Friday, 23 August 2013

Syria Redux: The consequences of intervention

The latest reports of chemical weapons being used in Syria are another instance where taking a moment to step back and think about the conflict is the best thing we can do. A few things to consider:

1) Chemical weapons change nothing.

In a conflict which has already claimed over 100,000 lives, fatalities from chemical weapons are a drop in the ocean. Chemical weapons are horrific. Bombs, bullets, shrapnel, artillery shells and sniper fire are equally horrific, and they are already being used on a vast scale in the Syrian conflict. To pretend that somehow chemical weapons are “worse” than conventional ones is a travesty. War, violence and death are uniform horrors, irrespective of how they are inflicted. The Syrian conflict has been horrendous from day one, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future. Chemical weapons are simply another facet of this awful conflict.

2) Even more important, the West/UN/whoever cannot get international backing to intervene.

The Chinese and Russian governments have made it absolutely clear they will neither support nor tolerate any attempt to effect a regime change in Syria, even under the guise of “peacekeeping”. This is not going to change today, tomorrow, next month, next year or ever. The Chinese and Russian governments are committed to the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. This is mainly because they have some questionable domestic policies of their own that would make them vulnerable if such interventions became common place. This means that they are absolutely opposed to any UN action that would involve intervention in Syria. There will be no UN sanctioned “liberation” of Syria while China and Russia hold seats on the security council. Moreover, the Assad regime’s allies in the region, particularly Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon will oppose, possibly with military force, any intervention, and we can be sure that regimes like that of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Omar al Bashir in Sudan and a host of other petty dictatorships will strenuously oppose intervention on pretexts that could just as easily be used against them.

Which brings me to my third and most important point.

3) Any intervention in Syria will be a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

There are so many ways in which a Western intervention in Syria will go wrong that I cannot do justice to them here, but a brief overview will do.

Hezbollah and Iran have actively and in Hezbollah’s case directly intervened in Syria. They literally have “skin in the game”. Any Western intervention, and that includes airstrikes, will involve direct military action against Hezbollah troops and Iranian assets in Syria. This will instantaneously kill any chance of Iran agreeing to negotiate over its nuclear programme, reignite the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict in southern Lebanon and kill the recently revived Israeli-Palestinian peace process stone dead. Renewed conflict on Israel’s border with Lebanon will inevitably spread to its border with Syria, drawing Israel, with its undisclosed nuclear arsenal and legion of enemies in the Islamic world into the conflict.

Moreover, even if Iran does not respond directly by military means to a Western strike/invasion of Syria, the Islamic Republic will surely take steps to retaliate against the West, including possibly attempting to interdict oil shipments through the strait of Hormuz. Western intervention in Syria also has the potential to exacerbate conflict in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq will be given a new lease of life by a fresh Western act of aggression against an Islamic country, and it already has allies among the more extreme elements of the Syrian rebel groups. The prospect of Iraq based militants getting involved in Syria on a large scale against Western troops raises the spectre of the chaos in Syria spreading to Iraq. In which case, in a cruel irony, Western troops may find themselves back in Iraq having only recently declared the country “secure” and left in a hurry.

Finally, Western intervention in Syria will severely complicate the West’s relationship with other countries, particularly Egypt. If Western powers will intervene on the side of Islamist rebels against a brutal military dictatorship in Syria, why not in Egypt, which is heading towards an identical situation? How will the Muslim Brotherhood and the military in Egypt react if Western forces attack Syria? How will other regional players, like Hamas in Gaza, Al Qaeda in Yemen, the Taliban in Pakistan/Afghanistan and the Kurds in Syria, Turkey and Iraq react? There are a lot of vested interests at play in Syria, and a ham-fisted intervention by the West could quite possibly bring them all into the conflict.

Finally, an intervention by Western armies with their immensely powerful air forces, armies and copious amounts of high explosives will trigger another exodus of refugees from Syria that will dwarf the current one. Thousands of people have crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan in the last week alone. Over a million Syrians have fled the country already. Another spike in numbers could overwhelm neighbouring countries like Jordan, which are already struggling to cope with the influx.

As I have said previously, bombs and bullets added to yet more bombs and bullets will not solve anything. Western military action will just get more people, and potentially many many more people killed. If other countries wish to act to help the Syrian people, they can do genuinely good things, like assisting the refugees from the conflict, and the countries that have take them in. Let the West and the world build roads, schools, hospitals and sadly, orphanages for the victims of the conflict. Let them send doctors, nurses, teachers and aid workers instead of soldiers, fighter pilots and more death. Help is something you give people, not something you fire at them. We can only hope that the countries currently calling for “intervention” in Syria will learn this lesson sooner rather than later.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Jordan: The forgotten sanctuary

In all the recent talk and debate around arming some of the multiple Syrian rebel groupings fighting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, the discussion has focused on military issues. How to get the weapons in? How to prevent them falling into the wrong hands? Will they be enough to topple Assad? Indeed, from the very start of the Syrian conflict, the focus especially by the West has been on its military aspects. All talk of helping the Syrian people and alleviating the suffering caused by the conflict has focused on fighting, on arming people, on trying to affect change by force as quickly as possible. At some point, helping other countries has become synonymous with violence.

There are, at last estimate, 1.7 million Syrians living as refugees outside their country, mainly in Turkey and Jordan, along with Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon currently hosts the most displaced Syrians, with Jordan and Turkey close behind. Of the three however, Jordan faces the most serious problems arising from the influx of refugees. This is in no small part because Jordan already houses 1.9 million Palestinians and nearly half a million Iraqis, refugees from earlier conflicts. For decades, since its unsuccessful participation in the Six Day War in 1967, Jordan has been a haven of tranquility in the Middle East. The country has repaired its relationship with Israel and maintained good relations with the outside world. Until recently the economy was growing and prosperity expanding to more of the population. But there are also serious problems.

Jordan’s refugee influx from its neighbours has strained already overstretched water supplies, along with the provision of healthcare, education and basic amenities like electricity and energy. Jordan’s stability and open border policy have made it a very attractive destination for refugees, and now all the things which made Jordan a success story in the region are starting to drag it under, as more and more people flood across the country’s borders. The Jordanian population is only 6 million, barely more than Ireland’s, yet by some estimates by the end of this year over a million Syrians will be added to that. Jordan simply cannot cope with this quantity of refugees.

Rather than sending more guns to perpetrate more violence and more death in Syria, the international community, especially those countries like the US who seem to be getting more and more involved in the conflict, should focus on making a positive difference to the situation by helping these refugees and the countries sheltering them. According to a recent report by the Guardian, the United States has given $228.5 million spread across all the countries in the region dealing with refugees from Syria. Given that by some estimates the US spent over $1 Trillion on the war in Iraq, surely it can afford to give even a fraction of a percent of this sum to help Jordan, and make a real, positive contribution to a regional crisis.

If the last decade of strife in the Middle East has proved anything, it has proved that violence is never an answer to internal conflicts in other countries. The international community can make a difference right now, by sending real aid to all the countries in the region, but especially to Jordan, who are actually helping the Syrian people by sheltering them from the conflict.
The Jordanian people have opened their borders and their homes to refugees from surrounding regions. They have not turned people away at the border, despite the intense pressure being placed on their economy and their public services. And despite the fact that they are making the most constructive and positive contribution to the Syrian conflict, all the West wants to focus on is sending in guns to Syria, rather than helping them.

Jordan, along with other countries in the Middle East, is helping in a very real sense to lessen the suffering and death caused by the Syrian conflict, at great cost to itself. The real heroes of the Syrian civil war will not be the rebels, or the government, or the outside powers who armed them, they will be the countries who let in tens of thousand of frightened refugees, who clothed and fed them, who cared for them, who tried to give them the same services they give their own citizens.

If the international community and especially the West, wish to help alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people and help to limit the damage caused by the conflict, they only need to look to Jordan. The means to make a difference are already there. All the Jordanian people need is help to do it.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Stephen Fry, Sochi and Stalin 2.0

Stephen Fry is right when he calls Vladimir Putin’s regime the “new autocracy” of Russia. Putin’s dictatorial repressions extend beyond Russia’s embattled LGBT community. His suppression of dissent and opposition, the suspicious deaths of journalists and activists under his regime and the politically motivated trials of Alexei Navalny and others are all part of his regime's efforts to keep itself in power and in control. And behind it all is Putin himself.

Vladimir Putin is Josef Stalin 2.0. He’s smarter, more subtle and less paranoid, but equally brutal, equally savage and equally dangerous. Where Stalin had show trials, mass purges and collectivisation, Putin has corruption charges, disappearances and manipulative nationalistic slogans. Vladimir Putin is a 21st century dictator. He has learned the crucial lesson that his 20th century predecessor never learned. You don’t need to have all of the power in the state, or to silence all of your critics. You just need to have enough of the power, in the right areas, and to neutralise only those critics you can’t buy off, smear or paint as being unpatriotic.

Putin is at the centre of a power network that embraces both state repression and state corruption. Roubles serve where the secret police might be too obvious. Fabricated charges are used instead of regime show trials. And the regime’s most serious foes die in fortuitous accidents, in cases that are never properly investigated. Putin doesn’t need to use the police to suppress dissent, he just needs them not to do their job when he has it silenced by other means.

I have always held that getting involved with dubious dictators and autocrats like Putin is not the business or in the interest of the West. It leads to what can only be described as morally compromising situations. Russia is a case in point. By engaging with Putin and sending delegations to the Games in Sochi, Western governments are saying that the values they hold dear like equal rights, equality before the law, transparent government and at a basic level some semblance of democracy are just talking points, and that dictators like Putin can do as they please and still get to preen and prance on the world stage.

While Western governments have no business getting involved in the internal affairs of other countries (see my posts on Syria and Iraq for that particular can of worms) non-involvement most definitely includes not giving despots like Putin a platform like the Olympics. As Stephen Fry points out, witness Berlin 1936 for the results appeasement of this sort. When I say don’t engage with Russia, I mean it in the fullest sense of the word. For obvious reasons, its enormous nuclear arsenal being the main one, Russia is in no danger of military intervention by the West. That does not mean the default position should be to ignore the Putin regime's appalling crimes and blithely give them carte blanche in Sochi.

All nations who value human dignity should boycott the Winter Games of 2014. Putin’s particular brand of despotism should not be given international sanction with such a high profile event. We cannot realistically influence what happens inside Russia, not with Putin’s iron grip on power. But we can deny him the exposure and international approval that he craves. Let him fume and rant, and claim that there is a western conspiracy against Russia. But let him do it without a world stage to do it from.

The world should disengage from Russia in every sense. Boycott Sochi. Downgrade Russia’s membership of the UN and other global organisations. Putin’s thuggish regime is so far gone that Russia’s membership of these bodies is not only hopeless in terms of changing anything, it is downright farcical. Stop holding international summits in Russia, and start making its participation in others like the G8 and G20 dependent on reforms. Of course Putin, much like his dictatorial predecessors won’t reform. But thats the point. If someone won’t change their ways, you stop engaging with them. You isolate them.

Putin is a dictator, and like all dictators he will be hard if not impossible to dislodge. His crimes will undoubtedly continue. By boycotting the Sochi Games, the international community can start disentangling itself from Putin’s crimes, and stop giving Russia’s latest autocrat a platform for his tyranny.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Syria and Iraq: Painful lessons in history and restraint

Syria and Iraq share many things in addition to an extensive and poorly policed border. They are both post-colonial states, constructed arbitrarily from an eclectic mix of racial and religious groups. They both suffer from serious tensions between these different groups, and have a history of repression by one or more of these groups. In the case of Iraq it was the repression of the Shia Muslims majority and Kurdish minority by another minority, the Sunni Muslims. In the case of Syria it was a neat reversal, with a Shia led “coalition of minorities” repressing the Sunni majority. Of course, this is a simplification. Inter-ethnic and religious relations in both nations are complicated and fraught, with questionable acts on both sides. In both cases however, pre-existing conflict between factions has been immeasurably worsened by outside intervention.

Iraq is the more well known and spectacular case. The US led invasion of 2003 was supposed to topple the dictator Saddam Hussein and establish democracy. What it succeeded in doing was lift the lid on simmering tensions, which Hussein had, with unquestionably vile methods, successfully repressed.  The result was a bloody civil conflict from the invasion on, with a series of peaks and lulls, and which now looks as though it is reigniting. The repression by the Sunni minority Hussein led has been replaced by savage all out conflict, and the fragmentation of Iraq. Far from building the country into a liberal, democratic society, Western intervention may in the long term have succeeded only in destroying it altogether.

The intervention in Iraq has not only failed to meet any of its objectives, it has made the situation worse. To the horrific death toll of the Iraqis themselves, the Western forces have managed to add thousands of their own troops. The brutality of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by the chaotic, dysfunctional and semi-despotic regime of Nouri al-Maliki. Violence, which under Hussein was kept in the hands of the state, is now in the hands of any and all groups who have an axe to grind. Coalition troops have died in vain, and the horrendous violence now unfolding in Iraq is potentially worse than anything Hussein’s regime could have done.

This leads us to Syria, where western intervention is again being mooted, albeit in a more limited fashion. Britain, France and factions within the American government seem to believe that if they simply outsource their intervention by arming the Syrian rebels, they will avoid all of the disasters of Iraq. This is, quite simply, a complete inability to understand the nature of their failure in Iraq. Iraq was a failure not because the right side didn't win; Iraq was a failure because western countries got involved in a conflict they did not understand. There were no right sides in Iraq, just competing factions looking for an advantage by any means necessary.

Likewise in Syria, there are no “good guys” or “bad guys”. There are simply competing factions, with their own goals, agendas and particular ideologies. The obsession with whether or not any arms sent over might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda or its affiliates misses the point entirely. Whoever gets the arms, be it the Free Syrian Army, the al-Nusra Front or any of the other multifarious rebel groups in Syria, will use them to carve out their own victory at the expense of all the other factions. The civil war in Syria is not a conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and a rebel movement. It is a multi-sided free for all, with ethnic and religious complexities that makes the Balkans conflict look clear cut by comparison.

Sending weapons in isn’t going to hasten a rebel victory, it will just add more bullets to the fighting, and get more people, including civilians killed. Even if by some miracle the particular group of Syrian rebels which the West has arbitrarily chosen to favour get all of the weapons and don’t lose any of them, they will promptly use them to establish their own political solution, at the expense of all the other factions. Western bullets will be used to achieve decidedly non-Western goals. When you attempt to break up a bar fight, you don’t just give the one guy you happen to like a baseball bat to try and end it quickly. In the case of Syria, the West has stepped into the bar, looked around, and started tossing in meat cleavers randomly.

This kind of misguided policy has two outcomes. Either the those intervening (i.e. the West) get stuck in wholesale and end up adding their own casualties to an already bloody conflict (as happened in Iraq), or they stand back, add more guns to the situation and then watch as yet again the violence and suffering spike. Given the stubborn refusal of the Western powers to learn from their mistakes, we can dread equally fruitless attempts at making things better in the rapidly deteriorating situations in Egypt, Bahrain, Libya and possibly Tunisia and Lebanon. Let us hope, for the sake of all the innocent victims of the Middle Eastern conflicts, the people of the West chose to learn the lessons their governments won’t.