Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Ron Smith: The Future of Syria

There is an overwhelming suspension of disbelief in the bulk of public comment on what is presently happening in Syria. We have now had more than twelve months of political action from the overwhelming non-Alawite population, which has been countered with increasing ferocity by government forces, using heavy weaponry. The insurgents have responded with progressively increasing violence themselves and despite heavy civilian losses (perhaps up to 15,000 over the 12 month period), there is no sign that they will give up.

In this context it must be asked, what is the point of the of the much-trumpeted United Nations cease-fire initiative, apart from a need to be seen to be ‘doing something’? Already, for reasons that are obvious, the cease-fire is failing.

The bulk of the people of Syria do not want the Assad dictatorship, with its long record of atrocity, to continue and they are prepared to suffer in the attempt to get free-elections and representative government. I hesitate to say that they want ‘democracy’ because the sort of regime that the activists may want may be (as in Egypt) something more like a theocratic state, which may fail the fundamental tests of tolerance and respect for individual difference (not to mention gender-equality).

To impose a cease-fire is essentially to treat the ‘symptoms’ and not the ‘disease’. In the literal, human case, this can be effective. The symptoms are ameliorated, whilst natural defence mechanisms take care of the ‘infection’, or heal the wounds. In the case of Syria we have a dysfunctional political establishment, which has gives power in perpetuity to an Alawite clique. What processes are in place to ‘treat’ this ‘sickness’? Surely, the answer is ‘none’, beyond the widespread and persistent aspiration for representative institutions, which has been at the core of the protest movement from the outset.

It must surely be obvious that the Assad regime will not readily concede this. In present circumstances, the prospect that would await them (once the political hand-over has occurred), has already been exemplified in Libya and no doubt will be exemplified elsewhere before the present wave of popular dissent in the Islamic world is over. On the other hand there are possible end-states that might be considered (‘medical intervention’/ treatments for the disease).

The first of these would be the re-location of the leadership to some willing safe-haven state, together with some sort of amnesty/truth and reconciliation process for minor players in the present regime. In their different variations, these kinds of arrangement have enabled difficult political change in various parts of the world. Of course, there are obvious disadvantages. Those responsible for atrocity and persecution over many years are not brought to account: they are seen to get away with it. On the other hand it provides an opportunity for a fresh start.

An alternative would be partition. At the time of the original designation of national boundaries, after the collapse of the Turkish Empire following World War One, there was some contemplation of a separate Alawite state on the coast of present-day Syria. No doubt populations will have moved substantially since then and there may be other potential injustices (in terms of infrastructure and resources) that might make this unattractive. But, as in case one, it may be seen as a lesser of evils to both parties.

The third ‘treatment’ would be international intervention: what used to be called ‘peacekeeping’. It is clear that there is very little enthusiasm in the international community for this. This is partly because there is manifestly no ‘peace’ to keep and that it would thus be necessary for the intervening forces to choose a side and some, at least, would be reluctant to do this. Russia is an ally of Syria (it has a naval base, there). This is also why the United Nations Security Council, which has charge of these things, is hardly likely to agree to action of this sort. Russia has a veto. More generally, the nations of the world have been reluctant to engage in non-self-interested intervention and those that have done it (like the NATO states in relation to Kosovo) are a little more wary now (and weary, too, after Iraq, and Afghanistan and Libya).

A successful cease-fire (i.e. a diminution of the violence) might enable the world to look away but it would not solve the problem. An unsuccessful cease-fire, which is really to be expected, would bring on the other resolution of the Syrian problem: civil war. There are already parties advocating the arming of the various insurgent groups. In the absence of any other initiative, this is to be expected. Syria’s friends would also continue to supply her with heavy weaponry. The slaughter could be substantial and an escalating conflict could ensue, with other parties being drawn in. Turkey has already expressed its dismay at Syrian forces firing at fleeing refugees over the border into that country.

In the light of all this, it may be that the international community should seriously consider the very untidy ‘treatments’ discussed earlier (partition, or leadership re-location). Either that, or we just have to hope that the Syrian people are cowed into submission, that the cease-fire progressively holds, and that civil disorder abates, just as it did after the massacres of Assad senior (the present dictator’s father). As the old saw has it, ‘you can’t win ‘em all!’

1 comment:

Brian said...

The Future of Syria.
The future of Syria exposes the United Nations policy at its most weakest. The failure of the cease fire shows that, in essence, only the major powers have the ability and the fire power to stop a “Civil War conflict of this nature.
Quite understandably the United States is keeping well away from any direct involvement, after all with the collapsing state of affairs in Afghanistan, the withdrawal from Iraq, plus, the institution behind the scenes in both Egypt and Libya of an Islamic state. It is no wonder that America is tired, and war weary, of trying to get these countries to accept a democratic type government.
On top of all this comes the huge unwarranted criticism, verging on outright disapproval of the general direction of United States foreign policy. In retrospect, it is a copy of what the 19th century Britain had to endure on its foreign policy during the height of the Victorian sixty glorious years.
The idea of partition is logistical, practical and probably a good deal beyond what many Arab states would consider, let alone Russia or China, both of whom have interests in that part of the world. With the constant threat of a Veto hanging over any settlements peaceful or otherwise, from the Security Council.!!!
Partition of a country comes hard upon its politicians, although a shining example in 1947/8 was the division of India. Despite an appalling loss of life it turned out to be the most sensible solution guided by a genius in negotiation, Lord Louis Mountbatten. It is doubtful that anyone with less patience or tolerance; would have managed to achieve this success. Yet the question of Kashmir still remains!
Partition was suggested during the American Civil War, dismissed by Lincoln who had been elected on the basis to keep the Union as one. It surfaced during the Union’s dark days when Confederate Forces seemed to be winning. No one now would openly say that partition would have worked or even lasted in that case.
The question which would be taxing the minds of foreign policy makers is whatever the outcome in Syria in the final confusion; would that country turn to a Muslim Islamic State merely to gain stability? If this does happen, Israel will be truly ringed in an Islamic band of steel.