Thursday, 29 August 2013

Syria and The Fog of War

This shall probably be the last of the posts on this website; I have been asked by the editor-in-chief of the Warwick Globalist (an international affairs magazine on campus) to begin blogging for their revamped and rebooted website come the start of term in October. So after 8,000 hits and lots of positive feedback from people of a variety of political persuasions (or none at all) I am pleased with how the experiment has gone, and have enjoyed writing this blog. I will post a link to the new blog when it is up and running, and hope everyone will continue to read it over at the Globalist website.

It had been said that the first casualty of war is truth, and Syria is a perfect illustration of this fact. Deciphering and manoeuvring through the labyrinth of lies, distortions, agendas, secrets, deals, threats, and power politics that defines the Syrian civil war is no easy task. I have become somewhat sceptical of the possibility of achieving a substantial degree of knowledge about the conflict, at least for now. The historian often has a far easier task than the political scientist.

Having said that, it is the responsibility of citizens of this country, a country which maintains a disproportionate level of power and influence around the world, to seek to understand the conflict as far as is possible, since we have found ourselves once more faced with the possibility that our government will attack a country in the Middle East (correction- for now at least, they won't. Seconds before publishing this Parliament rejected a motion for military action against Syria, an astonishing event).

The Chemical Attack

There have been murmurs about the ‘ghost of Iraq’ casting a shadow over potential intervention in Syria, and quite rightly. We as a nation are far from coming to terms with and atoning for the devastation we wrought in that country, a ‘moral obscenity’ (to borrow Mr Hague’s description of the gas attack in Syria) that far outweighs the particular attack we condemn so vehemently today. And the uncomfortable fact remains that, despite Obama and Cameron’s rhetoric, we don’t know exactly what happened near Damascus on the 21st of August. We can’t even conclude which side carried out the attack for certain. If it was the regime, we aren’t sure whether it was merely a rogue commander or an institutionalised policy carried out from the highest levels. ABC News has reported that:

the intelligence linking Syrian President Bashar Assad or his inner circle to an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed at least 100 people is no "slam dunk," with questions remaining about who actually controls some of Syria's chemical weapons stores and doubts about whether Assad himself ordered the strike, U.S. intelligence officials saymultiple U.S. officials used the phrase "not a slam dunk" to describe the intelligence picture’.

This is highly significant given Obama’s assertions that the US ‘concludes’ that the Syrian government carried out the attack as a matter of government policy. Given the terrible record of botched and distorted intelligence in the run up to the Iraq War (and throughout ‘post-War’ history), we ought to be highly sceptical of government claims of this kind.

Why Intervention?

No one should have any illusions that the proposed intervention has anything to do with humanitarian impulses or the enforcement of international law. A brief survey of Western policy and history in the Middle East should put rest to that idea. America has frequently disregarded international law itself, often refusing to sign conventions (such as the Convention on Cluster Munitions) and ignoring international law even when it has formally agreed to it. Western politicians only speak of the crimes of the Syrian regime, and rarely if ever about the alleged atrocities carried out by factions of the rebel forces- for instance it has been reported in some foreign media that a massacre of hundreds of civilians was carried out at Lattakia by rebel Islamists. Little interest has been shown in these allegations.

Selective empathy should come as no surprise to students of international affairs, and the reasons underlying the distinction between ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims are rarely hard to find. In this case the Syrian government is considered ‘bad’ because it is Iran’s only major ally in the region, and there is a cold war being waged in the Middle East between two poles: Saudi Arabia, the Sunni states and the West on one side, and Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria (and perhaps Russia) on the other. The US, UK and France have been hand in hand with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Kuwait and Qatar in their attempts to arm and fund the rebels. The CIA has long been involved in training favoured rebel forces at bases in Jordan, as well as helping organising the flow of weapons across the Turkish-Syrian border. They all hope to weaken and isolate Iran by knocking out its major ally; they would then enjoy the patronage of rebel forces who would partly owe their victory to Gulf and Western backers. That totalitarian states like Saudi Arabia are joining the US in backing the rebels should tell you something about the motives underlying the support given: it has nothing to do with democracy and freedom, but everything to do with power and interests, as is always the case with Great Power politics. [1] 

The Syrian story has got weirder and weirder as time has gone by- this article from Al Monitor purported to record a ‘diplomatic report’ from the Kremlin on a secret meeting between Russia’s Putin and Saudi Arabia’s head of intelligence, the slimy Prince Bandar (who used to be the Saudis' ambassador to the US). This is how The Independent described Bandar:

His most recent travels, rarely advertised, have taken him to both London and Paris for discussions with senior officials. As ambassador, Prince Bandar left an imprint that still has not quite faded. His voice was one of the loudest urging the United States to invade Iraq in 2003. In the 1980s, Prince Bandar became mired in the Iran-Contra scandal in Nicaragua. Months of applying pressure on the White House and Congress over Syria have slowly born fruit. The CIA is believed to have been working with Prince Bandar directly since last year in training rebels at base in Jordan close to the Syrian border’

Al Monitor’s article, which was reported and expanded on in The Telegraph, claims that Bandar gave a thinly veiled threat to Putin that if he didn’t withdraw his support for Assad then Chechen Islamic terrorists would attack the 2014 Winter Olympics. He allegedly said to Putin that ‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us, and they will not move in the Syrian territory’s direction without coordinating with us. These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syria’s political future’. I couldn’t believe what I was reading when I came across this- if true it’s an open admission from a senior Saudi official that they have a hand in Chechen terrorism, use Islamic terrorists against Assad’s regime in Syria, plan to abandon them if they win and most significantly an open threat to attack Russia if Putin refuses to comply. This was first reported in the Russian press, and then the Lebanese-based Al Monitor. Bandar went on to offer a grand deal which included ‘an alliance between the OPEC cartel and Russia, which together produce over 40m barrels a day of oil, 45pc of global output. Such a move would alter the strategic landscape’ according to The Telegraph. This is like something out of the 16th century; indeed the Saudi state does in many ways operate as if it were still in medieval times.

Putin was reportedly outraged at the threats and refused to back down from supporting Syria. Interestingly, The Telegraph claims that Bandar was ‘purporting to speak with the full backing of the US’. The EU Times then had an article about how Putin ‘Orders Massive Strike Against Saudi Arabia If West Attacks Syria’, but the online ‘newspaper’ has little credibility and the article fails to give substantial sources for its claims. Thankfully, this final part of the Putin-Bandar story seems to be a highly unlikely dramatization.

The Consequences

The repercussions of a strike by the West on Syria are impossible to predict accurately, but some inferences can be made. The International Committee of the Red Cross has claimed that ‘further escalation will likely trigger more displacement and add to humanitarian needs, which are already immense’, a sentiment echoed by Christian Aid, which warned of ‘catastrophic effects’ if an attack is undertaken. Highly respected Middle East journalist Robert Fisk has said that an attack would be ‘the stupidest Western war in the history of the modern world’, and warned that the US/UK would be on the same side as Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda-linked forces, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, reminding one of the CIA programmes in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 80s. In Israel gas masks are being horded as fears of a retaliatory strike by Iran or Syria grow. If a strike goes ahead, the potential for a diplomatic solution will be severely weakened; already the US has unilaterally cancelled a meeting with Russia that was to set out plans for a grand conference to help end the Syrian crisis. Diplomacy is considered by most sane observers, such as former chief UN Weapons Inspector Hans Blix, to be the only hope for an end to the violence.

Furthermore public opinion is largely against ‘intervention’, with about 60% in the US opposed. A YouGov poll found that ‘77% of the British public support sending “food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies” to Syria. However, only 9% support sending British troops, while 74% oppose the action. Support is equally minor (10%) for sending full-scale military supplies or even small arms (16%) to the Anti-Assad troops’. One must further factor in the history of the West in Syria before we seek to appoint ourselves as global policemen. France is a former colonial master in Syria, and as this excellent article in The National Interest detailed, the US has a long record of overthrowing governments and imposing dictators in Syria. The article noted how a US government report even found that there is a ‘consensus narrative’ among the Syrian population that ‘foreign conspiracies’ had sought to control Syria in the past and that these were ‘associated with the United States’. We should bear these facts in mind when discussing what to do with Syria today- the West has the collective memory span of a fish, but in regions like the Middle East history holds great significance.

Thankfully momentum towards a strike seems to be slowing (as I write this parliament has voted against military action- a stunning, unexpected and happy result), although I fear that Obama is now too committed to back down. Ed Miliband has done one of the only decent things of his career so far in breaking the usual cross-party consensus on foreign policy and refusing to unconditionally back Cameron. He has called upon Cameron to wait for the results of the UN probe into whether chemical weapons were used, and to strictly abide by international law, very sensible proposals. The reaction from Downing Street has been one of outrage- how on earth could Labour be so reckless and oppose more endless violence and war from Britain?! A government source was quoted as calling Miliband a ‘fucking cunt’ over his decision. This reaction is unsurprising: Labour and the Conservatives usually fight it out over the most minute of policy differences, but if Labour dares to finally offer a break from the two-party consensus on fundamentals then he can expect to feel the wrath of Downing Street. Parliament, it seems, has just voted against military action, and credit needs to go to Miliband for this remarkable result.

International opinion also appears largely opposed, as one would expect. The Pope, Desmond Tutu, and Egypt have come out strongly against intervention. Even the Western-backed Jordanian state has refused to allow the US and UK to use Jordan as a launching pad for a strike, no doubt fearing the contempt it will receive from Arab public opinion and its own population, and perhaps even fearing that it could become the target of retaliatory terrorist attacks. The Arab League has refused to back an attack, despite being comprised mainly of Western-backed governments.

A protest has been called in London this Saturday by Stop the War Coalition to demonstrate against British involvement in Syria.Given that seconds before I posted this the UK backed out of intervention, it may not be needed, fortunately. Less happily, the US and France could still go for a strike. The last thing we need is another imperialist-driven war in the Middle East led by the US, particularly in a conflict so complex; the consequences are difficult to predict but it’s not impossible that this could flare up into a much wider regional or global confrontation with Russia and the US facing off. We haven't won this one yet.

[1] Some have suggested that actual Western policy on Syria is a ‘realist’ strategy to balance the forces within Syria and let them bleed each other to death- engage US enemies like Iran and Hezbollah in a protracted battle that saps their energy and resources whilst not giving enough support to the rebels to allow them to overthrow Assad, since that could lead to an even more anti-Western government. This has been suggested by Robert Fisk, Stephen Walt, Noam Chomsky, Daniel Drezner and Alan Berger, amongst others. It may have some merit to it, but space precludes the possibility of discussing it here.

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