Does anyone know what to do about Syria?

OK, I’m all out of ideas when it comes to Syria. In the wake of last week’s decision by the United States to send arms to the Syrian opposition, there’s been unending debate about the pros and cons of foreign intervention. But it doesn’t seem to have got us anywhere.

The G8 leaders, meeting in Northern Ireland at the weekend, backed the holding of a peace conference “as soon as possible,” saying that they “remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria.” But anything more specific was blocked by the impossibility of reaching agreement between Russia on one hand and Britain, France and the US on the other.

Opponents of intervention have a habit of asserting – quite correctly – that intervention is dangerous and peace talks are the answer, without offering any alternative strategy for how peace talks are to be initiated and brought to a successful conclusion. Boris Johnson, for example, says that “This is the moment for a total ceasefire, an end to the madness. It is time for the US, Russia, the EU, Turkey, Iran, Saudi and all the players to convene an intergovernmental conference to try to halt the carnage.”

Well yes, of course. But if they don’t, then what happens? I much prefer the honesty of Juan Cole, who also opposes intervention but admits his despair at the alternatives: “I wish there were a way for the international community to stop this carnage, but I feel helpless, I just don’t see a way.”

With about 100,000 killed so far, the pressure to “do something” about Syria is understandable. But the flip side of those who want peace without a plan to get there is those who want intervention without a clear picture of how it would help. And as someone pointed out last week (it might have been Cole; I can’t find the reference), the Algerian civil war in the 1990s killed a similar number and nobody in the west seemed impelled to intervene.

For the case in favor of intervention, see General Wesley Clark, a former NATO commander and former presidential candidate, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday. He argues that the west needs to show the will to escalate the conflict if necessary in order to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table. The point is not to achieve military victory, but to change the calculations of the other parties so that they are willing to come to terms.

Is he right? Three weeks ago I put it like this: “Foreign intervention in civil wars is a dangerous game; nonetheless, in some cases it’s the least bad option available. Unfortunately there’s no way of telling in advance whether this is one of them.”

Greater internationalisation of the conflict might be a step forward. The US and Russia are clearly much closer to each other in their objectives than are Assad and his opponents; as they become more involved they have both the incentive to try to impose peace on the combatants and the leverage to make it stick. But the short-term costs are steep, while the long-term benefit remains uncertain.

As is often the case in war, the shape of the expected outcome is reasonably clear. Clark expresses it well:

The formula for diplomacy is clear: a cease-fire agreement; a United Nations presence; departure of foreign fighters; disarmament of Syrian fighters; international supervision of Syria’s military; a peaceful exit for Mr. Assad, his family and key supporters; a transitional government; and plans for a new Syria.

The question is how to get there. Clark’s option of increased US involvement might work – I don’t think there’s any basis on which we can say for sure that it wouldn’t. But it might also be a disaster.

11 thoughts on “Does anyone know what to do about Syria?

  1. Nation States, Bah humbug! What we need, of course, is a UN with its own independent military force (think the French Foreign Legion on steroids) that is funded, trained and commanded independently by the UN and available to intervene to ensure that international intervention can be effective and seen as neutral. One can only dream.

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  2. ‘Do something’ seems to be a powerful driver to action in cases like Syria. What is not always added is that it should be something intelligent that does not make things worse. For Syria there seems to be no current answer that does not make things worse. Negotiation only works if neither side sees the possibility of victory and both are prepared to concede power and position to make the pain stop. Clearly that is not the case in Syria.

    Outside intervention does not make culture and interests go away – just look at Afghanistan and Iraq. And Syria has a very deep set of issues internally with an elite primarily reflected in the Baath Party and the Alawite leadership that desperately wants to cling to power and privilege. Linked to them whether they like it or not are all the minorities who fear a Sunni dominated state – especially a fundamentalist one. The failure of the Syrian government to countenance any change was a major factor in bringing on the civil war. If the promises Bashar Al-Assad made about reform over the past 10 years had been implemented, it is unlikely Syria would be in its current position.

    To this is now added the increasing ferocity of the sectarian split in Islam, which is even less likely to go away soon, and leads to external players supporting and arming the internal protagonists.

    The comparison may be Lebanon – horrific as it may seem the answer to what will make them stop fighting may be 15 years of civil war with no clear victor.

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  3. How bout just let them continue killing each other? Either way, we’re damned by the International Community. We intervene, we’re damned. We let them keep fighting each other, we’re damned. Whilst there is this amount of geo-political interference, there will never be a decent outcome. Too many countries believe they have the best outcome in mind for Syria, all of them at the cost of Syrian lives. It’s a total disaster. But arming and aiding the so called rebels, is blatantly aiding and abetting our enemies. Many of the Syrian rebel factions are linked to AQ, it has been widely reported. So why would it even be proposed that we arm any of them? And why is it that we (the US, UK, Australia etc.) are the ones doing most of the talking about intervention? Let Syria’s neighbouring countries do all the talking and walking since it affects them a lot more than it affects us. And since this is an alleged “Jihad” by Syria’s rebels, let’s let those muslim countries surrounding Syria to intervene and or assist their fellow muslim people. Once again we are leading ourselves down a path of International damnation, and our Governments know it. I say lock their borders and let them duke it out until they realise how stupid and gullible they’ve been…

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  4. why don’t come come right out and say it. by “solution” you inevitably mean “give US/NATO/evryone else exactly what they want”. have you noticed how “democracy” here means ousting assad and installing western friendly puppet government? that’s the only thing people like you mean by “solution”. now mention that the majority of syrian
    ‘s now support the assad government? also no mention that in the early stages of this conflict there were very real concessions made by assad to to the insurgents for a transition to a more democratically accountable government?

    no mention of elections next year? why not? here’s a solution, but out until elections in 2014 and see what the democratic systems deals up? oh thats why, because US/NATO/evryone else knows there’s the real possibility that assad will be voted in again, and your western amsters can’t have that now can they?

    why do western “commentators” presume the only “solutions” are that which are compatible with western interests?

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  5. What to do? How about implementing trade sanctions against the US client states in Arabian Gulf that are importing & arming the ‘resistance’ in Syria? As if, that would require that Aus had a foriegn policy not dictated from Washington, so spare us the pretence of open enquiry.

    Syria’s oil exports are down 50% from last year, maybe like Libya it’ll bounce once the right junta is in charge.

    Incidentally, why is authors ties to neoliberal Centre for Independant Studies not flagged? I hope Crikey gets paid for running this guff, Empire can afford it.

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  6. Thanks everyone for the comments. They reflect just how difficult this is – unless of course you’re an apologist for the Assad regime, in which case it all seems so simple. Like Werner, I’d love to see democratic elections in Syria next year; unlike him, I think the chance of Assad holding them if left to his own devices is essentially zero.

    Liamj is quite right that there’s no likelihood of Australia pursuing a policy in the Middle East independent of the US. But I don’t accept the premise that any American policy, or any policy that happens to serve America’s interests, must be ipso facto bad; to me that’s just as irrational as assuming the Americans are always right.

    I’m not sure what Liamj thinks my “ties” to the Centre for Independent Studies are (or why it’s relevant, since I’m not aware of them expressing any view on Syria), but in case anyone’s interested I was employed there about 15 years ago, for a little over a year. I haven’t received a penny from them since. (They publish my stuff occasionally, but they don’t pay.)

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  7. Apologies Charles Richardson re CIS, i thought you were retained by that neoliberal talk shop on ongoing basis, my mistake.
    I do not however assert that “any policy that happens to serve America’s interests must ipso facto be bad”, so you can save that strawman for another day. But going by US’ record in Iraq, Afghanistan, & Libya (to pick just recent examples), their direct involvement in what is currently a proxy war is likely to do nothing more than multiply the death toll and further enrich US arms dealers, it is sickening that Oz media can do no better than parrot US lies.

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  8. Thanks LiamJ, no offence taken. I have to say I don’t see any evidence that US involvement in Libya increased the death toll and enriched the arms dealers; it actually seems to have done a lot of good. Granted one out of three is still pretty poor; that’s why I’m not saying I think intervention in Syria will necessarily work. But I don’t know what else will either.

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