Canberra, 4 October 2013
In something just over a fortnight, Syria has been pushed to the background in the collective memory of the world; the re-entry of the UN chemical weapons analysts into the country only rating a mention in the evening news. Two indisputable factors can be gleamed from this. One: the international community—read the Western powers who have been clamouring to ‘strike’ Syria to teach al-Assad a lesson—does not have the stomach to enter into what will definitely turn out to be a protracted, ugly, costly, and unwinnable conflict. Right from the initial proposals to act against the use of chemical weapons, these nations have understood the futility of punitive strikes being carried out against the Assad regime, since they would not result in any substantial damage to the chemical arsenal. Two: the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), while a laudable concept at an altruistic level, is easier to discuss across a table than put into practice through the deployment of military forces. Implementing R2P means physical intervention and return to the quagmire of ‘boots-on-the-ground’; currently anathema to the pro-intervention nations.
The United States and its allies have gone from tentatively accepting the need to ‘punish’, to the more strident calls for air strikes, to a failed effort to obtain parliamentary/Congressional authorisation, to accepting the Russian-initiated diplomacy now in effect. Perhaps this was as well. The only previous intervention that was carried out to enforce the doctrine of R2P, in Libya, was conducted under the aegis of a clear United Nations resolution. Even then the end result has been the nation descended into chaos and sectarian violence almost immediately on the withdrawal of the Western powers. Currently, the US, or perhaps more correctly, President Obama has reached a cross road in his foreign policy doctrine. The course that he adopts in dealing with the Syrian crisis—intervene, directly or rhetorically; let things be; or attempt to find a political solution—will define the legacy of his administration.
The US—Creating Foreign Policy on the Run
The fundamental struggle, most of the time conducted publicly, that the President has faced in his five years in office has been to define the global policing role that the US is expected to undertake. When should it lead; and when should it ask/let other take the lead; how much of the load, in risks, costs and repercussions, should the US assume in each case of policing? These are questions that go to the core of the US foreign policy. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons—some within the control of the administration and some completely independent—the US has not been able to follow a well-defined foreign policy that is seen to be steady and not contextual. In the past decade or so the US has initiated actions that have cemented the perception of a nation creating high-level policies in a reactive manner, rather than one following a long-term vision. No nation can afford to do this, and when the nation concerned is the greatest, and only, global power, then there is cause for consternation.
In the US, it is the President who makes the calls on foreign policy and sets the agenda that is then carried forward by the State Department. President Obama sounded like a fresh and calming breath when he took office for his first tenure after having run his campaign based on his opposition to the invasion of Iraq, which he famously termed ‘a dumb war’. For the world, he was the quintessential conciliator, a peacemaker who seemed genuinely interested in starting dialogues with ‘mutual respect’; as opposed to his predecessor, President Bush the junior, who displayed all the hallmarks of a gun fighter in a classic Western movie—brash and aggressive, with a shoot-first attitude. The world held its breath; here was where reason would replace raw, unreasonable application of power. Regrettably this was not to be, the President gradually was locked into situations which did not let him escape the clutches of the past—the disrespectful attitude of the Middle East towards the US; the ‘dares’ that dangerous religious fanatics throw up every now and then to test the will of the US; and the challenges to the US ability to be the global policeman with the capacity to enforce its will. However, the use of chemical weapons in Syria (at this juncture it does not matter who the perpetrators were) was beyond the pin pricks that other irritants had become. The chemical attack in Syria took place on the anniversary of President Obama’s warning that any such attack would be considered crossing a ‘red line’ and that there would be ‘enormous consequences’ if such an attack did indeed take place. The world once again held its breath. Once again, there was no decisive action—whether deliberation is a good or bad tactic to control a deteriorating situation is a moot point.
The art of foreign policy is built on ensuring that it should never become unavoidable for the leadership to make a decision on what is a no-win situation. Challenges that could lead to such situations should be nipped in the bud, when they are still prone to containment. This means that the opportune time to de-escalate a volatile situation will present itself only once—a time that must not only be recognised but also acted upon. One is reminded of the famous lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act IV, Scene iii) ‘There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/ Omitted all the voyage of their life/ Is bound in shallows and in miseries./ On such a full sea are we now afloat,/ And we must take the current when it serves,/ Or lose our ventures.’ In Syria, it is almost certain that the US ‘must take the current when it serves’ having missed the opportunity for effective intervention long back.
President Obama has been wary of US involvement in the Arab Spring—treading very cautiously and betting on the side of stability rather than the unknown that a full-fledged rebellion would throw up. For example, it took his administration weeks to endorse the uprising that finally unseated Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; when the Bahraini ruling house violently suppressed a nascent, but popular uprising, the US stood by and watched, Bahrain being a strategic ally in the region; and in Libya, it took the massing of Gaddafi’s forces outside Benghazi and great pressure from UK and France for the US to participate in the intervention, even with UN approval. It is no wonder that the US has not acted on Syria, in an uprising that started around the same time that the Western forces were intervening and going beyond their remit in Libya, which has now become a full-fledged Civil War.
The time for intervention in Syria would have been when the uprising was still controlled by the moderates, within the first six to eight months of the commencement, before radical Islam hijacked the rebellion. But fears of an Iraq-like scenario and the empowering of al-Qaeda linked/affiliated rebel group taking over the country made the US administration baulk at intervention and even providing support to the rebels. Thirty months down the track, the window of opportunity has been slammed shut. Any intervention now, irrespective of which side of the Civil War it supports, will only produce a catastrophic and long-drawn insurgency—something that the US, or for that matter any Western nation, will do anything to avoid. A ‘status quo attitude’ reigns supreme! The inaction in some places and opportunistic support of actions in others have created a situation wherein the credibility of the US is perhaps the lowest that it has ever been in the Middle East. Foreign policy crafted on the run does not hold fast to anything and does no good to the nation’s status as a global power. Currently President Obama is criticised by different groups who are themselves opposed to each other’s beliefs: the hawks do not like the US to ‘lead from the back’, as the Republicans put it during the Libyan intervention, and want a bold and aggressive foreign policy to be implemented; humanitarian groups want the war in Syria stopped; advocates of democracy wonder why the generals in Egypt are not being castigated; the friendly regimes in the Middle East wonder whether the US can be trusted to be of assistance in times of trouble; and the European nations generally lament the lack of leadership emanating from the US. The immediate question to be asked, and answered, is: does the US want to continue to be the leader of the ‘free world’; and if so, does it have the will to stay the course when decisive action has to be undertaken?    
Saving Syria—a Distant Possibility
Untangling the social upheavals that have been termed the Arab Spring, now almost into its winter, is perhaps best done without external interference. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that Western intervention is not the best solution to the political implosions that have been the result of decades of misrule and autocratic nepotism. The latest twisted case is Syria. It is a country of 22 million people who have been under a dictatorship since 1949, bordered by Iraq to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west. It has not had a comfortable relationship with the US and has invariably worked to thwart American initiatives in the region, mostly siding with Iran. Although diplomatic initiatives have been undertaken since around 2009, the Assad regime has held back short of actual cooperation with the US at all times. The Assad family belongs to the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and rules a country that is roughly three-quarters Sunni through a combination of repression and largesse that has maintained a precarious balance. This fragile balance was ruptured in March 2011 when the Assad regime was openly challenged in the streets by a Sunni-led rebellion.
The rebellion, which has coalesced into a Civil War, has had enormous impact on the region. The exodus of refugees, estimated to be in excess of two million has already started to destabilise the societies of Jordan and Turkey; and it has provided a spark to the simmering tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon and Iraq. A sectarian conflict that could engulf the entire region cannot be ruled out. More importantly the conflict has degenerated into a proxy war with the regime being supported by Iran and Lebanon who has send fighters and provided arms and resources and the rebels being supported by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. More than 100,000 people have so far been reported killed, making the war a moral issue for the rest of the world to react. However, the Middle East chaos is of its own making—the result of a long-standing regional standoff between the Sunni nations led by Saudi Arabia on the one side and Shiite Iran and its supporters on the other. The US overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Baath regime started the process of the standoff becoming active fighting, a process that was catalysed by the Arab Spring. The Sunni-Shia divide has taken on a different hue and spread outside the Middle East with both Russia and China supporting Iran, and Syria in this conflict.
Meanwhile in a new development, the Syrian rebels have rejected the Western-backed leadership and a majority has conclusively gone over to a group led by al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, a group designated a terrorist organisation in the US. The new group, which does not yet have a name but has been dubbed the ‘Islamist Alliance’, is thought to represent over 75 per cent of the rebels fighting the Assad regime. This consolidation could be the first move in creating an Islamic state, if and when the Assad regime is ousted. The claim of this ‘alliance’ is that they are opposing the main al-Qaeda affiliate operating within Syria—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—although a number of alliance operatives have switched sides to the ISIL. (The ISIL is also called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS.) The battlelines are getting drawn and even if the Assad regime falls, the Civil War would, in all probabilities evolve into one between the two factions. The security and safety of the ordinary Syrian citizen is now a lost cry in the wilderness. The common people also have long-simmering frustrations with the external jihadists who have imposed a hard and puritanical administration on the areas controlled by them, provoking a backlash from Syrians who have always practised a more genial and easy-going version of Islam. The ISIS has in turn declared was against the Free Syrian Army, the original rebels who opposed Assad. This in-fighting has played into Assad’s hands and the government forces have been able to make headway in a number of areas. On the other hand, the supporters of the rebellion, especially the Turkey-based opposition, have created a unified command known as the Supreme Military Council (SMC), under former Syrian Army General Salim Idris, to bring all the moderate groups under one umbrella. Although Idris claims to control 90 per cent of the rebel fighters and say that they are moderates, it is certainly a tall claim. There are difficulties in establishing the numbers, with the interpretation of ‘moderate’ itself varying with the person/group making the claim. Jane’s estimates that beside the more than 10,000 al-Qaeda operatives, there are at least 30,000 to 35,000 others who adhere to a rigid fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, but still do not subscribe to the formation of an Islamic state. This is a dichotomy. There are also more than  30,000 Islamist moderates, which leaves only a small fraction of the rebels supporting secular nationalism that the West is keen to encourage. There could not be a more convoluted situation.
Within all this complexity, there is one element that the international community has to keep sight of—the need to protect the innocent civilian bystanders in the Civil War. Already there is a humanitarian crisis in the Syrian conflict that will only become more intense as the conflict drags on. Although the R2P doctrine could well be applied through military intervention, the lack of consensus at the Security Council and the absence of collective will to act make such a move highly unlikely. Without the Security Council’s permission, any action will lack legal authority—if there is no legality, there cannot be legitimacy, and any unilateral action diminishes international law. On the other hand, when any side in a Civil War, the regime or the opposition, commits crimes against humanity, again the authority of international law gets diminished and the stature of the Security Council is weakened. In any case, the R2P concept has been discredited by its use by Western nations as a tool to enforce their policy of selective regime change. Therefore, even if the Security Council were to pass a resolution, albeit with abstentions than support from Russia and China, the enforcement of R2P in Syria would only be the harbinger of increased sectarian violence and the escalation of turmoil in the Middle East. Certainly the world does not want another Iraq or Libya, created through the overzealous and adventurous actions of Western powers. The application of the doctrine of R2P in the Syrian crisis is highly unlikely.  
Does this mean that there is no way forward to save the people and state of Syria?
This is the time for diplomacy, for Great Powers to demonstrate their greatness by setting in train the processes that will create a political solution to the complex debacle that is unfolding in Syria. The salvation of the Syrian people lies in the international community committing itself to ensuring a peaceful political settlement of the conflict. However, this is easier said than done. A cursory look at the different players in the equation is sufficient to realise very fast that a unanimous resolution for a political settlement could never be achieved. The saving grace for such a vision is that the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2118 (2013) on 27th September that could be made the first step in setting the guidelines for a political resolution of the Civil War in Syria. What does this entail? First, it cannot be assumed that this agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons comes anywhere near addressing the issue of the Civil War whose death toll has already crossed 100,000. Therefore, the question that has to be answered is whether or not the Syrian people can be protected without evoking the R2P concept and/or overthrowing the regime. The counter-question will be whether or not the Syrian people will be safe if the regime is removed. The answer to the second question would have to be an unequivocal NO, if any cognisance is to be taken of previous interventions—for a number of reasons, least of which is the jihadist and external nature of the opposition.
The only solution seems to be an enforced ceasefire—impossible until all the external elements supporting the proxy war is removed from the scene. The overriding argument that could possibly keep the external elements—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Lebanon—away is to make them understand that under the present circumstances the Civil War will do more harm than good for the entire neighbourhood, and that the conflict in Syria will not remain contained within the state’s boundaries for long. The entire Middle East could erupt in jihadi violence. The withdrawal of external assistance to the al-Qaeda affiliated forces (for now the opposition is no more Syrian ‘freedom’ fighters, but Islamic fundamentalists) as well as to the Assad regime has to be enforced, so that there can be a negotiated cease-fire. Now may be, just maybe, the time to evoke this concept, since it seems that neither side is likely to win the Civil War in the short to mid-term.
The result would be a Syria with Assad still place, however unattractive and unpalatable this option might look. He would be in place with reduced autonomy since any cease-fire would require sharing of power with the moderate rebels. This might look to be a less than optimum trade-off, but in the absence of any other option and in the interest of the safety of the general public, this may be the only way forward. Whether the international community has the commitment, and more importantly the clout, to enforce such a solution is a debatable point. But there is no other solution—the nations stoking the fire under what is already a volatile Syrian cauldron must understand that the spill-over from the cauldron will seep into their own back yards.
This scenario—a ceasefire, however reluctant—faint and utopian as it may sound, is the only ray of hope for the people of the ancient land of Syria; and at least hope is what the international community owes to a population battered by more than 30 months of Civil War.        
© [Sanu Kainikara] [2013]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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