Monday, 20 May 2013

The Red Line in Syria

To intervene or not to intervene? 

That is the question troubling many western states. As they watch the civil war in Syria rage on, many people wonder whether NATO will come together as it did in 2011 to end the civil war in Libya. You'll notice that many of the people who previously have called for cuts in the armed forces are the same people at the front of the queue calling for an intervention in Syria on humanitarian grounds (indeed many charities and global peace groups are quick to complain that the west sits on its hands while civil wars rage on, only to complain about the results when interventions do happen).

Today I'm going to make the case that the time for intervention is almost upon us, but not for altruistic, humanitarian reasons.
The reality is that an intervention in Syria based on ideals of bringing peace is doomed to a rude awakening. 

As we have already seen - in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and in the aftermath of the intervention in Libya - the removal of a brutal dictator does not necessarily guarantee the birth of a perfect liberal democracy. Part of the problem stems from the nature of what a lot of these revolutions or uprisings, whatever you want to call them, really are.

In Libya for example, much like in Syria now, there was not really one cohesive revolution taking place. Instead what we had were various groups spread across a wide geographic area, whose intentions, goals, and political and religious beliefs spanned quite a wide spectrum. In many cases the only thing they had in common to unify them was their opposition to the Gaddafi regime. So it is in Syria, but with Gaddafi being replaced by Assad as the bogey man of the hour.

And as in Libya, once you remove that unifying source of opposition what you're left with is a variety of groups battling for control over the follow on government. These groups do not always agree on the best way forward and in some cases are openly hostile towards one another. Without the old security forces on hand to protect them, such groups have a tendency to resort to forming armed militias to protect themselves, and such militias are subsequently not overly keen to hand over their weapons (and thus their security) to the new authorities, who they may trust as little (or even less) than the previous regime.

Under these conditions it is almost inevitable then that the toppling of a regime like that of Assad in Syria will lead to nothing but confusion, disruption and violence, sometimes for many years to come. Thus an intervention based on the belief that toppling Assad will bring peace is practically a non-starter, more idealistic than realistic.

President Obama, David Cameron, Francois Hollande and others probably realise this, which would certainly explain their current reluctance to get involved. President Obama however left himself a bit of a banana skin by stating that he considered the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a red line for intervention.

And that red line has now been crossed.

Western leaders however are taking great pains to wait for proper verification as to the exact nature of the chemicals used and who used them. Foremost in their minds must be the now farcical looking situation that lead to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, with images of "dodgy dossiers" and claims of Trans-Atlantic UAV's carrying biological weapons fresh in the memory.

This is a perfectly sensible approach to take, and indeed had it been done properly back in 2003 then a lot of unnecessary death and suffering could probably have been avoided. The stark reality facing us now though is that all signs point to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, with the Assad regime being by far the most likely culprit.

If conclusively proven that would - for me - clinch the argument over intervention.

That is not something I say lightly. Intervening in Syria is a whole different ball game to the intervention in Libya. The Syrian armed forces may have suffered losses and a degree of disorganisation as a result of defections and the strain of ongoing operations against the rebels, but the indications are there that they still represent a quite significant military challenge to overcome.

It will not be easy militarily then, nor will it be easy politically. People in this country are tired of war, and as we rapidly approach the final year of operations in Afghanistan I don't suppose the public would be too keen on the prospect of yet another fresh front being opened. Mr. Cameron also has to make a careful judgement, as internal rifts in the Conservative Party combine with a host of other problems such as the slow economic growth and growing tensions within the coalition government, which make his leadership position less stable by the day. Backing an intervention is a gamble for him that could either go very well, or very badly.

But intervene I believe we must. And here are the two reasons why I think that.

Firstly, the use of chemical weapons cannot be allowed to become an accepted norm. The world has previously stood by and watched as chemical agents were used by Saddam Hussein against his own people. If we allow Assad to do the same then we run the risk of creating a situation whereby regimes consider the use of chemical weapons to be a legitimate tool of warfare, whether against their own people or against a hostile nation.

Intervening would set the example for the future that the use of chemical weapons would trigger a serious response by the international community. It would effectively remove the use of such weapons as an option and discourage their development and stockpiling by other nations who might otherwise be tempted to acquire them.

Not intervening does the reverse. It not only sends the message that the use of chemical weapons is acceptable, but for some regimes it may even be seen as a legitimate avenue to explore as an alternative to more serious programs such as the development of nuclear weapons.

Secondly, there is the obvious desire to keep such weapons from falling into the hands of the rebels. As the civil war continues then the risk that rebel groups of various flavours may gain access to chemical weapon sites increases. Without proper training in the handling of such substances they may be as much of a danger to themselves as to anyone else, but the major concern is what will happen to weapons such as pre-prepared artillery shells?

The danger is predominantly three fold. One, that they will use such weapons against what they believe to be regime targets and as a result, inadvertently hit innocent civilians. Two, that if the civil war comes to a conclusion that sees the Assad regime fall, that various hostile militias will be left in possession of chemical weapons that could be used against each other in the ensuing security vacuum. And three, that weapons acquired by certain groups could be passed on or sold to external actors, such as (but not limited to) Hamas, Hezbollah, or Kurdish militants.

This poses a massive risk to the future of the immediate region, and potentially beyond.

For me that makes the case for an intervention, one primarily designed to target Syria's chemical weapons capabilities as a priority, along with the arrest of Assad should the use of the chemical weapons be traced back to the regime. I personally am not overly interested in what happens to Syria in the political sphere. That is for the people of Syria to solve for themselves.

But the risk posed by the Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles should be dealt with. For that we need a coalition with a very limited set of objectives; Destroy or secure for removal all of Syria's CRBN capabilities. Capture Assad, to bring to trial. Maintain only that peace keeping force required for the Syrians to form a new government, taking no sides, followed by a hand over to their own security forces as rapidly as possible.

It won't be pretty. It may very well be costly. But - I believe - necessary.


  1. Just a test post because I find it hard to believe that nobody has commented on this article.

    1. Now if I had called it "Syria demonstrates need for Carriers" or "Syria proves Carriers not needed" then the comment count would have gone through the roof! Pageviews are still doing well though, so maybe people are just considering their responses!

  2. Tried twice but kept demanding I start a blog...

  3. ah - seen what I was doing wrong...

    Cut a long post short: I agree. There is a risk of escalation but Hezbollah are already reported to be actively engaged...

    1. Evening Gareth,

      Yeah, there is talk of Hezbollah aiding the Assad regime, which isn't surprising because of the aid that has gone the other way. But if Assad falls, I'm sure they'll be more than happy to work with others in the region who fit their needs.

    2. Increasingly it looks like Assad is turning the tide - thanks in no small part to Hezbollah

  4. @ Gareth,

    That's one of those things that prove irony is the lost Law of Thermodynamics -- after decades of incompetent Syrian intervention in Lebanon, one of the most highly-competent armed forces (not a national one in the typical sense of the term, but quite definitely an armed force) in the Arab world, who call Lebanon home base, have now intervened with effect in Syria. Somewhere on a cosmic roasting spit turned by the late citizens of Homs, old Hafez is smiling at an investment that paid off.

    @Chris B.,

    Let me not only comment but show appreciation both for your dramatically-themed wallpaper per this post, and for the play on words (not only a "redline" in Syria but possibly a Thin one too?)

    I'm not convinced that point has been hit yet, in part because like the principal decision makers in various capitals (they're not usually good company but I'm with them on this one) it may now be worth seeing whether more localized forces turn the tide one way or the other. Ironically, there is as you've backhandedly suggested more need to step in and secure the Assads' major chemical stockpile if the fragmented "good guys" topple the old regime, than if it claws its way back.

    Also worth remembering, because it's a sobering and necessary reminder viz. all this "Europe's now a peaceful backwater" crap, how often state-on-state conflict rears its ugly head again out of the collapse of unstable or failed states. In fact, we could see the whole scope of major global conflicts (leaving out a few Latin American "wars of liberation") since 1911 (even before Sarajevo I think the ball starts rolling with the Italo-Turkish War) up to the withdrawal from Iraq as a "post-Great War" continuum. In other words, people fighting over failing imperial states and the power vacuums they left behind (even Japan comes out of the final collapse of the Qing and the Romanovs, and Britain starting to recognize imperial overstretch by retrenching in Malaya/Singapore.) All the inter-war fights, '39-45, Cold War, and mos' def the "post-Cold War" quagmires of the Balkans and Middle East.

    Syria's another case in the series -- a creation after all of the French playing demographic tiddlywinks with the old Near East to give the Maronite Catholics a state (Lebanon) and some semblance of Damascus-based structure to counterweight the British-built Frankenstein in Iraq. Now you have Israel, Hezbollah (a magnificent modern recreation of various medieval states, an ethno-religious hybrid with a bloody good military for the sorts of conflicts it fights finding a way to thrive in a fractious region), and Turkey all circling the Ba'athist corpse in Syria. And Greece and Turkey circling the economic/demographic time bomb of Cyprus, and everyone hoping Morocco's king lives forever in case the "springtide" spreads and **thirty motherfriending percent unemployment** in Spain on a long term basis.... You can smell the petrol fumes across the Mediterranean. And Suez/Israel aside the US wants as little a part of it as possible. Oy.

    1. Evening Jackstaff,

      Yes, I'm just as concerned about the "friendlies" getting their hands on various substances as I am about the Assad regimes continued possession of them. That's why I would say that now is the right time for intervention, when both are realtively weak, and before either of them gets any funny ideas about the use of such weapons.

      If Assad overcomes the rebels, I doubt he's just going to stop and say "right, back to square one, all settled now". I suspect he will do what most dictators do following such uprisings and that's to brutally reassert their power. If the Rebels win, I suspect a significant backlash against both domestic enemies, and possibly now Lebanon. Frankly I don't trust either side and think dismantling their chemical weapons capabilities (and potentially their conventional capabilities) would be in the best long term interets of both the local region and the wider world.

      As for the Moroccan royalty, luckily the King is a young(ish) fella. But yes, I share some of your concerns about our "European borders". And beyond...

  5. @Jackstaff - haven`t had a chance to read it but by all accounts very good.

  6. The only reason for the west to get involved in Syria at all would be to secure, remove and destroy the CBW stockpile. And only to prevent it falling into the hands of non-state actors. However, in order to do so, fool-proof intel on their location, content and security is needed. You have to assume that the best intel on it has to be held by either Mr Putin's FSB or the Red Sea Pedestrians. Neither are likely to supply unbiased intel.
    The only data I have seen suggests that the regime stockpile is distributed over 50 sites. That seems staggeringly high to me, but then I don't live across the border from an "enemy" state with a history of commando or air raids to neutralise potential threats to its population.
    If we assume that the figure is in the right ball-park, then let’s just consider for a minute two issues. The requirement for success will be to confirm the destruction of all CBRN stocks without releasing these agents onto civpop. In order to access these stocks any intervention would have to penetrate a largely functional IADS. An IADS which (presumably) has had the benefit of all lessons learned from Granby, Palliser, Telic, Ellamy and a number of RSP airforce incursions applied to it.
    If I was trying to prevent the success of such a mission, I'd be further dispersing any stockpiles, while adding to their local defences as soon as I got a sniff of a threat. Firstly, to actually deny success, but also to demonstrate a deterrent effect in the early stages of any such mission. Essentially saying I know you're coming, I'm going to make it even more difficult for you to succeed. What that means in practice is that any attempt to seize the stockpiles is going to have to involve a near simultaneous assault of fifty defended sites, executed rapidly to deny warning and countermeasures and involving holding the sites for some hours to survey and then prep for removal or safe demolition. That's a huge force package and getting it to the sites will require a SEAD effort to make 2003 Shock and Awe look like one of Brocks baby fireworks boxes.
    Positioning those forces will in itself be a trigger for further dispersal of the targets themselves, compounding the problem. Frankly I cannot conceive how sufficient forces could be build up in theatre, swiftly enough to prevent a counter. In other words, achieving all those objectives looks militarily impossible.
    The fallback option is to immolate the known facilities by air or missile attack. But then, how do you confirm you've actually completely destroyed the target and not just scattered munitions around locally or released agents into atmosphere. You can't make an omelette etc, but it'll be a brave set of pollies that sign up to that risk - particularly if the precise type of nasties are unknown. All this against a backdrop of a civil war fomented by some really rather unpleasant Sunni vs some equally unpleasant Shia. With potential knock-on effects to the RSP.
    The unpalatable truth is that actually Assad remaining in power is the least worst solution. Preferably sufficiently weakened that he and his Persian friends are unable to cause trouble. I'm still far from convinced that the regime has anything to gain from using CBRN, which begs the question of who has something to gain from using them in a seemingly cack-handed manner?
    Talk of arresting Assad also begs the question of the "charge". Crimes against humanity is easy to say, but less easy to make stick where a sovereign government is under open attack by an armed insurgency which is also getting third-party support. Sets a rather uncomfortable precedent for the "international law" brigade. I haven't looked, but am not aware of any UNSC resolutions that the regime is in breach of.Like you say, not pretty and I suspect would be a lot messier than most people's worst nightmares. It's almost at a stage where you're in "nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure" territory. Which is obviously unacceptable.

    1. Excellent post, Mr. Boffin, which nicely sums up all the reasons why we should not get involved.

      The fear that Chemical weapons might fall into the wrong hands is, in my opinion, a valid one. However, those are the same hands that our Foreign Secretary is now suggesting we should arm with sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons. Given that it is a lot easier to train someone to use a man-portable SAM to drop a jumbo over West London than it is to deliver a chemical attack, I am not sure how arming the Syrian rebels will make us safer.

      "The unpalatable truth is that actually Assad remaining in power is the least worst solution."

      Spot on. If the UK has interest at all in the Syrian Civil War it should be expressed in flogging arms and kit to the government, cash-up front.

    2. Evening gents,

      I remember reading about the offensive against Saddams CBRN in GW1, and the number of potential target sites went shooting up dramatically as more information came in. Part of the trouble is figuring out what is actually classified as CBRN. For example, there are sites which might be considered part of the network purely because they have potential to fabricate certain chemical agents, regardless of whether they're actually capable of doing it or not.

      The specifics of how to deal with that would rest on the intelligence, and of course the precursor to that (as NaB noted) is to shut down the Syrian IADS. Lucky we still have ALARM and the US hasn't been divesting itself of mnay important SEAD systems then... oh wait.

      Much depends on the outcome of this investigation into the recent use of CBRN. Might even be easier just to dust the conclusions under the carpet and stamp it with "Secret" etc.

      Cannot for the life of me though understand why William Hague is so keen to see the Rebels armed all of a sudden. Someone has warned him, have they not, that not all the rebels are peace loving freedom fighters? If not, someone perhaps should point that out to him.

  7. We apparently have a National Security Council. I would love to know what they're telling HMG that supports any idea of arming the rebels. The only conclusion that makes any sense is that someone is suggesting that it's the only way to put pressure on Assad.

    That's a bluff that's just going to get called - whoever came up with it has probably not been paying attention to what that nice Mr Putin has been saying for the last few years. Perhaps it's been dreamed up by one of those nice metropolitan types in the FCO who believes the BBC........

    There is no easy or even palatable way out of this. Modern liberal sensibilities dictate (rightly) that we should confront the sort of state-delivered brutality that Assad is dishing out. However, the same people are unwilling to pay the price in terms of defence spending and inevitable casualties (mil and civilian) that would enable a workable intervention. So while they want it, they won't fund the prerequisites. Do you think they can look up realpolitik on Wiki.....

    I wonder if THAT argument will be had when this is all over, irrespective of outcome?

    1. Sadly I very much doubt that anyone from a political position will stand up and say "look, if you people want us to intervene across the world on your behalf, whether for humanitarian reasons or strategic ones, that's going to cost you money and time, a proper investment in the armed forces, not just a lip service one about slightly higher bonuses and better accomodation. And if all you people want is a defence force, well... that's going to cost you just as much, because defence is not as simple as a home guard hiding in some bushes waiting to ambush Johnny Foreigner as he invades".

      The odd thing is that the more I talk about defence to people who are not really overly interested in defence, the more I realise that many of them are actually susceptible to being convinced by the military argument as long as you spell it out to them in the right terms.

      Much cheaper to just sell guns to nutjobs though it would seem. Repercussions anyone?