Quantcast

Commentary

Pace quickens in Syria—but toward what?

By

When the UK parliament voted against missile strikes on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime because of its use of nerve gas against civilians, the prospect of military action temporarily receded. Now that US President Barack Obama has made his position clear in favor of an attack, it again seems all but inevitable. But what kind of action, for what purpose, in the service of what larger strategy? All this remains obscure.

There is impartial evidence that nerve gas was used in an attack in the northeastern suburbs of Damascus on August 21. There are indications that Assad forces were responsible. There is no proof.

US intelligence information is regarded as strong but, as officials have repeatedly said, it does not make a “slam dunk case” against Assad. The UN investigation team, which was already in Syria looking for evidence about earlier alleged uses of chemical weapons, can collect blood and soil samples so as to analyze what happened. But their mandate does not include identifying who did it.

But the evidence is far from the most important part of the story. It is an obvious logical point that if the evidence offers unvarnished and unspun proof of grotesque criminality, that does not mean that any action that follows is therefore justified. There is much else to consider, including what action is planned and with what intended outcome.

The most likely action consists of air or missile strikes and perhaps increased arms supplies to the anti-Assad forces. For the time being, the prospect of forces on the ground seems not to be a real option in almost anybody’s mind.

I take the view that a full-scale intervention to ensure the victory of the anti-Assad forces would not suit the preferences of US policymakers in particular as well as a scenario in which war continued for a long time. This would bleed the power and weaken the regional influence not just of Assad but also of Iran, a much bigger prize.

It’s a grisly scenario and contains nothing but misery for the people of Syria. The American arch-realist Edward Luttwak, author inter alia of the pleasingly titled article, “Give War a Chance,” set out his view in the New York Times that an enduring stalemate in Syria is the only viable US policy option. He argues it can be simply achieved by arming the insurgents until they are doing well, then denying them arms till they are doing badly, then arming them, then not.

Judged by the criterion of ending the conflict or tipping the balance of advantage decisively toward the insurgents, a limited strike will not achieve anything. But there are some proponents of a strike who will come out and say that is part of the point.

UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg set out the ground for this. He said that the action would be purely a response to the use of chemical weapons and nothing more: “What we are not considering is regime change, trying to topple the Assad regime, trying to settle the civil war in Syria one way or another.”

In this sentiment he was joined by Labor leader Ed Miliband, who set three conditions for offering his party’s support to a strike against Assad, one of which is that the action must be “specifically limited to deterring the future use of chemical weapons.”

This seems quite likely to become the center ground consensus, the moderate view, the political common sense of the day. So let me be very careful and nuanced in expressing my own perspective on it.

It is barking mad. And cruel, too.

It is cruel because it will raise expectations of escalation among Syrians who want Assad overthrown, only for them to be dashed with the passage of time.

And it is mad for two reasons. First, taken on its own terms there is no reason to expect it will work. What is the success record of limited strikes?

US missile strikes against actual and suspected al-Qaida targets in the 1990s did nothing to deter 9/11. US air strikes against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in 1986 did nothing to deter the Lockerbie bombing two years later.

Second, it is mad because you cannot launch missiles at a state involved in a civil war and have no impact on that. To launch missile strikes without having a clear idea of how they fit into the bigger picture is indeed madness.

At least on this point, Barack Obama sees a bit further. While emphasizing that the attacks he wants Congress to back will be limited, he added that the action “also fits into a broader strategy” to weaken Assad, strengthen the opposition and create conditions for “peace and stability in the region.”

He’s wrong about the consequences and ignores the risk of an escalatory spiral both in Syria itself and in the region—but at least he doesn’t pretend the strikes will have no effect on the bigger picture.

A peaceful goal needs peaceful means. That is the core issue. The bigger picture into which missile strikes fit is slowly bleeding Syria and its main regional backer, Iran. It may also include increased risks in Lebanon, other parts of the Middle East, and even farther afield. The bigger picture that might bring something like real peace to Syria does not include missile strikes.

This is not an easy argument to make. Moral outrage about the use of chemical weapons is the obvious civilized reaction. But moral outrage does not necessarily make good political strategy.

The use of chemical weapons is awful. But nothing about them changes the political logic of achieving peace in Syria. If that is not the primary goal of western powers then their policy is wrong-headed and duplicitous. If it is the prime goal, then missile strikes are wrong-headed.

If western leaders wish to play a useful role in the hard Syrian work of building a more peaceful future in Syria, they must start by understanding three things:

• They cannot do it alone.

• If they seek a military option, it will not be easy.

• If they prefer a diplomatic option, their eventual deal-making will involve negotiating with Russia, Iran and Syria, among others.

Dan Smith is secretary general of the London-based International Alert and former director of the International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO). He is also author of “The State of the World Atlas,” “The Atlas of War and Peace,” and “The State of the Middle East.” He was recently appointed part-time professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Manchester.


Follow Us


Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter


More from this Column:

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Short URL: http://opinion.inquirer.net/?p=60541

Tags: civil unrest , Commentary , Dan Smith , opinion , Syria

  • ConnieLee90

    It’s about time for the US to relax and sit by the sidelines as the Syrian saga unfolds. She is battle scarred. Having fought in so many wars this century, she needs to nurse her wounds, heal her scars, and restore her body to health so she could continue on to fight another day. Her thoughts should turn inward. Her government is dysfunctional, her economy is fragile, and her people are unemployed or underemployed. And her people are not in any mood to get embroiled in other’s wars.

  • TheGUM

    With regards Dan Smith’s three things that western leaders must understand if they are serious about real peace in Syria, let me add a fourth one: diplomatic solutions should not start with a demand that Bashar Al-Assad must step down as the leader of Syria. Regime change is a non-starter. Iraq and Libya’s current state of chaos, where sectarian violence is now the norm, are clear examples of unintended consequences, or “blowbacks,” as the intelligence community calls it.

    Ordinary Syrians understand the “blowback” of heavily armed fanatics, Al Qaeda types, running their country. That is why in a December 2011 poll sponsored by the Doha Debates, a majority of Syrians agreed that reforms are necessary, but not at the expense of toppling their current government. Syrians, which include the majority Sunni Muslims, know all too well what happened to Iraq and Libya, which had the highest living standards in the Middle East/North Africa. These countries are now living hells after the overthrow of Hussein and Khadafy. Who will the Syrians blame if their country is torn to shreds as a consequence of the US interference in their civil war?



Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94
Advertisement
Advertisement

News

  • Korea ferry captain defends actions, bodies seen in ship
  • Traffic starts to build up at toll plazas on Black Saturday
  • Flash floods hit 9 Tagum villages
  • No tsunami to hit PH after 6.9 quake jolts Solomon Islands–Phivolcs
  • Search resumes for bodies in Everest avalanche
  • Sports

  • Hamilton takes pole at Chinese Grand Prix
  • Duke’s Rodney Hood joining Jabari Parker in NBA draft
  • Phelps entered in 3 events at comeback meet
  • Boston prepares for huge wave of marathon visitors
  • Motivated LeBron James preps for postseason
  • Lifestyle

  • Levine designs womenswear with help from fiancee
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel laureate, dies at 87
  • Ford Mustang turns 50 atop Empire State Building
  • Pro visual artists, lensmen to judge Pagcor’s photo contest
  • ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  • Entertainment

  • Myx TV premieres Asian American ‘docu-series’
  • A nutty finale for ‘Scandal,’ TV’s craziest show
  • EXO postpones release of mini album ‘Overdose’
  • ‘X-men’ filmmaker slams ‘fabricated’ sex attack claims
  • Singer Chris Brown’s bodyguard on trial in DC
  • Business

  • Fiat-Chrysler to produce iconic Jeep in China from 2015
  • US commerce secretary spells out economic facet of ‘pivot to Asia’
  • Italy sells luxury state cars on eBay
  • Asian shares mostly up in quiet trade
  • Dollar up in Asia on US jobs data, Ukraine deal
  • Technology

  • Nasa’s moon-orbiting robot crashes down
  • Netizens pay respects to Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Nokia recalls 30,000 chargers for Lumia 2520 tablet
  • Facebook rolls out ‘nearby friends’ feature
  • Netizens seethe over Aquino’s ‘sacrifice’ message
  • Opinion

  • Editorial cartoon, April 17, 2014
  • A humbler Church
  • Deepest darkness
  • ‘Agnihotra’ for Earth’s health
  • It’s the Holy Week, time to think of others
  • Global Nation

  • We treasure our Sierra Madre
  • OFW from UAE tests negative for MERS-Cov–health chief
  • Multicultural flock marks Good Friday in San Francisco
  • Las Vegas ‘Pinoy Pride’ fest hails Filipino heritage
  • Marking Jesus’ journey on Good Friday
  • Marketplace