Wednesday, 28 August 2013

In Syria, the right thing to do may be the wrong thing to do

The real test for our political leaders pondering Syria, and one which the evidence of their public utterance would suggest that they're failing, is to separate the principled moral case for punishing the Assad regime from a pragmatic analysis of what the proposed bombing campaign will actually do.

The first is easy, which is why it is so appealing to practitioners of the politics of emotion. Hit the bad guys who did the bad thing. Chemical weapons are barbarous and their use is contrary to international law. The Ghouta massacre was a monstrosity and deserves to be punished. By resorting to such means the Syrian rulers have put themselves beyond the pale of the world community: politics is a cynical game, and international politics most cynical of all, but it's hard to see Assad and his lovely wife ever being welcomed to cosy summits with other leaders. The new Cameron doctrine of "not standing idly by" is certainly in play.

I'm incidentally unconvinced by assertions that the Syrian power structure is not ultimately responsible for the chemical attack, or that there's insufficient evidence that they are behind it. There's ample evidence. They alone had the motive and the opportunity. As to why they would have done something so seemingly irrational as to have perpetrated a chemical massacre under the noses of UN weapons inspectors, and in defiance of Obama's well-publicised red lines, especially at a time when according to the consensus of news reports they are making major gains against rebel forces, there are a number of possible explanations. It may have been a rogue commander (this would be the natural explanation for an intercepted phone call from a senior Defence Ministry official demanding to know what had happened). It may have been Bashar Assad's hothead younger brother Maher, out for revenge after a failed assassination attempt on the president.

Or it may have been more calculated. Der Spiegel, quoting a defecting Syrian general, reports that recent rebel inroads into the Alawite heartland of Latakia have drained irregular forces from Damascus, where they had been supporting the depleted national army. According to the defector, the regime solved two problems with the gas attack, "holding the thinned out front around Damascus and strengthening the morale of the fanatics in their ranks." Lack of response to earlier small-scale gas incidents (the responsibility for which remains controversial) and Obama's evident desire not to get ensnared in another drawn-out conflict, may have led the Syrian leadership to underestimate the international reaction.

We don't really know. But any of these theories makes more sense than the suggestion that rebel forces killed hundreds of their own fighters, along with many women and children, just to attract international sympathy. Doubts about regime responsibility are so far-fetched that they make opponents of military intervention look ridiculous. Leave them to the likes of Galloway.

But even to ask "is Assad guilty?" or "how should he be punished?" is to seek to answer the wrong question.  For many opponents of Western intervention, our leaders must have a dark hidden motivation, whether it's to increase American power or just to test some shiny new weapons in the field.  Or they're merely indulging their narcissistic desire to play a leading role in events.  On the contrary, I think the problem is that our leaders aren't cynical enough.  They're motivated by the desire to do "the right thing"; and while the proposed action is morally justified it's strategically highly dangerous.

The intention seems to be "surgical" strikes, serious enough to serve as an effective deterrent, not devastating enough to hand Syria to Al Qaeda and its affiliates. How can such an outcome be guaranteed? It can't be. Too much depends on subtle balances of which even the best intelligence can't be fully aware. The planned missile strikes will certainly tilt the military balance away from Assad and, therefore, towards the rebels (both the "good" rebels, who want a constitutional democracy, and the currently much stronger Saudi-backed jihadists). But that won't necessarily hasten the end of the war. It may prolong it further.

While it's impossible to be sure what's really going on (I certainly don't know), if the balance of recent reports is anywhere near accurate the civil war has been heading towards a de facto partition of the country, with the regime solid in some areas and the rebels in effective control of other - and with Assad strengthening and extending his control over key strategic areas while being impotent to take back the whole country. It is possible to see a settlement emerging based on these facts on the ground. If so - and it would depend on a perhaps implausible realism on both sides - then striking at Assad's military infrastructure may wreck the best hope for short-term peace. It would strengthen both the morale and the capability of the rebels vis-a-vis Assad, but still leave the regime with enough fighting strength to dig in. The result could be the intensification of the fighting and yet more destruction of life and property.

This isn't inevitable. If reports of Assad's military recovery have been overdone (and they may well have been - there have been recent, underreported rebel gains) it's just possible that targeted airstrikes will tip the balance decisively in the rebels' favour, dooming the regime. But it's a huge gamble to take. The balance of probability at the moment must be that Western intervention will make the situation worse.

But perhaps it matters little either way. It is already too late to save Syria. The Assad regime was always brutal and undemocratic, yet the country over which it presided was a precious thing, a place where Sunni and Shia, Muslim and Christian, secular and religious lived side-by-side in greater harmony than anywhere else in the middle east. That has been utterly destroyed, along with Syria's infrastructure and economy. Returning the country to anything like normality will be the work of decades, and even then its tolerant, mixed society is almost certainly gone forever. Neither the improbable restoration to supreme power of a morally bankrupt and illegitimate regime, nor the more likely triumph of Saudi-backed extremists, nor even an Iraqi-style attempt at democracy can alter that. Of all the tragedies that have followed the misnamed and misguided "Arab Spring", that of Syria is perhaps the worst. Even the outrageous deployment of chemical weapons is of small account set against the wider context of a wrecked nation.