Sunday, 31 March 2013

British Intervention In Syria?

Distractions are basically the bane of my life right now. Some distractions are good though and offer opportunities. One such distraction came today when I sat down to read the latest article on Syria over at Think Defence. Link here for anyone that hasn't read it yet. I think it's a worthwhile topic to stop and cover, even if it does mean my other draft article once again gets pushed to the back burner for now.
So as you can tell, Think Defence is not exactly brimming with confidence that a good outcome can be achieved by getting involved in Syria, nor that an intervention is even desirable. He makes a number of good points.

Echoing the situation in Libya, TD makes the point that interventions don't always provide the outcomes that we'd hope for. When the "Arab Spring" took hold, the mainstream press allowed itself to be carried away with the flow of liberal optimism. Lots of people - mainly journalists - seemed to be convinced that if countries like Libya and Egypt could just remove their autocratic rulers, then everything would be fine.

The idea that such countries would flip over night from being generally quite poor (for the common man on the street) and brutally oppressed, to being rich, vibrant democracies was nothing more than a hope and a prayer. Generally regimes like those of Libya, Egypt, and Syria may not exactly be free and open, but neither do they go quite to the extremes found at the other end of the scale.

Yes, the autocratic leaders of these countries often suppressed political opposition - sometimes violently - and yes they were not exactly open to the ideals of things like a free press, while being more than happy to fill government positions across the board with their friends and political supporters, along with a healthy dose of corruption for good measure. But at the same time these regimes kept law and order, often keeping underlying tribal and religious groups contained from one another, and for the most part these regimes had little interest in interfering with the lives of their average citizens.

Removing these regimes opened up the floodgates so to speak. Personally I'm quite glad that Gaddafi was toppled, being the nasty piece of work that he was, especially when you consider the level of funding and other support that man gave to enemies of our nation, and how many acts of terrorism on our shores can be attributed back to his hand. 

But anyone sharing this point of view should have at no point been mistaken in thinking that this would not lead to a somewhat tough struggle in the aftermath. Toppling Gaddafi wasn't so much a good thing because it would introduce immediate benefits to Libya (although averting the "cleansing" of cities like Benghazi would naturally fulfil that component), it was a good thing because it would lead to long term benefits for Libya. 

Libya is going through a rough patch as it lurches into the first years of democracy as a unified nation, which is to be expected. It won't solve its problems over night. What we're seeing on the streets now in terms of a break down of law and order in some places is the natural affect of removing the countries previous and unequivocal source of authority. Journalists who were shocked that such a thing might happen in the first place ("why aren't they all holding hands and singing and dancing in the streets now? Isn't this what we told everyone would happen?") now seem to be just as shocked with the idea that this is quite natural behaviour for human societies. 

Think Defence is quite right to point out that an intervention in Syria is likely to lead to similar events to those we've seen in Libya. In fact, it would probably be worse, as the political, religious and ethnic divides run even deeper in that country, combined with its far more precarious geopolitical and historical position, which increases the number of potential outside actors with an interest in the countries future.

Undoubtedly then the road ahead for Syria is paved with struggle. To intervene means to become embroiled in that struggle. If so, we must turn back to the question of what is to be gained by doing so, and how would we go about doing it?

The relative gain of engaging in Syria is dependent for the most part on your perspective. For those who feel that the country (and indeed the UN in general) has a responsibility to protect the citizens of the world from violent, military led government crackdowns of this nature, then you have all the reason you need to intervene.

For those with a slightly more pragmatic view (the rebels are not exactly unarmed innocent bystanders themselves and their bombings in the capital Damascus have led to many "collateral" civilian deaths) there needs to be something a little more substantial to prompt an intervention.

Syrias proximity to Cyprus is not really sufficient I think. The main issue with Syria is the position that it occupies within the region. Wedged between Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, Syria represents a pivotal battleground in the ongoing political dilemma of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Syria has - for many years now - been involved in low level conflicts on multiple fronts. In the south west it has been involved in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, including providing financing and arms, as well as acting as an intermediary for Iranian support of Hezbollah. In the east it is an open secret that Syria has served as a alternate transit point for Iranian support for Shia militant groups coming in through western Iraq. And in the north Syria has been known to turn a blind eye to Kurdish militant groups operating against Turkey.

Many players then have a vested interest in the future of Syria and what a friendly (or at least neutral) Syria could do for them.

For Israel the opportunity exists to deal a severe blow to Hezbollah if things go their way. There is basically no prospect of a pro-Israeli regime replacing Assad, but one that is at least Israeli neutral (perhaps in exchange for US aid) will improve their situation. Of course the danger exists for Israel that a more hostile regime could take power if they're not careful.

For Turkey the opportunity is to get a regime that is less aligned with Iran and more opposed to Kurdish activities through their northern territory. A Syria that could provide a more effective buffer for Turkey, and even have an interest in working with Turkey more closely in exchange for trade opportunities would improve Turkeys security situation significantly.

For Jordan, and even more far flung actors like Saudi Arabia and the other eastern Arabian states, there is an opportunity to convert Syria into a Sunni ally, one that is better prepared to work with them on regional issues, such as counter-acting Iranian influence in Iraq. Sticking with that theme, for Iran, the loss of Syria is a blow to their regional influence and leaves them in a far more isolated and precarious position.

But the list of interested parties doesn't stop there. Even the United States and Russia have a stake in the future of Syria.

Russia has long been keen on supporting Syria, not least because having allies in the region has historically allowed Russia to periodically turn American attention away from other matters and focus their efforts on a secondary theatre. Syria, along with Iran, also helps Russia to prevent too great a degree of Western interference in the southern Caucasus region. Perhaps more importantly though, a pro-Russian Syria facilitates a Russian port on the Eastern Mediterranean, allowing greater freedom of access to that sea, and the seas around it, for the Russian Navy.

From America's perspective it is a combination of most of the aspects stated above for the other players. The US wants to limit Iran's regional influence. It wants to aid Turkey, a NATO ally. It wants to do everything that it can to relieve pressure on Israel and improve their security. And it would very much like to disrupt Russian influence and military reach in the region. There is also an added bonus for the US in that a more pro-western Syrian regime could, like Egypt, become a potential export customer for American military hardware, among other American exports.

From the British perspective? In many regards those interests of the United States are closely aligned with the interests of the UK, although our stake in the situation and the potential benefits to us are rather more limited. What is of most concern from our position is not so much achieving an outcome in Syria that benefits us greatly as it is achieving an outcome that doesn't harm us.

This means a regime that exerts control to suppress extremist groups of all kinds, denies the use of Syrian territory as a haven for terrorists, rejects the use and support of terrorist groups overseas to conduct proxy actions against Britain and its allies, one that cooperates more fully in the international sphere, and one that is happy to ratify the convention on chemical weapons, including allowing Western specialists to come in and secure (and eventually dispose of) its chemical weapon capabilities.

The next question then is this; how do any of these actors go about securing the result that they're looking for? The vital key is essentially to back the right horse in the race. That means not just providing funds, weapons, and training to the right groups, but also picking out the right people to lead Syria in the interim if and when the Assad regime collapses.

The importance of deciding exactly who to support can not be over stated.

Who gets to lead Syria in a post-Ba'ath party regime will largely be decided by who gets the most support from the outside actors. As we saw in Afghanistan, the hand picking of an individual can cement their political future for a pretty long time. Obviously the goal would be to introduce free and democratic elections as early as is practicable, but even in that regard the "chosen man" has a significant head start due to his increased profile, established track record in government, and funding for a political campaign.

Getting the right or wrong man into that prime position could decide Syria's fate for at least a decade and possibly beyond. The historical background to this contention starts in Oman.

In 1965, rebels in the Dhofar province of Oman rose up against the countries Sultan, Said Bin Taimur. With support from China and other regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the rebels made reasonable headway. The Sultan was able to cling to power with assistance from Britain, but after a failed attempt on his life he withdrew to his palace, becoming a paranoid recluse. This, his general attitude towards his people, and his unwillingness to invest some of the countries accumulated oil wealth back into the country, hampered efforts to win over the general population to the Sultans cause. 

The answer to this problem came in the summer of 1970.

The Sultans son, Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, had spent the last four to five years virtually confined in the palace at Salalah. Qaboos, who had been educated in England throughout his later teen years and had attended Sandhurst before serving in a number of roles with the British Army, was selected to replace his father. This was achieved in a palace coup, after which Qaboos became Sultan and Taimur was exiled to London (where he died two years later).

Unlike his father, the more worldly wise Qaboos had a much better appreciation of how to deal with the trouble in the south of his country and was better prepared to listen to sound military advice. He accepted the British plan to win the "Hearts and Minds" of the general populace and thus unlocked significant sums of state money for programs aimed at providing better infrastructure and social support, such as medical and veterinary aid (especially important in more rural, agriculture dependent communities), as well as being cognisant of the need to listen to local problems and offer amnesty to those who laid down their arms and joined the government cause (which created the foundation of the infamous "Firqats", rebels turned government paramilitaries).

Building friendships with Jordan and pre-revolutionary Iran, as well as giving his British allies a significant degree of freedom in terms of operations and training his security forces, Qaboos was able to craft the conditions to eventually quell the rebellion. 

The story of the Dhofar rebellion commonly focuses on the efforts of the British forces, in particular the tales that abound about the SAS and the famous battle at Mirbat. But much of the success for the campaign has to lay at the feet of Sultan Qaboos. His forward thinking approach to his Sultanate provided the framework onto which all of the military efforts built, and without him it's questionable whether the same long term results would have been achieved.

The example of Sultan Qaboos is important to us because it gives us an example of how one strong, energetic and progressive leader can do a lot to stabilise an otherwise chaotic national situation. Afghanistan was perhaps not so lucky.

That's not as much of a slight of Hamid Karzai as it might seem at first. Karzai was dealt a bad hand in Afghanistan and he's played it reasonably well. But he does have his faults as a leader, including failing to get to grips with issues such as government corruption and being seen as too lenient with the Taliban; issues which have dogged the development of Afghanistan during his Presidency. 

The more natural candidate to become President would have been Ahmad Shah Massoud, now recognised as a hero of Afghanistan. I say "would have been" because he was assassinated on September 9th, 2001, just two days before the 9/11 attacks against America.

Massoud was one of the leading figures of the resistance to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, being arguably the most successful of the various commanders at fighting off government forces. Territory under his control (mainly in the north eastern part of Afghanistan) benefited from appointed local committees on issues like health, education and justice, and is considered to have been reasonably well managed under the circumstances, given that he lacked access to funds and supplies.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Massoud worked with others to first topple the communist government and then to try to form an inclusive government in its place, serving as defence minister after the signing of the Peshawar accords. The position of Prime Minister had been offered to Massouds main rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who refused and waged an unsuccessful campaign against Massoud, until the Taliban swept to power with their greater resources in 1996. (Hekmatyar is still considered one the principle actors behind the current insurgency in Afghanistan, though where he stands with regards to the Taliban is not as certain).

Massoud, having withdrawn to his northern power base, resisted Taliban efforts to dislodge him and his supporters right up until his death. He was essentially the founder of the Northern Alliance and did much to stem the tide of the Taliban's push to control the whole of Afghanistan. People living in the territory controlled by the Northern Alliance at this time enjoyed much greater freedom - especially women - than those living in Taliban regions.

But once again Massoud and his supporters found themselves under resourced and increasingly backed into a corner. Appeals to the west, particularly the US and the European Union, largely fell on deaf ears, as did warnings that Al Qaeda was planning a large scale attack on American soil.

Though nobody in the west could really have been expected to predict the precise events of 9/11, or that the US would end up leading a coalition into Afghanistan in October 2001, the opportunity to help the Northern Alliance fight off a brutally oppressive regime that was well known for supporting and offering safe haven to terrorists could have been taken.

In particular there was an opportunity for Britain to do what it excels in; soft power. I have often argued with others that aircraft carriers, fighter jets and tanks are of limited genuine "influence" when it comes to international relations and diplomacy. Indeed, my very first "proper" post on this blog was about just that

Influence for me is about the ability to make a genuine difference to the people that matter most. Here we had the opportunity to offer Massoud a degree of financial backing, supplies, and military training for his forces. One wonders (because one is in posh mode again) how different things might have been had his security detail been trained by British forces? The bomb that finally killed him was reportedly smuggled in to an interview inside a camera. Such a security slip up could very well have been avoided had the men entrusted with his protection been better trained.

If Massoud had survived, he would have been the undoubted prime candidate to take on the leadership role in Afghanistan. Keen to bring all parties in a conflict together for discussions, and with a proven track record of good administration, Massoud strikes me as the kind of person who could really have made more of a difference as the leader of Afghanistan, dealing more effectively with many of the problems that have plagued it in recent years and being a more active supporter of the various initiatives needed to bring a palpable sense of real change to the lives of ordinary Afghans. Had he survived and gone on to lead Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban's fall, I suspect the conversations we would be having today about that country would be very different.

So how does this relate back to Syria? For me, it's a vital imperative that we find a Syrian version of Qaboos or Massoud. After Assad falls (and unless something radical changes in the next 12 months then he is almost certain to fall) Syria will be in turmoil. If the west is going to throw its weight behind the Free Syrian Army, or indeed any other group, then it needs to find a leader who can stem the violence somewhat and who can bring together the various interested parties (I refuse to use that hideous management parlance; "stakeholders") around the negotiating table, including the Alawites.

If we look at Libya again, this has been one of the serious flaws of the political settlement following the end of Colonel Gaddafi's rule. In a guest post that I penned (or typed, I guess) for Think Defence, (on the ten year anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massouds death as it happens) I made the point that much of Libyas' future rested on the effectiveness of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in developing an inclusive government, while not allowing the naturally cautious, careful early work of that political process to side track the development of effective security forces.

Somehow the NTC managed to fail on both accounts. Their reluctance to allow western parties to help them improve their security situation, even if only through training and mentoring, has led to a situation where various militias are in control of certain parts of the country. The lack of a properly inclusive political process has also left many groups feeling like outcasts, that see no other way to make themselves heard than by picking up weapons.

This state of affairs has been hugely damaging to Libya, and would be even more so if it occurred in the more volatile crucible that is Syria. The Syrian National Coalition (SNC), which for now is recognised by both the west and by members of the Arab League as the de facto interim government of Syria, is already off to a shaky start. Its Prime Minister, Ghassan Hitto, hasn't lived in Syria in over 30 years, since he moved to the United States in 1980.

Though undoubtedly he would be a good choice from the American point of view, to say that his election invites accusations of being an American puppet is an under statement. The President of the SNC, Moaz al-Khatib, is a much stronger figure with better credentials for bringing together the various opposition parties, but unfortunately chose to resign about a week ago in protest at the international community dragging its heels regarding intervention, a resignation which so far has been rejected.

Vice-President of the SNC Riad Seif is another good candidate to lead the country, as is his close ally and democracy campaigner Dr. Kamal al-Labwani. Both seem understanding of the challenges ahead and committed to bringing about a consensus government for Syria, while also showing great energy in the pursuit of assistance for the opposition forces.

What ever course of action the British government - and indeed other governments - opt for in relation to Syria, it is of paramount importance that they find the right man to head up the future government before acting. Failure to get the organisation right at this stage will only lead to more trouble further down the line.

If we are indeed going to arm rebel groups and potentially offer even greater assistance than that, then we need to make sure we're backing the right horse first.


  1. Very thoughtful post, and I largely agree; where I would differ very slightly is in how exactly our interests match with those of the US. Certainly, they are very close, but this is our European "Near Abroad" where events have the ability to become quite real threats to us fairly quickly - and that means even if we are not configured to do more, we really ought to know a great deal more and position ourselves to both identify and support the right man for the job...the USA seem to be able to conjure up the standard "Harvard Professor in exile with neo-con funding and sympathies" pretty readily; we need to do the same, but better and starting from a European as opposed to US perspective.

    Not sure I explained that very well, but I think you will know what I mean.

    aka GNB

  2. @ GNB,

    You mean something along the lines of an Oxbridge educated Syrian, or at least one who is well educated and shuttles back and forth to our country on a fairly regular basis?

    On that account, Dr. Al-Labwani has spent some time in the UK, in between bouts of jail at the hands of Assad.

  3. @Chris B. - Bang on the money then...