Thursday, May 31, 2012

Ron Smith: What now for Syria?

As widely predicted (including by me, in a 17 April blog), the United Nations cease-fire has become a tragic mockery.  There is a growing band of international monitors but no cease-fire to monitor.  The only function for this gallant band is to testify to continuing atrocity.  This is not unimportant.  It provided for an independent account of what happened at Houla a few days ago but it wasn’t why they were sent.  To leave the monitors in position is to persist in a wilful denial of what is happening in Syria and it leaves persons, who are in a weak position to defend themselves, at considerable risk.  

Similarly, there is no prospect of success for the associated UN ‘peace plan’.  Manifestly, heavy weapons continue to be used, humanitarian assistance is not being provided and the ‘legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people’ are not being addressed.

The crucial factor here, is that the mission of the UN Special Envoy is fatally compromised by divisions in the Security Council itself.  If there was any doubt before, this is amply illustrated by the feeble UN statement on the Houla massacre of last week.  Notwithstanding the clear, eye-witness testimony of the Norwegian head of the cease-fire mission, the United Nations was unable to ascribe blame for what had happened.  As far as the UN statement was concerned, the atrocity of last week might have equally been perpetrated by Syrian Government forces, or by rebels who had taken Government tanks and armed personnel carriers (and borrowed a set of uniforms).  As the Duke of Wellington once said, ‘(I)f you believe that, you will believe anything’.

So, as I said on the previous occasion, we either hope that the Syrian people are ultimately cowed into submission (which is not looking likely), or we face the prospect of an increasingly violent and destructive civil war.  And the question is what if anything should be done about it.  Again there is much talk about ‘arming the rebels’ and given that Russia is continuing to supply arms to Syria, and that Iranian forces are already fighting there (in support of the Assad-regime) that is, perhaps, the least that should be done.  But, probably, it is not enough.  Syrian government forces have the armour, and the artillery and the air-strike capability and what they are lacking in these force elements, we can be sure their supporters will supply.  What is required is a ‘no-fly zone’, as that phrase was interpreted in the recent civil war in Libya.  In this, government forces (either air or land) were subject to interdiction, if they attempted to deploy to engage insurgent forces.  This left the latter free to progressively create liberated zones and wrest control from the government.  As in the Libyan case, this would not require ‘boots on the ground’, with all that that implies, although, again (as in the Libyan case), this might not preclude the use of special-forces for special tasks.

Of course, this would not be a United Nations operation.  Russia acquiesced in the Libyan intervention by abstaining on the ‘no-fly zone’ resolution.  It is unlikely to make that ‘mistake’ again.  This would have to be a ‘coalition of the willing’, which would recognise what the United Nations itself has called a ‘responsibility to protect’.  But it is not clear who these ‘willing’ parties might be in this case.  France and Britain took a leading role in the Libyan operation and the United States ‘led from behind’.  The new French president might not be as willing to commit French forces as his predecessor was, and David Cameron, with all his present problems, may be similarly more reluctant.  And, of course, there is an election on in the United States and voters are said to be generally war-weary (and President Obama’s base is generally antipathetic to the use of military means in any case).  The non-participation of the United States would be particularly problematic, if it meant that their unique intelligence and surveillance capabilities were not available, not to mention their increasingly potent drone capability.

On the other hand, there might be regional powers that have interests in the outcome of a power struggle in Syria, as well as humanitarian concerns about what is happening to the Syrian people.  This might produce a more protracted and perhaps, wider conflict but it would alter the prospects for a massacre, which would surely follow from a mere arming of the anti-Assad factions, and it might result in the ultimate demise of an odious regime.  Absent the determination to intervene by willing parties, it might be best to resist calls to arm the insurgents.

1 comment:

Brian said...

Syria....”Its Civil War.”
If the conflict in Syria shows the world anything, it shows the inability of the United Nations to galvanise the majority of world nations to secure an end to this conflict.
In the absence of any military commitment from the United States, the obvious fact that neither Britain nor France have the forces to commit to such a conflict; we are left with only one actual alternative. A cold and rather brutal bloody solution lies in wait for Syria, for whatever side finally wins this Civil War, the consequences will be oppressive.
The question which I would ask how this will be viewed by either the Sunni or Shia Muslims, and what would be their short and long term reaction. Would they take the opportunity to use this Civil War as a stepping stone to further isolate Israel and what is Iran’s position?
With the distinct possibility of an Egypt becoming hostile on Israel’s southern frontier the whole Middle Eastern political situation seems fraught with unpleasant possibilities.
As Russia is still supplying arms and material to the Assad regime this conflict might just become a flame to ignite the whole of the Arab world. The final question is of course, just how long can the U.S. remain a spectator? Perhaps after the re-election of its present President; or a new Republican one?