified then the Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention has been clearly breached. Syria is one of only eight of the world’s 193 countries not a party to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, but it is a party to the Geneva (Protocol) of 1925 which prohibits the use of chemical waepons.

    The U.N. have already initiated an investigation into the claims that Syria has deployed chemical weapons and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon set out the U.N. position clearly, saying his announcement of a U.N. investigation “should serve as an unequivocal reminder that the use of chemical weapons is a crime against humanity.”

    Even the Russians, who have been staunch allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have indicated that the use of chemical weapons would be a step too far.

    Crimes against humanity have become a depressingly common feature of this Civil War including systematic rape as a tool of war as was seen in Yogoslavia and Rwanda. This eye-witness account gives a graphic account of what is occurring Women under siege.

    The Syrian transitional government, UN and the International community need to make it unambiguously clear that individuals associated with the atrocities committed either on the side of the regime or the opposition will be investigated and referred to the International Criminal Court.

  • Jonathan Brown 11th May '13 - 2:35am

    Hi Joe,

    “Another year or two of this.” This is precisely what I fear.” It’s precisely what I fear too. I have friends who have already had multiple friends and family members killed in this war, and others who’ve been made refugees. I don’t see a military solution that will finish this war quickly however, no matter how much I might want it to end. The US invasion of Iraq in theory had everything going for it: massive military might against a shell of a regime hated and opposed by 80% of the population, most of whom were (I believe) initially in favour of the invasion and in support of the US. And yet this easy war turned into an expensive and lengthy bloody mess. The intervention you propose has far fewer things going for it.

    “Had we known then how bad things were going to get would we still have been advocating caution and a wait and see policy.” I don’t necessarily disagree. But the time has passed. We’ve missed the opportunity to back a somewhat united (in politics and aims, if not organisationally), positive and inclusive opposition against a regime on the back foot. We’ve now got a more divided opposition, a more extreme opposition and a more desperate and in some ways much more experienced and resilient regime that thinks it’s winning – and may in fact be doing so.

    Short of one side achieving military victory (which with or without outside intervention on either side will likely take years), the only way to end the war is through peace talks. And I don’t think there’s much chance of them succeeding; certainly not before a lot more fighting and military stalemate. i.e. Any way you look at it, there will be probably be years of fighting to come.

    “A maritime operation can enforce strong sanctions on Syria. … perhaps we would focus on the oil trade and various high-technology sectors with such sanctions.” You miss the key point (never mind that Iraq is in effect a regime ally providing assistance) which is weapons shipments. You say we can avoid Russian ships coming and going from Tartus. But what about Russian ships full of weapons and ammunition? Iranian ships full of ammunition? The UN sanctions on Iraq strengthened the regime over time, relative to the population and was in any case supported by the UN. NATO sanctions wouldn’t isolate the regime unless we were willing to fire upon other countries.

    “An air campaign inspired by the Kosovo model … could go after command and control assets and places like banks, electricity grids, and Baathist party facilities.” Besides the fact that much of these are civilian targets, and therefore not legal ones, these are mostly irrelevant. Air strikes could quickly destroy what was left of Syria’s civilian infrastructure, but would have a much more limited impact on the regime’s ability to fight a war.

    I agree with you though that a no fly zone could be impozed over northern Syria by ‘reactively’ shooting down Syrian aircraft that came close, but even this risks massive retaliation on Turkish cities.

    “The Baker Institute report notes that ‘preparations are currently underway to build a viable autonomous economy in Tartus, the location of Russia’s naval base’.” The Syrian economy was in huge trouble before the uprising started. The regime might be ‘preparing’ to build a new economy on the coast, but there is zero chance of anything approaching a modern economy being created in the middle of a civil war. What growth there may be is driven by looting and an influx of refugees and soldiers. It took 15 years or more for the Iraqi Kurds to get their ‘independent’ economy growing. The Alawi enclave idea is economic suicide – at least in the short term.

    “I would not see the creation of self-governing states in a Syrian confederation as necessitating or giving rise to ethnic cleansing or significant population movements.” Then what is the point of them? And even if that’s not the intention, as soon as you make clear that ‘this is Druze-land’, it’s logical for non-Druze in that area to assume that they’ll be excluded from power and economic opportunities. Partition creates incredibly powerful incentives towards ethnic cleansing.

    “Were ethnic cleansing to be undertaken by rogue elements in any area, then I would expect intervention by the UN-Arab League mandated peacekeeping force.” You seem to suggest that there’s a chance that there might not be any ethnic cleansing or at least that it would happen only on a small scale in certain parts of the country. If you partition the country, it’s logical that Alawites all over Syria will assume that they’re going to be wiped out unless they fight or flee. And the same logic applies to other groups. And as all of these groups are spread all over the country, you’re looking at vast numbers of incidents all over the place. I also think ‘rogue elements’ are likely to include substantial numbers of Turkish/NATO allies. So again we’re back to, how is the intervention force going to respond to all this violence? Will it sit in the mountains and watch the genocidaires complete their work all over the country? Or will it try to intervene everywhere?

    “Large scale defections do not appeat to be on the cards.” I agree, and haven’t said that I think they are. I was merely looking at theoretically possible ways in which the regime might be ended quickly. Mass defections aren’t likely, which leaves a gradual military defeat – taking years – or a full scale military intervention. And I’m arguing that the latter would more likely increase sectarian tensions than decrease them.

    “I just can’t see the FSA developing into an effective fighting force without significant air and logistical support.” If the FSA (which is more of a an idea and a banner than an organisation) cannot develop into an effective fighting force, and if the Syrian opposition more generally cannot develop into an effective political force then they won’t win. It’s as simple as that. Weapons and material support might – is not guaranteed to, but might – allow the Syrian opposition to develop into an organisation, or network of organisations, that might be able to make some sort of go at running the country if and when the regime falls. If they can’t organise and don’t have the weapons to win the war themselves, then this won’t happen. Western air power might – just might – be able to decapitate the regime. But doing so would leave both sides of the war without any effective leadership and would just accelerate the slide into complete chaos. Without any effective opposition organisations to deal with (and no matter how many meetings the official opposition attends in Doha, it is not an effective organisation with real sway on the ground), it will be impossible for any kind of intervention force to act as peacekeepers because there will be no peace to keep. The approach I advocate allows for fact that our power to help is limited, and gives an opportunity for the opposition to develop into a much more effective political organisation or network of organisations.

    I don’t pretend to have all the answers, or to be able to predict what all the various players will do or how they will react to changing circumstances. Who knows if the regime has already used chemical weapons? If – as appears quite possible – they have, then they have already demonstrated that this is a red line that can be crossed. What you say about the need to be seen to uphold the law against the use of chemical weapons may be true, but it doesn’t actually change anything. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq (sort of) are still backing the regime. The regime being in the wrong doesn’t mean that invading would work or necessarily make things better, even if it was legal. And if invasion made things worse, as at this point I strongly argue it would, then we shouldn’t do it.

  • Jonathan,

    I think you have made some very valid points throughout the discussion that highlights the complexities of the Syrian civil war. It is easy to see why the UN peace negotiator, Kofi Annan, threw in the towel and why his successor may be on the brink of doing so.

    It seems to me that there are broadly three, but not mutually exclusive, approaches being advocated in the UK. Firstly, is to continue to pursue a diplomatic solution that would lead to negotiations between the Assad regime and the opposition, for political reforms that could provide for wider power-sharing and democratic elections.

    This approach, that has held sway to-date, holds that supplying the opposition with lethal weapons will only serve to escalate the tensions and bring about an increase in violence. Others might justify this approach simply on the basis that it is none of our affair and is best left well alone – what we might call the Disraeli approach.

    Secondly, there is the approach of arming vetted opposition fighters with the hope that this can increase the pressure and reorient the perspective of the Assad regime (if not the Assad family itself) towards seeking a compromise solution with the Syrian National Coalition for a political settlement that is inclusive of opposition parties.

    Thirdly, there is the view as advocated in my article and to a certain extent expressed in your comments that the military defeat of the Assad regime is a necessary precursor to making any significant progress in Syria – what we might call the Gladstone approach.

    We have aired in some detail the strategic and tactical merits and difficulties with various military options, so I will not repeat those points.

    What form any political settlement will take is ultimately a matter for the various groups that have made their home since ancient times within the current borders of what the Sykes-Picot agreement and subsequent secessions deemed to be modern day Syria.

    I expect the outcome will be determined more by the reality on the ground of ethno-religious composition in defensible areas than by any negotiations undertaken in International conferences; and will resemble the former Yugoslavia or Lebanon more than it does Libya or Iraq. Syria has been fought over and occupied since antiquity. It seems that once again the right of conquest will determine its future and that of its peoples.

    Depressing as it is, a lot more innocent people are needlessly going to be sacrificed and any political settlement that does not meet the security needs and aspirations of autonomous groups is unlikely to be any more stable or enduring than Syria’s post-war experience as an Independent state prior to and since the Assad coup.

    As Libdems, I think we should continue to advocate and lobby for a UN brokered ceasefire; support an opposition led joint Turkish/Arab league military initiative backed by Nato in the absence of a ceasefire; and accept that any political settlement – whether some form of democratic settlement in its current borders or a confederation of autonomous self-governing states – must be determined among the various Syrian groups themselves without outside interference.

  • The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood which is the largest grouping in the National Coalition issued a press release last week calling for International Action Syria Muslim Brotherhood Calls for Arab and International Action Against Assad Massacres:

    “The massacres of Assad’s gangs have become too numerous to list, after losing credibility completely. Massacres are carried out around the clock, focusing on remote and isolated villages, which are in fact far from the revolutionaries and protesters, indicating Assad’s intention to take revenge on the people at large, in full partnership with ethnic allies in Qom and Tehran, Baghdad and the southern suburbs of Lebanon. This is only part of a series of crimes whose planners and implementers seek to drag Syria into an outright sectarian war, preparing to occupy, evacuate and divide Syria, robbing its people of their free will.

    “The recent horrific massacres committed by the regime’s criminal militia in all parts of Syria will generate a violent reaction with fire blasting back at the barbaric perpetrators. Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood affirms that it stands fully with the Syrian people and their revolution, giving everything it can in the face of a tyrant, criminal regime. We reject the sectarian project upon which the authoritarian regime and its allies are embarked. We call on every person of conscience to stand by our people and supply them with all the requirements to bolster their steadfast commitment and struggling defense in this fierce war being waged against them.

    The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria calls on the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the international community to assume their historical, moral and humanitarian obligations towards the people being subjected to organized and systematic genocide, as the demented regime vengefully uses all means of destruction and killing against them, from slaughtering their children with knives, to use of internationally-banned chemical weapons.”

    In 2011 the leader of this group had called for Turkish military intervention Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood ‘open to Turkish intervention’s:

  • of 31 comments so far, 14 belong to the same person, and all are more easily measured in feet and inches instead of words.

    I’d very much like to contribute, but it’s not worth the effort while the comments policy is blatantly contravened in such a manner as to make disengagement a more effective tactic.

    Any comparison between the topic and hand and my criticism of the treatment of the topic is merely coincidental and entirely of the audience’s own making.

  • At the risk of annoying Orangepan further, I have copied below (without comment) a March 2013 press release from Liberal International President Van Baalen MEP and ALDE Leader Verhofstadt MEP:

    Military support to Free Syrian Army “a necessity”, March 2013

    LI President Hans van Baalen MEP and leader of the ALDE faction in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt MEP have called for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to support the Free Syrian Army with the implementation of no-fly zones and the supply of arms. The two liberal leaders have made this statement following a meeting in Brussels with General Selim Idriss, the chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army.

    According to the two liberals, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton has to make proposals to the 27 EU Member states. In their view, Lady Ashton’s response is currently “mostly passive”.

    In the view of the two liberal leaders, EU Member States are free to join a coalition with amongst others the United States, the United Kingdom and France, or to restrict their contribution to the insurgents to humanitarian support and the supply of so-called non-lethal military equipment. General Idriss indicated that the Free Syrian Army would be able to deal a fatal blow to the army of President Assad within a month provided that it would have got access to anti-tank and anti-aerial weaponry. The allocation of military support would also prevent extremists from hijacking the rebellion. According to Idriss now 10 per cent of the Anti-Assad Coalition is made up of extremist fighting groups. This percentage is expected to increase the longer the Anti-Assad Coalition is left on its own.

  • Jonathan Brown 13th May '13 - 11:46pm

    Hi Joe,

    Your 11th May – 18:31 comment indicates that our views might be closer than they have appeared to me – whether that’s because you’re moving away from pushing outright military intervention and deliberate partition or because I’ve taken your suggestsions to be more strongly held arguments than you ever intended them to be. I certainly agree that “I expect the outcome will be determined more by the reality on the ground of ethno-religious composition in defensible areas than by any negotiations undertaken in International conferences”.

    @ Oranjepan – I don’t believe that writing (even very) long comments contravenes the comments policy – we have both been polite, on topic, and not even been repeating ourselves very much. That said, my personal and professional connection to this issue no doubt blinds me to your very valid point that great walls of text are off-putting and may well discourage other commenters. So my apologies to you. I would very much like to hear your thoughts.

    I will round things off by saying that I’m very pleased that this issue is finally being debated by Lib Dems (and am encouraged by the ALDE position), and hope to have contributed to the discussion more than I may have put off others from commenting.

  • Jonathan,
    this conversation reheats a lot of the standard ideas raised when civil conflict breaks out, but I don’t think it quite puts things into the wider geopolitical or historical context.

    To put things simply, this civil conflict is a humanitarian disaster, but it pales by significance to what could happen as a result of the outcome.

    This is because it is a proxy war, directed by the decisions of outside influencers – literally ‘at’ the crossroads of the various power blocs: world history is at a junction, Syria is the crossing-point.

    The awful choice is that we either accept and limit violence now or this situation will provoke an explosion which rages without control by drawing in unrelated greivances from across the world.

    Should neighbouring states be encouraged to cross their borders then the conflict cannot and will not be contained. Any occupation must be organised, mandated and acted out in concert and within strict parameters.

    Should we inrease weapons supplies to any of the beligerents then we increase our divergent interest with those other suppliers, which will draw us closer to direct conflict with them.

    Should we accept or induce fragmentation of the Syrian state, then we set up fresh dividing lines over which a future war will be fought between those power blocs (and of which we mustn’t forget we are a part).

    Should we support segregation or forcable relocation of minorities then we will speed the route towards the horror of that future war.

    We must ensure that this is a ‘preventative’ war. Despite the aggressive criticism of those with barely-hidden agendas we must stay true to our humanitarian principles of universal equality, Syria must stay united, and Assad must be given a way out which does not unleash the terrible forces of destruction he has so far successfully prevented, albeit at great cost.

    For comparison I give you Spain in the 1930s.

    So please be cautious about claims of chemical weapon usage. The UK-US alliance carries much guilt for our bad judgement the last time we were asked the same question over Iraq, and we will be easily manipulated as we seek to compensate this time. Voices such as John McCain are a stark reminder of the naive thinking which digs deeper graves.

  • Perhaps Oragepan is right – world history is at a junction and Syria is the crossing-point.

    The Bulgarian atrocities were sparked by an uprising that broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1875 and spread to Bulgaria. Gladstone,was moved by reports of the atrocities to write his pamphlet and to campaign vigorously against the foreign policy of the Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, which favoured supporting the Ottoman Empire as a counterweight to Russia. Despite widespread public indignation, the European powers did little to alleviate the situation, and the climate of opinion only changed after Russia attacked Turkey in 1877. The crisis ended with the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which created a small, autonomous principality of Bulgaria, still under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire and confined to territory north of the Balkan Mountains.

    The Brookings institute puts forwad a proposed strategy based on the experience with Bosnia in the 1990’s not dissimilar to the views expressed in my opinion piece Bosnia Lends Clue To Syria Strategy suggesting :

    “With a Bosnia-type approach, Assad’s Alawite minority would keep a section of the country, most likely along the coast, where local police would be the main security forces. Assad himself would have to step down and ideally would go into exile. Kurds would keep similar sections of the country in the north. The main central cities would be shared.”

  • I have no idea why people think there is such a word as “preventative” when they would never allow themselves to type a word like *preventation. It’s “preventive,” related to “prevention” just as “inventive” is related to “invention.”

  • @Jonathan Brown: “The US invasion of Iraq in theory had everything going for it: massive military might against a shell of a regime hated and opposed by 80% of the population, most of whom were (I believe) initially in favour of the invasion and in support of the US.”

    I see no reason to give credence to those figures. Though i can well believe that Saddam Hussein’s régime was not well loved, disliking or even despising the people who run your country is a far cry from wanting your country to be bombed, invaded, and occupied by a foreign force. I can’t imagine that there are a lot of Labourites, however much they might detest Cameron (and Clegg!) who would want to see London bombed and the country patrolled by (say) Chinese soldiers. I seem to recall that the Americans had a very hard time rounding up the “cheering Iraqi crowds” that they wanted for their propaganda back home.

  • Joe,
    thanks, but there are a number of differences between the situation in Syria and Bosnia as was.

    These are mainly linked to increasing globalisation, specifically the relative decline of old European and US economic power, the growth of religious extremism coupled with developing communication resources and divergent attitudes towards democratisation.

    When the former Yugoslavia collapsed in the dawning aftermath of the Cold War, these trends weren’t yet fully established and violent ethnic nationalism was the knee-jerk reaction of tired old establishments seeking to retain power in the established 20th Century framework. Those establishments have since crumbled and we’re seeing newly unrestrained forces competing to take advantage of the weakness of centralised power in the 21st Century model.

    if you want to be pedantic, generally speaking, ‘preventive’ is used in relation to abstract concepts and as an adjective, while ‘preventative’ is more real or is used as a noun. Both are grammatically acceptable, however ‘preventive’ as the more archaic form is ten-times more commonly used in American English than good-old British English.

    So ‘preventive medicine’ is a universal, as is ‘preventative war’.

  • T. E. Lawrence in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom writes of the Syrian tribes “They were discontented always with what government they had; such being their intellectual pride; but few of them honestly, thought out a working alternative, and fewer still agreed upon one.”

    The French mandate divided Syria into autonomous regions , with separate areas for the Alawis on the coast and the Druze in the south. Lawrence was quite pessimistic about the outcome of any uprising in the country: “Time seemed to have proclaimed the impossibility of autonomous union for such a land. . . . It was also by habit a country of tireless agitation and incessant revolt.”

    Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions in the ten years following independence in 1946. Syrian Jews were driven out during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. After the war multiple coups followed. In 1956, as a direct result of the Suez Crisis, Syria signed a pact with the Soviet Union, Hafez Assad executed his ‘corrective’ coup following yet another military defeat in the 1967 ‘six day war’ with Israel, when the Golan heights were lost.

    In the Middle East, only three of the region’s Muslim states had a historical basis as Nation States; Turkey, Egypt and Iran. The borders of the others reflected a division of the spoils of the defunct Ottoman Empire among the victors of World War I, with minimal regard for ethnic or sectarian divisions. These borders have since been subjected to repeated challenge, often military and there seems no reason why we should expect that to change in the future.

    100 years ago the Ottoman empire was in its final days, Prior to world War 1, international trade and globalisation were at their historic peak and fanatical tribesmen were as much a feature of the Arab revolt against the Turks as the jihadists are in Syria today. Were Lawrence of Arabia to survey the situation today, I expect he would be as pessismitic now as to unifying the tribes and sects of Syria as he was then, but that didn’t stop him doing all he could to lend support to Faisal’s plans for a Hashemite Kingdom in Syria after the war.

  • I’ve read that book too, but it can say nothing about the state of outside powers today and how we are seeking to influence the situation, or how we should.

    The day of imperial nation states is over, communication technology has seen to that, and thank goodness!

    We now need to understand how society has developed since then to move it forward.

    Frankly you’re falling into the trap you cite – your intellectual pride leaves you discontented with the violence, yet your alternative cannot work because it will never exist in isolation, independent of all the contributing factors coming from outside, and especially not while you (as the outsider) seek to impose your resolutions.

    According to your own logic we should secure all borders to contain any violent impulses until they disspate themselves and any exaggerated risk is removed, yet this is not what you propose in practice. I don’t see how the blatant contradiction at the heart of your argument will do anything but further enflame conflict. If you cannot agree with yourself, then it will be impossible to get others to agree with you.

    So, on a symbolic level Syria represents a seismic juncture for foreign policy thinkers within our party too. Either we continue to pedal the cycle of violence, or we make a break to reunderstand our own political past to promote peace in deeper ways. Intervention is a last resort, so it takes a certain ruthlessness and clarity of purpose to decide to pass the point of no return and say things cannot get any worse – a trait which I don’t see any sign that you possess and cannot be supported (however horrible) by the facts on the ground.

    While I agree that Assad is a proximate causal factor in the violence and therefore must go, he cannot go until a satisfactory replacement is found – and that means not yet, which means the tragic killings must continue for some time more.

    If we can do anything, we must explicitly promise to give him a realistic deadline for Syrians to find their own resolution and do all we can to prevent all intervention. Russia, China, Israel and Iran may be half-way satisfied with this position, and we may be able to build trust with them by living up to these standards of our own we can set.

    If the Allied forces wish to retain moral leadership then we must abide by our own values. But if we’re nothing but power players playing the great game then we will cede that leadership and purpose of common human right.

  • Orangepan,

    if your criticism is that I have not fully considered the impact of longer term trends and the shifting influence of relative power blocs or worked through all the practical implications of supporting a regional led intervention, then I plead guilty as charged. I would agree with your comment to Jonathan Brown that any occupation must be organised, mandated and acted out in concert and within strict parameters. We are considering what might be the least bad options in these circumstances.

    The Brookings Institure paper reference above, although US Centric, does nevertheless set-out the issue from the perspective of the Westen democracies:

    Before entering war

    Obama is right to be wary of putting U.S. credibility on the line when there is no clear exit strategy. The Syrian insurgency is a motley bunch that includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists. The overthrow of Assad would no more end Syria’s war than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought peaceful bliss to Iraq.

    We need a debate about the right exit strategy in Syria before we enter into the war. The right model is neither Iraq, nor Afghanistan nor Libya, but the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    Two decades ago, we watched similar killings for a couple years in the nation that had broken away from Yugoslavia, until international outrage and battlefield dynamics converged to make a solution possible. We bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbian militias, then forced him into a deal that created a “soft partition” of Bosnia.

    It wasn’t perfect, but 18 years later, Serbs, Muslims and Croats have not gone back to war.

    Syria could be harder because the insurgents are so fractured. But by offering the various factions help — not only now on the battlefield, but also later as they try to rebuild Syria once Assad is gone — we can establish influence and leverage. This will not be easy and will hardly guarantee a great outcome. But it is far more promising than the trajectory we are on.

    With a Bosnia-type approach, Assad’s Alawite minority would keep a section of the country, most likely along the coast, where local police would be the main security forces. Assad himself would have to step down and ideally would go into exile. Kurds would keep similar sections of the country in the north. The main central cities would be shared.

    Establish basic rights

    And, of course, minority rights would be enshrined in the deal. In other words, having different parts of the country run primarily by one group or another would not be an invitation to further ethnic cleansing or killing.

    Yes, this plan does imply a number of U.S. peacekeepers on the ground, perhaps comparable in number to the 20,000 who began the job in Bosnia in 1995. The United States should, however, commit to such a deployment only if other countries, including Arab states and Turkey, provide the majority of peacekeepers. In fact, we should seek pledges of international participation before moving to any direct U.S. involvement in the conflict.

    With international participation, combined with a fair-minded idea for a peace accord later, Washington and other key capitals might also finally convince Moscow that there is no hope for putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. We need Russia’s help to push Assad out and get this kind of settlement.

    It is time to get realistic about our options in Syria and to get beyond the impulse just to “do something.” We need a comprehensive approach that includes a viable exit strategy. The Bosnia model provides the best first draft for such a plan.

    My view are based around humanatarian intervention as against strategic interests. I advocate simultaneous lobbying for a UN brokered ceasefire, but in the absence of a ceasefire, support foran opposition led joint Turkish/Arab league military initiative backed by Nato ; and acceptance that any political settlement – whether some form of democratic settlement in its current borders or a confederation of autonomous self-governing states – must be determined among the various Syrian groups themselves without outside interference.

    I don’t think that makes us power players playing the great game. Rather it is a recognition that we cannot control the political outcome. The best we can achieve is to play our part in subduing the violence and bringing the warring parties to some kind of accommodation that will allow them to reconstruct their relationships.

  • Jonathan Brown 15th May '13 - 10:32pm

    @David – “I see no reason to give credence to those figures.”

    My experience of talking with Iraqis – both those who were exiled before the war and many of those exiled as a result of the war was that this was the case (although perhaps ‘supported the invasion’ is a massive oversimplification). It didn’t stay like this of course; many of them came to despise the invasion and occupation, but I frequently heard views along the lines of ‘we know they’re only interested in the oil, but as we never benefitted from it, let them have it, and let us be rid of the regime’.

    Of course, they expected the US to introduce a wealthy democracy or open the way for a sectarian takeover (depending on who you talked to) rather than unleash a civil war.

    Please don’t get me wrong – I think the war was a disaster and it was obvious it would become one to anyone who knew anything about Iraq and the motivations and resources of the US government, but that doesn’t mean that many Iraqis didn’t fantasise that a US invasion would make their country better. There has been a fair amount of polling since the invasion which does indicate that Iraqis think they are better off now than before the invasion too – although whether you interpret that as thankfullness that the war took place or not is not for me to say.

    My ‘80%’ may well be wrong – I did just pluck the figure out of the air. It’s impossible to know as it was impossible for anyone to do any credible research prior to the invasion, but even if you think my guestimate unlikely, please don’t dismiss the point I was trying to make, which was that there was very little active popular opposition to the invasion – at least to begin with.

  • Jonathan Brown 15th May '13 - 10:50pm

    @ Joe – “that didn’t stop [T.E. Lawrence] doing all he could to lend support to Faisal’s plans for a Hashemite Kingdom in Syria after the war.” That suggests to me that Lawrence thought that a non-ethnic/non-sectarian state was the the least bad option, rather than support for the division of Ottoman territories into ‘nation’ states.

    “…only three of the region’s Muslim states had a historical basis as Nation States; Turkey, Egypt and Iran.” So perhaps the answer is not to try to force a European model on to Middle Eastern societies? Africa had plenty of pre-colonial contenders for ‘nation-state’ status, but almost none survived colonialism, and almost none have come into being since independence. While Africa has many failures, there are many success stories too. There seems very little appetite, in Africa or elsewhere, for trying to redraw African borders along ‘national’ lines. I don’t see why we should see this as a solution in the Middle East. I think you underestimate the degree to which nationhood has developed in the Middle East, and overestimate the degree to which the various tribes / sects / ethnicities see themselves in ‘nation denied a state’ terms.

    “I don’t think that makes us power players playing the great game.” Your call for an intervention does indeed make us power players playing the great game, especially as you imply it would happen without UN / Russian consent.

    Whatever one thinks of the Bosnian analogy, the Brookings report you quote doesn’t support your suggestion. It seems much more like it is saying ‘wait for facts on the ground to assert themselves, and then – with international agreement – help enforce a peace deal’ than it does ‘launch a gung-ho intervention aimed at breaking up the country, in opposition to the UN and without any kind of deal between the warring parties’.

  • Jonathan Brown 15th May '13 - 11:00pm

    @Oranjepan – I’m glad you did contribute, as I think much of what you say is very sensible!

    “The day of imperial nation states is over, communication technology has seen to that, and thank goodness!” Quite!

    While I think you are correct that supplying weapons to one side would make us more involved and increase our (indirect) conflict with Assad’s backers, I still think this is something we should do. Although only in conjunction with non-military supplies, and on the understanding that if Russia and Iran withdraw their military support for the regime then we would switch off weapons supplies to the rebels – and use the opportunity to press all parties – and all backing powers – to negotiate.

    “Should neighbouring states be encouraged to cross their borders then the conflict cannot and will not be contained.” And the reason I take the view that I do is that this has already happened. Neighbouring states have already intervened, and the violence is increasingly crossing multiple borders – particularly Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. We have been trying non-intervention, with varying degrees of honesty for a couple of years, but have failed to use this position to bargain Assad’s backers into withholding support for the regime’s attempted suppression of the revolution.

  • Jonathan,

    “My ’80%’ may well be wrong – I did just pluck the figure out of the air.” I would think that figure would have been close to 100% in Iraqi Kurdistan. According to this Guardian article This could be the birth of an independent Kurdish state Iraqui Kurds may now be on the brink of establishing an Independent State.

    Dr Aidan Hehir, Director of the Security and International Relations Programme at the University of Westminster offers this prescription for resolving the Syrian Crisis.
    What can be done in response to the Crisis in Syria.

    He advocates, with the consent of the Assad regime, the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force mandated to enforce a ceasefire, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and medical supplies, and oversee an inclusive political process for a new Syrian constitution

  • Jonathan,

    T.E. Lawrence’s later comments on the futility of trying to unite quite separate and traditionally hostile Arab tribes into a unified civil administration were to a large extent based on his experiences with such an effort, when he reached Damascus at the same time as Allenby’s advance guard in 1918. His support for Faisal was based on the promises given by the British government of the time for an independent Arabia after the war.

    There will not be a UN mandate for any kind of intervention, whether that be arming of rebel factions or a UN peacekeeping force as long as it conflicts with the strategic interest of any of the veto wielding members of the permanent security council.

    At this stage, I believe many would consider arming of rebel groups by those nations that may benefit from the status quo/regime change as taking sides in a civil war – as indeed Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have unilaterally done. This has, in my opinion, less legitamacy than an broad-based International humanitarian intervention with the principal objective of protecting the civilian population from both an illegitimate regime and the armed fundamentalists currently at large in Syria.

  • The UN general assembly has passed an Arab sponsored resolution tonight UN General Assembly approves Syria resolution calling for a political transition in Syria.

    It welcomes the establishment of the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, “as effective interlocutors needed for a political transition” and notes “wide international acknowledgment” that the group is the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. It also strongly condemns President Bashar Assad’s regime for its escalating use of heavy weapons and “gross violations” of human rights.

    Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador called the resolution “very harmful and destructive” and of being an attempt to replace the Syrian government — not to find a political solution to the crisis.

    Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja’afari said the resolution “seeks to escalate the crisis and fuel violence in Syria’ by legitimizing the provision of weapons to the opposition and illegally recognizing a single faction of the opposition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

  • Jonathan Brown 16th May '13 - 10:41pm

    Hi Joe, good point about the legitimacy of a broad based intervention vs that of arming factions. You may well be right on that, even though I don’t see how a broad based coalition could come about. Plus, I feel that arming rebels has a long and (inglorious) history and as such, despite the perverstity of what I’m about to say, it feels more ‘acceptable’.

    “I would think that figure would have been close to 100% in Iraqi Kurdistan.” Indeed, my 80% hunch was predicated on virtually everone living in Kurdistan being at least somewhat in favour of seeing the Saddam regime get smashed, along with a big majority of Shias. Only about 20% of Iraq is/was Sunni Arab, so assuming that the many Sunni Arabs who hated the Saddam regime more or less balanced out those Shias who supported it, that’s how I came to the 80% figure.

    “Dr Aidan Hehir … advocates, with the consent of the Assad regime…” I don’t think I’ll bother to read his (her?) prescription then. While I think it’s important that a theoretical window of opportunity for talks should be kept open, I don’t think there’s any point in pretending for a second that the Assad regime might even consider international observers of any kind, or opening up the political process even slightly. It had the opportunity to do so in a tokenistic way already; in such a way that would allow them to remain firmly in control. And they didn’t take even that. The regime is absolutely correct in seeing any attempt to internationalise the process or start talks as being the start of a slipery slope that will lead to regime collapse and in all likelihood, the deaths of the leadership.

    Not that I expect you to disagree with me on that point – it is afterall, partly why you’re advocating such a radical agenda as invasion and partition!

  • Jonathan,

    there is little I fundamentally disagree with in your comments and analysis of this fiendishly complex crisis, even if I have come to a somewhat different conclusion on where the balance of risks lie at this juncture.

    Winston Churchill once said of the region:

    “The Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world. It has always been fought over, and peace has only reigned when a major power has established firm influence and shown that it will maintain its will. Your friends must be supported with every vigour and if necessary they must be avenged. Force, or perhaps force and bribery, are the only things that will be respected. It is very sad, but we had all better recognize it. At present our friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.”

    The time when a major power could unilaterally enforce its will in the Middle-east may have passed, but I think any International coalition of willing Arab states/Nato members is unlikely to act without US support. Bret Stephens, pulitzer prize winning foreign policy correspondent at the Wall Street Journal advocates just such a policy position for the U.S. What to do about Syria and offers the following advice to the Obama administration:

    (1) Disable the runways of Syrian air bases, including the international airport in Damascus. A limited military strike prevents the regime from deploying jets against its own people. It prevents Iran (and Russia) from supplying it (and Hezbollah) with arms. And it enforces U.N. Resolution 1701, which bans weapons transfers to Hezbollah, and No. 1747, which bans Iranian arms exports.

    (2) Use naval assets to impose a no-fly zone over western Syria, including Aleppo, Syria’s largest (and most embattled) city. A U.S. threat to shoot down Syrian military aircraft, including helicopters, will keep the Syrian air force grounded without requiring the U.S. to destroy Syria’s sophisticated anti-aircraft capabilities.

    (3) Supply the Free Syrian Army with heavy military equipment, including armored personnel carriers and light tanks. Syrian insurgents have no shortage of light arms, but right now they’re losing the war against the conventionally superior Syrian army. Giving the FSA military capabilities can speed the defeat of the regime and give it the upper hand against the Nusra front while posing little risk that the equipment could someday be used by terrorists or threaten Syria’s neighbors.

    (4) Throw money at Jordan, no questions asked. Mr. Obama promised King Abdullah a paltry $200 million to help Syrian refugees during his visit to Amman in March. But what the king really needs is cash to buy off potential political opponents and maintain oil and food subsidies. Those subsidies may be lousy economics in the long run. But when the alternative is losing the last remaining moderate Arab regime, then Milton Friedman can wait.

    (5) Be prepared to seize and remove Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, even if it means putting boots (temporarily) on the ground.

  • Jonathan Brown 18th May '13 - 12:24am

    Those suggestions all sound pretty sensible to me. Possibly not 4 (I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, but I’d keep the heat on Abdullah and hope that Jordan will carry out some necessary political as well as economic reforms. Bunging him money could store up more trouble for a not necessarily very distant future.).

    The main advantage of several of these (and much of what I recommend) is that although they’re quite limited, they could nevertheless tip the balance and minimise risks. And in such a complex situation, it’s impossible to take all the variables into account., so keeping risks as low as possible is not just prudent but absolutely essential. In principle I have nothing against radical politics (and certainly I applaud you for wanting to present radical policy options as alternatives to wishy-washy safe ones). I’m just against them when I think they’ll cause a lot of damage!

  • Jonathan,

    I want to thank you for engaging in an extensive review of the crisis in Syria. If nothing else, we have given this largely ignored topic a decent airing here on LibdemVoice.

    I am aware that the proposals in the article tend towards the radical and that this stems from my basic concept of International Relations being aligned with the pluralist wing of the English School of Liberal realism.

    In any conflict of this nature, it is well to remember the key phrases from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides ‘Melian Dialogue’. Firstly, “that the strong do as they will; the weak do as they must” and secondly, “Only between equals can there be justice.”

    Only by the Western democracies and the Arab League States being prepared to match the military and political committment of Russia and Iran, by putting the opposition forces on at least an equal footing with the Assad regime, can there realistically be a just a lasting settlement to this crisis.

  • Jonathan Brown 21st May '13 - 9:33pm

    “Only by the Western democracies and the Arab League States being prepared to match the military and political committment of Russia and Iran, by putting the opposition forces on at least an equal footing with the Assad regime, can there realistically be a just a lasting settlement to this crisis.”

    Now that I quite agree on! Although it looks more and more as though we are moving towards a tacit acceptance of an Assad victory rather than either of our preferred options!

    Still, although I hope we haven’t put off too many people with the length of our obviously heartfelt posts on this subject, I too am very pleased to have been able to debate this – and to have it debated at all – here on LDV. Thank you for your thought (and comment) provoking article!

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