What to do about Syria?

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Just stumbled on a tv interview with Bouthaina Shaaban, the media and political advisor to al-Assad, tonight on something called RT television (channel 96 Sky).  Her view was that the West perceives the Arab world as being “unable to sort themselves out” and hence there is an oft hasty and ill conceived resort to intervention.  She said she couldn’t imagine David Cameron being subject to the same kind of treatment in the UK, no matter what he did, and that the West is merely ganging up. Her view is that the Syrian people should direct their own course and decide their own future. We haven’t talked much about what, if anything, the international community should or could or will do about Syria.  I guess there is always the tension between respecting sovereignty (no matter how dire the situation) and responsibility to protect etc.  Has anyone got a view on the best way forward for Syria?

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2 comments on “What to do about Syria?

  1. aidangnoth says:

    Very interesting interview, but alas, I don’t know the best way forward for Syria either.

    Shabaan’s contrast between Syrian politics and democracies around the world was rather construed. Saying that democracy is about letting the people decide, and thus if the people want a dictatorship then let them, is definitely a new take on representative governing in my opinion. As you pointed out the contrast between David Cameron and al-Assad is an intriguing one. I think she’s overlooking the fact that elites in most democracies can be thrown out (a seemingly common occurrence in Australia) and definitely would be if they started killing their own citizens.

    To be fair however, she did back this argument up with a slightly more gripping one. Speaking of “colonial hegemony”, Shabaan argues that Western involvement and anger in the region stems from their need to control others. This argument brought two ideas to my mind,

    1) While there may be many reasons for this conflict, like many issues facing much of the developing world, these have been exacerbated by old colonial legacies. Maybe this crisis isn’t a direct result, but at the end of the day the majority of the conflict is still fought along ethnic lines al-Assad (Bath Party) against Sunni Muslims. This is obviously a very simplistic take on the conflict, but I believe that many of the problems facing these areas are a direct result of the Wests inability to correctly draw maps. At least, to set up boundaries and countries that had any vague resemblance of the demographic within them (even Google maps seems to struggle, Tibets mapped as part of China. Or is that debate over?). Not that this lessens the need to end the conflict in any way. But regardless of the outcome, I feel as if the international community has a debt to pay in helping to rebuild the country (I’m just not sure if this includes helping them blow it up through intervention first).

    2) The crisis in Syria is a battle for norms and influence in the same way that the Cold War was. (Once again, simplified ad infinitum but you’ll forgive me for only having James Bond movies to go off as I wasn’t alive). Western norms of human rights and responsibility to protect (as Sarah said) versus Chinese and Russian commitment to non-intervention. It’s like a cold/proxy war with Russia supplying mass amounts of armaments to Syrian forces (and recently they have also been criticized for defending Syrian assets directly with their own troops) while the CIA is trickling arms to the rebels. Afghanistan or Vietnam anyone? While Russia denies its involvement in the conflict, they recently sent 200 tanks to Syria (which apparently had been repairing them, so it wasn’t supplying arms at all!) along with pretty much the rest of the massive Syrian arsenal (Kenner, 2012). On the flipside, the New York Times recently published a story on how the CIA were backing rebels by getting arms to them (however in nowhere near the same capacity as the USSR, sorry I mean Russia (Schmitt, 2012). It seems hypocritical of Shabaan to say that they have a commitment to Kofi Annan’s plan where article 1 is to cease arms trading when they are being backed so heavily by Russia (to the point of having chemical weapons). I guess Annan’s requests don’t apply to those who have the monopoly on the use of force. On a side note, when Shabaan was asked by the reporter where these guns were coming from, she said she did not know- this interview was taken a day before the NY times piece.

    So, with those two external influences (albeit detrimental), possible ways forward are difficult to fathom. I think that regardless of the outcome, the West needs to help reconstruct the country.

    On the 22nd a Turkish plane was shot down as it flew (debatably) within Syrian airspace (Friedman, 2012). From this it seems likely that a NATO led intervention will not occur, especially considering the US’s current weakened stance and that it might inevitably lead to a faceoff between Putin and Obama. And maybe that’s a good thing, the West seems committed to stopping crimes and violations of human rights through guns, which as Shabaan points out, is probably something that should change. But in the meantime I think the international community does have a responsibility to protect these people, I just wish I knew how.

    Aidan

    Oh, and if on the even less than Syria-conflict-will-be-resolved-quickly chance someone wants to read the articles I was referring to—
    Friedman, U. (2012, June 22). How Would NATO respond to Syria shooting down a Turkish plane? Retrieved from Foreign Policy: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/06/22/how_would_nato_respond_to_syria_shooting_down_a_turkish_plane
    Kenner, D. (2012, June 21). What Russia Gave Syria. Retrieved from Foreign Policy: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/06/21/what_russia_gave_syria
    Schmitt. (2012, June 21). C.I.A Said to Aid in Steering Arms to Syrian Opposition. Retrieved from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/21/world/middleeast/cia-said-to-aid-in-steering-arms-to-syrian-rebels.html?pagewanted=all

  2. henning says:

    I also agree, the international community has a role to play in Syria, certainly in having set the scene for the conflict that is currently underway (colonial legacies and geopolitical power plays), and I would think also post-conflict when it comes to rebuilding the country. Individual member states of this community obviously also see a need to play a role in shaping the conflict, some inadvertently so. An increasing number of activists and army defectors have crossed border into Jordan and Lebanon, and my guess is these defectors may not want to sit idly as they watch the conflict further unfold. How will neighbouring countries handle this situation without being dragged into the conflict?

    Turkey is sheltering large numbers of refugees – good on them – but is also helping build and equip an armed opposition (again mainly defectors that crossed the border), as are Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the U.S., though the CIA “only” monitors Turkish arms shipments to the rebels to ensure they do not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda (Schmitt 2012 in NYT). Israel is asking Putin to up the pressure as they are worried about chemical and biological weapons falling into the wrong hands, e.g. Hizbollah. Considering Russia’s role in the current scenario Peres reportedly presented Putin with a proposal to put Syria under the control of the Arab League and the United Nations for two years, until democratic elections could be held there (Lis 2012).

    Turkey raised their concerns at the NATO level after the first jet was shot down, suggesting that the Syria conflict could potentially pose a threat to regional security (I wonder whether the shot-down jet was Syria’s answer to Turkey’s controversial support for the armed opposition). An article in today’s Herald says the downing of a 2nd Turkish plane (which was searching for the jet downed earlier) could be a turning point that could drag the West into a conflict that is spiralling out of control, though alongside NATO also many Arab countries have a stake there – there’s no consensus yet on armed intervention, but a Charter VII intervention has already been suggested and to me that sounds as though some elements in Turkey and some Arab countries wouldn’t completely discount the possibility for military intervention.

    Both political leaders and analysts suggest that an armed intervention is unlikely, as neither UNSC nor AL would at this stage support/authorise it. Moreover, most UN member states are yet to digest the Libya experience (not to mention Syria’s superior capabilities), and it seems unlikely that the U.S. or others have the spare change for yet another protracted conflict – consider that apparently there are already about 100 ‘rebel formations’ (Schmitt 2012); who should intervening troops deal with – both during and after armed conflict?

    It sounds as though international actors are better at escalating rather than de-escalating the conflict. I could imagine some Western and Arab countries will continue propping up rebel groups, hoping that the regime will be removed from within, but they thus run risk of further entrenching a conflict that is likely to continue long after any potential regime change, not to mention many more loose guns and disaffected armed groups in the region.

    It doesn’t help that there’s little sympathy remaining for Assad in neighbouring countries as regional actors should probably play a bigger role in mediating the conflict. Russia’s role in the current crisis might also be crucial – if Russia has such good relations with Syria, maybe current efforts should focus more on bringing Russia ‘on side’ in the conflict. Even within Russia there’s increasing criticism of the government’s continued support for Assad. Lukyanov, editor of ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ suggests that by its actions Russia puts itself in opposition to the entire Arab world (Guttmann 2012), not to mention the wider international community.

    All this seems to be dragging on while civilian casualties increase. Something needs to happen to address the humanitarian crisis, and it shouldn’t just be international actors initiating it – I’m sure the civilian population and those armed groups with families in the conflict-affected areas are painfully aware of urgent action needed to deal with the crisis. Instead of (just) providing guns to Assad opponents, international actors could work all sides of the conflict to try and mediate at least some compromises on the way to a peaceful solution, such as establishing Zones of Peace – free of guns and armed conflict – in conflict-affected areas. That would require all parties to the conflict to agree on the establishment of such zones. It’s worked elsewhere, so why shouldn’t it be possible in Syria – only one way to find out!

    Guttmann (2012) – http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/steve-gutterman-russia-caught-on-the-wrong-side-of-history-in-unravelling-syrian-crisis-3149878.html

    Lis 2012 http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/putin-told-israel-he-is-not-obligated-to-syria-s-assad-senior-officials-say-1.443894

    NZ Herald (2012) – http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10815543

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