So let me start this article with a clear disclaimer: This is not a particularly moral response and yes if I was in office I would perhaps not follow this advice exactly, but what I want to propose, I believe, is something which has been poorly covered in the various debates over how to respond to Syria.
Syria currently for all parties concerned (except Al Qaida), is a lose lose situation.
For Iran, Russia and Hezbollah even if they succeed in propping up Assad the price will be (and arguably already is) a widespread stain on their name for fighting in a war that is clearly sectarian and thus serves to emphasise that Iran and Hezbollah are not simply Muslims but they are Shia Muslims. That lesson will not be forgotten lightly.
For Russia, the Syrian conflict merely provides a further reason for Jihadists to refocus their efforts into Russia’s long running war against Islamic movements in Chechnya, where the previous wars that cost 1,000’s of lives as well as international humiliation for Russia’s then leaders in their handling of the conflicts.
The outcomes for the West and its allies though are not much brighter.
Even if we assume a “best case scenario”, namely that the FSA under General Idris actually recaptures Syria and is able to prevent the more radical Islamic factions from taking control, the west still loses.
Why do we still lose?
At the end of this fight the West will still lose because for some Syrians we will be damned for failing to intervene like we did in Libya and for others, we will be damned for being perceived as wanting to see the war continue. This theory assumes the belief (that perhaps in a historical context is not entirely unfounded) that there is a western conspiracy to weaken both sides in the conflict, with the aim of installing its own puppet regime (see Iran v. Iraq war in the 80’s).
But the main reason why we will lose is because on our watch the international community were unable and unwilling to prevent the collapse of a secular, fairly stable state which had ameliorated many of the inter-faith tensions (which have so brutally resurfaced) and which has now scarred millions of innocent civilians, armed 10’s of 1,000’s of young men (and women) and provided a battleground to recruit and train fighters for global jihadist activities.
So what can we / should we do? Bomb key targets? Negotiate the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons? Do nothing?….
Or how about this:
As I see it, the most interesting area of the conflict has been the way the conflict unfolded in the North of Syria and in particular the North East. Here the Kurdish majority refused to join the fighting on either side, thus the regime removed its fighters from these positions in order to put them to better use elsewhere. As this power vacuum was created the Kurds that remained began to arm and organise themselves and have recently been under attack by radical jihadists groups who are afraid of this tolerant, non-expansionary segment of Syrian society.
So my suggestion, if the west feels it must act, is to sit with Turkey and Iraq and say the following:
“We can secure your borders from the overspill of refugees and fighters from inside Syria and we can do it without Western troops on the ground and without your troops having to be involved.”
Clearly when offered such a proposition neither side would refuse, but how to achieve this result of seemingly intervening without intervening…..
By providing unfettered and grossly expanded humanitarian and non-lethal military supplies to flow into north east Syria (I would like lethal small arms too but we’ll leave that aside for now), the west can legitimately claim that it is not trying to influence the outcome of the war and also help to save lives and undermine the effectiveness of radical Islamic groups in the Syria.
The Kurdish fighters are almost uniquely tolerant of many I suppose “western values”, with the mix of men and women units, where women even command large squadrons of men being at least one strong aspect of equality. They also have no declared (or proven) expansionary aims (their focus is survival) and their geographic location means that if they were able to create a stable environment, then they could control the access of the Syrian conflict to the borders of Iraq and Turkey. This area could also then provide an oasis of calm for internally displaced Syrians to retreat to from the fighting as well as offering an example that the future of Syria does not need to be Assad or a fundamentalist Islamic state.
What a buffer zone inside Syria also does more crassly though is to contain the fighting from overspill. To the South Lebanon is so embedded already in the conflict that the situation cannot be contained without a major future UN intervention force and Israel requires no international assistance to maintain its borders as secure (even Assad wasn’t stupid enough to attack them after Israel bombed the arms convoys into Lebanon).
That leaves Jordan, who have not only the nearly unconditional support of the GCC, but also the US to call on, if it were required, as well as a relatively competent army to police the border.
Thus in answer to the conundrum of “How to intervene without intervening”, my solution would be to back the Kurdish movement in the North of Syria with as many humanitarian supplies (and military if necessary) to create a buffer zone and contain the Syrian conflict. By doing this the West can ameliorate some of the suffering of the Syrian people but also prevent the fallout of this deeply destructive civil war from further destabilising the wider Middle East.
Just a thought.