In our debate on the Syrian crisis discussion of that ‘best possible result’ is too often avoided.
In part, this is because there doesn’t seem to be a particularly great end result on offer from anyone. After all, the best result possible from military strikes on chemical weapons infrastructure is “The Syrian War continues, but the regime is restrained or prevented from Chemical weapons use”. The best result from inaction is that things continue as they are.
Faced with such choices, sometimes it is useful to stop thinking about the problem right in front of you, and instead think about the best result you think is possible, and then consider what it would take to get there.
So what do we seek?
Given that after two years there is little sign of the Assad regime collapsing from internal or external pressure, then for someone who favours greater intervention in principle, a combination of no fly zones, safe areas, and outside monitoring to ensure civilian safety is probably the ‘best end result’. This would require significant military capability, however, and there is little support for that level of involvement among the British people, who fear being sucked into another quagmire, where intervention leads to escalated intervention, which leads to regional tension, exported warfare and further death and destruction.
That is, for example the case made by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent yesterday. In an article entitled ‘In Syria, it’s a case of all or nothing’, Cockburn argued forcefully that despite the horrors perpetrated by the Assad regime, the complexity of the fighting, the regional and national interests involved mean that limited intervention would only leave the current military stalemate in place.
That leaves two options, Cockburn argues:
“The answer is to make either war or peace effectively. Limited missile strikes on Syrian military bases are not going to compel President Assad to negotiate his own departure from power. The only military action that might do this is a full-scale assault including a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone. This means giving the rebels an air umbrella, as was done for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq in 2003 and the anti-Gaddafi militiamen in Libya in 2011.”
The potential consequences of this first option, however, are major: There is the risk of Iranian and Russian intervention, or supply, while the very complex nature of the fighting means that it would be hard to enforce. Cockburn therefore rejects that end result, as too dangerous, too unstable.
That leaves the pursuit of peace. What would this involve? Cockburn says we have to forget about imposing departure from power of Assad, and accept some sort of uneasy truce, under UN supervision. Let’s forget how achievable this is, and picture instead how it would work if attainable. Cockburn argues “The best interim solution could be a UN-monitored ceasefire as briefly occurred under the Kofi Annan plan in 2012.”
Yet here, suddenly effective non-intervention begins to look an awful lot like it would require intervention to work.
What happened under the Annan plan? Both sides accused the other of breaching the ceasefire terms almost immediately. After a about a month, the UN stated that the Syrian government committed the Houla Massacre. Nothing was in place to prevent this type of breach, and so the civil war began again.
How could we prevent the same cycle occurring again? As we’ve learned from previous UN failures in peacekeeping operations, for any such truce to be enforceable, there would need to be both observation and scrutiny to guarantee the ceasefire terms, and just as crucially, those supervising the ceasefire must possess the power to prevent abuses.
Given the patchwork nature of the conflict, (look at the division of control of the suburbs of Damascus, for example) scrutiny alone would presumably require a significant presence on the ground, to prevent further massacres.
Further, that supervisory presence would need to be able to call on back up in case of sudden attacks, or persecution of civilians. The supervisory body would need to both be able to identify and intercept any breach of the ceasefire. To have that power, it would need.. well it would need pretty much the immediate capability that Cockburn describes in his paragraph on intervention.
The same risks apply too – What if it becomes in the interest of one faction to draw the UN into the conflict, or to conduct operations that they believe the UN will not respond to, how does the supervisors respond? What authority will they have to use force? What will their mandate be if they come under attack?
Cockburn’s argument is that the choice is to do everything, or to accept that we cannot, and so we should seek peace.
Yet, he rightly wishes to avoid the brutal consequences of a peace that left Assad’s government in power, able to access supplies, and with scores to settle.
As Cockburn understandably does not trust the Syrian government and parts of the opposition forces, so what he proposes surely requires a limited ‘supervisory’ intervention to guarantee the uneasy peace he seeks. How would such a limited intervention work, if it did not have the authority he rejects for a risky, dangerous, escalatory intervention to enforce its terms?
I think Cockburn’s probably right that an uneasy end point is the best we can now hope for, and I certainly wouldn’t dream of challenging his expertise compared to mine.
Yet thinking through his desired end state, I can’t see a great difference between the type of intervention he rejects and the intervention needed to guarantee the peace he desires, except perhaps the colour of the helmets.
Otherwise, why wouldn’t this peace process just end in another Houla Massacre, or worse, another Srebenica?