In the course of an announcement that a Free Syrian Army commander had been killed by a rival rebel group linked to al-Qaida, the BBC spoke of the emergence of a ‘civil war within a civil war’. David Cameron has intimated that he is starting to understand the stark options staring him in the face in Syria and has made some noises about supporting ‘the moderates’ while keeping any military aid (which has not been forthcoming) out of the hands of the ‘extremists’. The Western powers seem to be waking up to the reality of Syria, but it is probably too late for them to make any meaningful contribution to sorting out the mess.
What civil war anyway? It is probably classifiable as such now, but since when? The Western powers were dead keen on declaring the Syrian conflict a civil war very early on. That was simply a poke in the eye for the Russians: by the dictates of international law, it is perfectly legitimate for an outside country to assist the government of a sovereign state to put down an insurrection if so requested, but it is unlawful to meddle in a civil war as there is no ‘government’ to speak of in the sense of a central authority that exercises effective control over at least some of its territory (it certainly doesn’t have to be all). So by declaring it a civil war, they were trying to make Moscow look like an actual or incipient international law-breaker. But what does the ostensibly law-abiding West do next? Answer: recognise a particular rebel group as an interim government of sorts, which is unlawful whether it’s a civil war or not. The old expression ‘hoist on their own petard’ comes to mind.
And yet the government of President Bashar al-Assad remains the de jure government of the Syrian Arab Republic. There is no alternative, unless one considers a mishmash of fractious rebel groups, many of whom are at one another’s throats, as an ‘alternative’. Summary executions, kidnapping and extortion, torture, the butchery of members of minority groups (credible BBC-relayed reports include, inter alia, dismembering members of Christian minorities and feeding their body parts to dogs), even cannibalism are the stuff of ‘liberated’ areas. And in the background hovers the spectre of al-Qaida and its affiliates, such as the Al-Nusra Front, delighting in their newly-found freedom – one that they certainly didn’t enjoy under the al-Assad regime.
If it is ‘moderates’ that the West wants to see in charge in Syria, let me play devil’s advocate and put the case that they had one – Bashar al-Assad is a ‘moderate’. A soft-spoken, educated and cultured man – an ophthalmologist who spent many years in London and remains happy to speak to the BBC – he is the antithesis of an ‘extremist’. He has been a stabilising influence in the region – for one thing, there has been no flare-up between Israel and Syria in his time (not, in fact, for over 40 years). One must wonder why the West seems to have it in for him. Perhaps the myth of the ‘Arab spring’ and the scuppering of the Ghadaffi regime (with just a little help from NATO) put it into some Western heads that a clean sweep of the region was on the way that would see the demise of all the people they didn’t like, which is to say any regional leader who has an independent foreign policy and won’t kowtow to them.
There have been atrocities – many. These have been committed by groups fighting both for, and against, the regime. But a conspicuous rarity when it comes to reports of atrocities have been those levelled at the Syrian army itself. Of course there are those chemical weapons that someone used – ‘the opposition’ was the first to be fingered (by Carla del Ponte of the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry ) but the jury is still out on exactly who used them. At least an unbiased jury would be; the West was so quick to jump to its [foregone] conclusion that one could be forgiven for experiencing a feeling of déjà vu upon recalling the farce of Saddam’s non-existent WMDs and take their claims of decisive evidence with a grain of salt. We must also bear in mind that atrocities committed by ‘forces loyal to the regime’ such as the infamous shabiha are just that – they are not regular Syrian army units. It would have to be established that the Syrian authorities have effective control over militias fighting on their behalf for them to be held responsible for atrocities committed by those armed bands. This is by no means a straightforward matter and approaches taken by, inter alia, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have not been entirely consistent with regard to the criteria to be applied.
With Qusair ‘down and out’ and Homs rapidly going the same way, Aleppo will probably be the site of the grand finale of this civil war. If Qusair was anything to go by, Aleppo will be messy, to say the least. This raises the prospect of NATO intervention under the new ‘R2P’ doctrine (‘responsibility to protect’) dating back to Kosovo 1999. It was invoked in Libya 2011, although I would advance the view that ‘R2P’ during that campaign underwent a mindset change to ‘R2C’ – ‘right to change [a regime we don’t like, under the smokescreen of humanitarian intervention]’. I strongly suspect Moscow feels much the same way and that this explains their giving the al-Assad regime the S-300 anti-aircraft missile defence system which would, if mobilised, make any attempt at an action-replay extremely ill-advised.
In the absence of military intervention by the Western powers or Turkey – neither of which seem to have any appetite for doing anything of the sort – Bashar al-Assad is going to win this one, but it is likely to be a pyrrhic victory leaving him the token President of a shattered country swathes of which he can not exercise control over. This will leave lots of egg on Western faces and it leaves them with the worst of both worlds– the regime they wanted ousted will still be there (and understandably more hostile than ever towards them), while at the same time al-Qaida and its mates are setting up bases from which to strike at the West and its regional allies.
The best thing the West can do at this stage is pull its horns in and butt out. If there are going to be ‘peace talks’ as was mooted a couple of months ago (we haven’t heard much about those of late either!), leave it to an honest broker, perhaps Turkey – the West has disqualified itself from any ‘good offices’ role.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc, BA, BEdSt, MAppSc, PhD is Associate Professor of Education at the American University of Beirut, where he has been for the past 9 years.