Tag Archives: Syria

Morality and Practicality: America’s Syrian Intervention

What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.




[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s President Obama makes his case to the American Congress about intervention in Syria, his administration must confront contingencies and plan for unforeseeable challenges. Yet the most pressing question is not what might happen if something goes wrong. Quite the opposite. What if Obama’s plan — to punish Bashar al-Assad for his criminal use of chemical weapons by destroying his capability to employ them again — is too much of a success? The answer hinges on what Washington considers a victory.

On 3 September US Secretary of State muddied the waters of intervention, sending what TIME magazine called “mixed messages” against a congressional prohibition on the use of American soldiers in Syria: the feared “boots on the ground” option. In front of Congress, Kerry testified that “in the event Syria imploded, for instance, or in the event there was a threat of a chemical weapons cache falling into the hands of al-Nusra or someone else and it was clearly in the interest of our allies and all of us, the British, the French and others, to prevent those weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of the worst elements, I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to a president of the United States to secure our country.”

There is a real chance that airstrikes, if targeted effectively, could help topple Assad’s government, at the very least providing a much needed morale boost and significant breathing room for the mixed rebel front. Such inputs, when factored into the complexities of war in Syria, may lead to unforeseeable and magnified results. In such an environment of uncertainty, a clear definition of American objectives is needed. Yet such a framework has not been debated adequately.

What does the White House count as a “success” in its proposed intervention plan? Knocking out Assad’s future capability to employ his heinous arsenal, a strategic military objective? Or punishing the Syrian regime, a moral goal? Although subtle, the difference between these two outcomes is important, and has been confused in both Congress and the broader discussion. One can be achieved without extensive military involvement, the other cannot. If the answer lies in a murky middle ground — as it seems to be for now — the implications could be deep.

Discussion of a moral imperative to intervene in response to Assad’s most recent chemical war crime — since when has the killing 100,000 citizens, over two years, not been a war crime? — is dangerous because of this ambiguity. When morality becomes intermingled with strategy the result is a tendency towards escalation, as recent American history in Iraq has shown. And when the phrases “humanitarian intervention” and “protecting American interests” are used in the same breath, there is little doubt that such a co-mingling of objectives has arisen.

Limits become fuzzy when generals and politicians are fueled by lofty and noble principles. What is in the national interest, and what is in the human interest, drift closer together until two become one. True humanists must demand full intervention, the destruction of Assad’s military capability so that he will release his murderous grasp on power: No man who willingly kills 100,000 of his citizens has a right to rule. If humanity is national policy, as Washington’s rhetoric implies, where does the national interest end?

It is in this unsuspectingly ambiguous environment that Kerry’s statements become incredibly pertinent. If the United States goes through with its plans for intervention, it will be faced with the tough task of placing limits on its action. The hybrid policy of morality and military practicality handicaps this process, and could lead to an overstepping of acceptable boundaries. A few more tomahawk missiles in key sites could mean the difference between Assad’s survival or his end. If the latter becomes reality, the feared Syrian power vacuum becomes reality as well and with it serious questions of who controls the regime’s remaining military technologies. If such a possibility comes to pass, Kerry’s intimations may become all too concrete, as the spiral of American “national interest” unwinds.

Before Obama, his cabinet, and the American Congress make any decision regarding intervention in Syria, they must confront their own definitions of success. They need to grapple with their motivations for involvement, and their ultimate objectives. For if they continue to confuse morality with strategy, and work in the middle, the results could be just as Kerry described.


Photo Credit: stephen_medlock

Bombing Syria Would Violate the UK Government’s Criteria for Legality

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. 




[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he UK government today published its position on the legality of a UK military intervention in Syria, including three requirements under which a “humanitarian intervention” would be legal without UN authorisation, which it claims are “clearly” met. However, any objective observer must conclude that even these loose criteria are absolutely not met in this case, and thus any bombing of Syria would, according to the UK government’s own arguments, be manifestly illegal.

I shall now consider each of these criteria in turn.

(i) there is convincing evidence, generally accepted by the international community as a whole, of extreme humanitarian distress on a large scale, requiring immediate and urgent relief;

The government claims that this condition is “clearly” met, as “the Syrian regime has been killing its people for two years, with reported deaths now over 100,000 and refugees at nearly 2 million”, and has now engaged in “large-scale use of chemical weapons”. This rhetoric clearly flags the bias of the author(s). A civil war in which each side is “killing its people”, i.e. other Syrians, is attributed solely to one side, the regime, as are, implicitly, the total number of casualties and refugees so far – although these figures include victims of all sides, including the rebels. For example, the tens of thousands of Kurds who have fled into northern Iraq in the past weeks, escaping from jihadist violence.

The paper, meanwhile, accepts as fact that the Syrian regime is behind the recent use of chemical weapons, although this is yet to be established and the rebels, too, have previously been implicated in chemical weapons use. Western states, of course, have quite a reputation for lying and manipulating information about WMD (Iraq) and atrocities (Kosovo), and so we would be wise to maintain a healthy skepticism towards any such claims, particularly when the accusing states show no desire for, and even hostility towards, UN investigation.

Most importantly, although there is general acceptance by the international community of humanitarian problems in Syria, there is widespread disagreement as to who is responsible for these problems, and what relief would be appropriate. Some states hold the rebels rather than the regime more responsible for the situation, while others see it as a civil war with blame on both sides. And only a handful of states support the idea of bombing Syria. So even in the highly loose manner in which the government frames this first criteria, it cannot seriously be considered met.

(ii) it must be objectively clear that there is no practicable alternative to the use of force if lives are to be saved;

There are very clear alternatives to bombing to improving the situation in Syria, a fact which is “objectively clear” to the majority of the world, and the majority of the British public.

Most obviously, the West could try to de-escalate rather than escalate the Syrian conflict, by promoting negotiations and compromise between the different factions, rather than directly and indirectly supporting the rebels and maintaining their hopes of full intervention on their side. So far, negotiations have not taken place because of the one-sided insistence that Assad must go, followed by difficulties forming a negotiating team on the rebel side. Assad’s regime may be a reprehensible dictatorship but it clearly has popular support of some, particularly Alawites and Christians who fear the Sunni majority. The civil war has evident sectarian elements to it, and the rebels, too, have been accused of war crimes. The situation on the rebel side, meanwhile, is highly chaotic, and there are major jihadist elements among them.

This is not a black and white situation, and even if the regime’s side is a darker shade of grey than the rebels, the course of action that is most likely to save lives is, undoubtedly, to try to de-escalate the conflict and promote negotiations between the warring sides. Given that the majority of the world holds the above opinion, this second criteria has clearly not been met.

(iii) the proposed use of force must be necessary and proportionate to the aim of relief of humanitarian need and must be strictly limited in time and scope to this aim (i.e. the minimum necessary to achieve that end and for no other purpose).

This very criteria presupposes that bombing can achieve an aim of reducing the loss of lives and preventing chemical weapons usage, whereas many in Britain and globally would argue that such bombing would most likely only escalate the fighting and the civilian suffering – as it did in, for example, Kosovo. It is, therefore, very contestable and debatable. In the light of NATO’s misuse of the “limited” and “proportionate” UN authorisation for action in Libya, meanwhile, it is hard to see how anyone could take such assurances from Western governments serious again.

The government presents three very loose criteria by which the bombing of Syria would be considered legal, but even these criteria cannot be considered met by any objective observer. As the partisan rhetoric of the UK government’s paper highlights, this amounts to a very weak attempt, made more with crude propaganda than any serious legal argument, to justify its highly unpopular and contested proposal to bomb Syria.


Photo Credit: Madhu babu pandi

The Syrian Conflict: Time to Start Thinking Outside the Box

As the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.




[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n end to the violence and conflict in Syria is not in sight, far from it. The UN estimates that around 100,000 have died in the conflict so far and the number is set to rise as both the Assad regime and the rebel movement refuse to end the bloodshed. Many suggestions have been put forward which aim to bring an end to what has been the bloodiest out of all the Arab Spring uprisings. Some believe that arming the rebels is the answer. The supporters of this claim are the UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the French President Francois Hollande and the USA. Russia, on the other hand, has put forward a diplomatic solution which aims to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict to the negotiating table. Britain, France and the USA favour a diplomatic solution as well, however they claim that Assad will never join the negotiations when he is winning on the ground, thus the need to arm the rebels to create a stale-mate.

However in this article I will argue that both of the above proposals are unlikely to reap any substantial results and therefore out of the box thinking is required.

An argument against arming the rebels

There seems to be a consensus among many, that if President Assad was removed from power, Syria would go back to normality and a start of a new and bright era could begin. However, such a view is obscured by a shallow thinking: Assad is bad, rebels are good. Over the last few months, such a view has suffered a great dent, due to the grotesque and vile actions by some of the rebels- atrocities against the Syrian minorities, such as Christians, inhumane treatment of enemy soldiers, harsh treatment of civilians in rebel held areas, among other despicable incidents. Some argue that these actions are only committed by an extremist minority who do not represent a more liberal faction fighting Assad.

Such a claim in itself provides two reasons for why arming the rebels would not work. Firstly the claim correctly points out the fact that the rebel movement is deeply fractured. There is a civil war, in the civil war. There have been many reports of rebel groups fighting each other and murdering fellow generals. Secondly, this leads to the natural conclusion that if Assad were to fall right now, the conflict in Syria would not end. It would simply shift from rebels fighting Assad and fighting each other, to rebels fighting each other to a greater extent. If weapons were provided to the opposition, these would eventually be used to kill fellow opposition groups, thus leading to more bloodshed. Even if the Arab Spring in Syria began with Syrians wanting more democracy and freedom, right now the conflict has become a sectarian and religious war, between Shias, Sunnis and hardened Islamists. Iraq should be the perfect example of how getting rid of a dictator for its own sake does not lead to positive results. Despite over 10 years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still plagued by sectarian violence, almost on a daily basis. Syria is even more diverse than Iraq, therefore there is a grave possibility that the violence would be enhanced.

Further reason to doubt the appeal of arming the rebels are claims that the people living in rebel held areas are deeply dissatisfied with the opposition movement, mainly due to the implementation of strict Sharia laws, which the majority of Syrians are not in favour of. Furthermore, there is a strong possibility that, if these rebels were to win, they would initiate mass atrocities against Assad supporters as part of their revenge. This has happened in Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

Diplomacy as an end in itself is unlikely to work

Undoubtedly supporting Assad in this conflict would also be unthinkable, given the scale of destruction and deaths that have endured over his watch. For this reason some suggested that negotiations ought to take place where both sides agree to a ceasefire and a transitional government, eventually leading to proper democratic elections where the Syrian people will be able to decide how and who should govern the country. In principle this is a viable idea, certainly more so than the plan to arm the rebels. In practise, diplomacy is unlikely to work, since the rebels and their Western backers have set a pre-condition that Assad should step down. Understandably Assad and his support will never agree to such a condition, firstly because he is winning on the ground, and secondly because the rebels and the West have no political legitimacy to ask him for such a move.  Only the Syrian people have the legitimacy to remove their current leader, yet, as well documented, many Syrians continue to support Assad. To have a legitimate transitional government and legitimate future elections, Assad has to be a part of them, to allow the people the chance to once and for all decide whether they want Assad in or out. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the opposition will agree to this move, therefore breaking down any prospective positive outcomes from negotiations

Partition Syria

Unless either the West or Russia decide to end the conflict with a comprehensive victory for their respective sides (a move which is unlikely to occur), the stalemate between Assad and the rebels looks to continue. There is a dangerous possibility that Syria may turn into a new Afghanistan and Iraq, with violence and bloodshed continuing for decades. To prevent such an outcome, Syria may have to be partitioned into some parts that will be governed by Assad, and other parts governed by certain factions of the opposition. For now, Assad will never agree to such a plan when he is winning on the ground, when Russia continues to show undisputed support and when the West is so indecisive. Even if Assad were to win the civil war (which is unlikely as it is hard to see the Western powers allowing this to happen), the extremist rebels would continue to cause a nuisance as they would continue to receive financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Partitioning Syria would look similar to the Russia and Chechnya situation, where technically Chechnya is part of Russia, but has a status of a republic and some limited independence, with their own leader.

Heavy negotiations would need to take place among the Syrian players to arrive at a common outcome and nobody is suggesting that this would be a simple procedure. However, as the conflict drags on, and as more people continue to suffer, it is time to start putting new ideas on the table, and partitioning Syria is certainly one of the suggestions that could work.


Photo Credit: World Shia Forum

#6 Brad Bosserman On The Crisis In Syria

In this episode of Debrief, James Sheehan is joined by Brad Bosserman, Director of the MENA Initiative at NDN in Washington, DC.


Syria Opposition Flag [dhr]

You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

James and Brad discuss the role that the US can play in rebuilding Syria along with the significance of chemical weapons and the influence of extremist organizations.


Brad is a Policy Analyst at NDN and the New Policy Institute where he serves as Director of the Middle East and North Africa Initiative. He has published reports on a wide range of national security and international relations topics at the Johns Hopkins University, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Roosevelt Institute, and the New Policy Institute. He contributed a chapter to the recently published book US Iranian Strategic Competition, and his analysis and commentary has appeared in The Hill, The Boston Globe, Salon, The Jerusalem Post, The Jerusalem Review of Near East Affairs, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. .

MENA Initiative and NDN

Follow James (@JSheehanDC) and Brad (@BradEEB)on twitter.


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Syria Is Not Iraq Revisited

Afghanistan (2001-ongoing) and Iraq (2003-2011) should remind us of the unpredictability of mission creep.


syria protest democracy 2011


With more than 60,000 estimated deaths, the issue of military intervention to stop the bloodshed in Syria is becoming more and more topical. Some days ago on the pages of The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, wrote a very thoughtful piece, Syria is Not Iraq, where he argued in favor of intervention.

Hamid is extremely critical of the way the United States is responding -or not responding- to the Syrian crisis:

In due time, the Obama administration’s inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war.

Hamid’s article raises two questions. First, is it fair to define the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria “one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades”? Second, is the 2003 war in Iraq the only precedent we should look at to find enduring lessons that could have influenced the current US policy in Syria?

With regard to the first question, the United States did make mistakes along the way. For example, I agree with Hamid that discarding the option of military intervention “in such a flagrant manner” could have been a mistake. In fact, publicly taking the military option off the table may have decreased the pressure the international community could exert on the Syrian regime to restrain its response to the uprising.

The United States could have also taken different decisions. It took US President Obama five months to state that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had lost legitimacy. It took Obama an additional month and a death toll of around 20,000 people to finally say that “for the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” That was a long wait, above all considering the level of violence reached in the Syrian conflict and the fact that in Libya the US president called on Colonel Qaddafi to leave after only two weeks and a much lower death toll.

Mistakes and questionable decisions notwithstanding, there is not sufficient evidence to support the statement that US policy has been one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. To make such a statement one should have the certainty that a military intervention would resolve the conflict once and for all. I simply do not think that at this time we have the luxury to believe that a foreign military intervention would inevitably bring back peace and stability in Syria. Reasons to be worried about the opposite outcome are indeed justified.

President Obama made such concerns public in a recent interview on The New Republic:

In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo? Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can.

Unfortunately, nobody is in the position to know exactly what would have happened had the United States intervened militarily in Syria. One can only speculate on it. However, I think Hamid’s criticism is not completely fair mostly because it does not consider past US experiences in the Middle East, other than Iraq in 2003, that may have influenced the Obama administration’s decision to take a prudent stance toward getting involved militarily in Syria.

Afghanistan (2001-ongoing) and Iraq (2003-2011) should remind us of the unpredictability of mission creep. Two military operations that started with a relatively narrow objective then progressively turned into prolonged and costly nation-building efforts whose outcomes one can arguably define as successes.

Hamid would probably rebut that 2011 Libya was a clear example of the Obama administration’s ability to avoid mission creep and the risk of getting bogged down into yet another nation-building effort in the Middle East. Today, however, Libya is a state with a very weak central government. Several armed militia are effectively in power in some areas of the country. Last September in the Libyan city of Benghazi Christopher Stevens was the first US ambassador to be killed after more than 30 years. Arms provided to the anti-Qaddafi opposition reportedly ended up in the hands of extremists. The same extremists that have crossed Libyan porous borders to export violence into neighboring countries such as Algeria and Mali.

What if, then, the United States intervened militarily in Syria and after the end of the military operations, following the script of the Libya intervention, did not take on the burden of nation-building? Who would be ready for a Libya-redux in Syria with similar levels of instability and lawlessness? What the potentially explosive implications for highly-sensitive countries such as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey? All that considered, I believe that a limited US military intervention in Syria with no significant follow-up would be not only unwise but also extremely dangerous.

Finally, the Syrian crisis has clearly taken the form of a civil war that primarily pits a Sunni majority against an Alawite minority, with other minor groups picking side or standing idle. Lebanon in the early 80s was a dramatic example for the United States of the perils of getting involved in civil wars fought mostly along sectarian lines. At that time, in fact, US troops and personnel became targets of terrorist attacks that resulted in more than 300 American casualties on Lebanese soil.

Therefore, the US lack of enthusiasm to intervene militarily in Syria may go well-beyond the unfortunate experience of Iraq to include hard lessons from Afghanistan, Libya and Lebanon.

Hamid argues that the Obama administration is making a huge mistake by not getting involved militarily in Syria. I personally hold some doubts that the current Syrian mess could be resolved by military means. Instead, more resources and more energies should be invested in finding a difficult, but not yet impossible, political solution to crisis.


Photo Credit: Syriana2011

Food & International Security: Wasted

Globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention. Despite this, both governments and the market have failed to address this crucial issue.




Water wars are set to become more widespread in years to come. This is especially relevant to the Middle East, because so many fresh water sources straddle international boundaries. Israel-Palestine negotiations often stumble over the issue of sharing water, and in the past both Jordan and Syria have identified threats to their water supply as a crucial factor in deciding whether they will go to war with Israel.

This situation is expected to worsen: the number of ‘water-scarce’ countries in the Middle East “grew steadily from three in 1955 to eight in 1990”. Now twelve of the world’s fifteen water-scarce countries are in the Middle East and North Africa.

Agriculture is the cause of “70% of all global freshwater withdrawn worldwide”, and this is set to rise, especially as meat consumption in Asia rises. The Middle East is no exception – agriculture is “the main cause of depleting water resources in the region”.

Much of this is in vain – estimates of global food waste have been as high as 30 or 50%. Stuart argues that if 25% of the world’s food is unnecessarily wasted (assuming that between a third and a half is wasted, but that it is not realistic to cut down on all of it), this represents a loss of “approximately 675 litres” of water, “easily enough for the household needs of 9 billion people using 200 litres a day”. The executive director of SIWI said that reducing food waste “is the smartest and most direct route to relieve pressure on water and land resources”. It is thus essential that the world addresses its food waste, if it wants to avoid water wars in the future.

Land is also a great source of conflict. Here too, reducing food waste would alleviate the pressure by liberating vast swathes of agricultural land for other uses. McKinsey Global Institute estimate that ““reducing food waste at the point of consumption in developed countries by 30 percent could save roughly 40 million hectares of cropland”. Their report examines resource productivity opportunities in energy, land, water, and materials that could address up to 30 percent of total 2030 demand” – reducing food waste is considered the third most important measure.

Food scarcity is also linked with conflict. It has been suggested that recent food price spikes played a role in triggering the Arab Spring. Actually, these food spikes were primarily driven by commodity speculation in futures markets rather than by supply-demand factors – similar in behaviour to inflated housing prices. However, in the long-term food prices have been driven up by food waste, which both creates an artificial scarcity by taking food off the market, and places strain on scarce resources which act as agricultural inputs, driving food prices up. In a world where 925 million people are undernourished, it is vital for both humanitarian reasons and security that food waste be addressed.

Finally, reducing food waste is vital to addressing climate change, itself a threat to international security, through its harmful effects of increased droughts, degradation of agricultural land and likelihood of environmental disasters. Stuart estimates that in the UK and US, assuming that consumers waste approximately 25% of their food, “10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions” comes from “producing, transporting, storing and preparing food that is never eaten”. Moreover, the FAO states that “considerably less energy and other inputs are required to conserve food than to produce an equal quantity of food”. For instance, “the total energy cost of good grain storage practice is about one percent of the energy cost of producing that grain”. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels has obvious significance for international security related to oil.

Reducing food waste is also generally economically desirable compared to productivity increases. For instance, in the UK it has been estimated that “increasing the proportion of a farmer’s crop that gets into the supermarket by just 5 per cent can increase the farmer’s profit margins by up to 60 per cent”.

Despite all this, globally there is a disproportionate lack of post-harvest food loss related scientific literature, practical research, development projects, funding for agricultural research and extension programs and public attention.

Both governments and the market have failed to address this issue. Governments have focussed development programmes excessively on productivity increases. The market’s uneven development creates inadequate investment in post-harvest infrastructure in developing countries, and the power of retailers within developed country supply chains enables them to profit from pushing food waste onto suppliers and consumers.

Iran has been the first to address food waste as a geopolitical issue. We must all wake up to the geopolitical significance of food waste: our future security depends on it.


Photo credit: Bobolink

The Algerian Hostage Dead: NATO Is Responsible

While the West may be reluctant to put more boots on the ground due to the growing frustration from the general public, we are likely to see more military interventions this decade.


mali france


What do Libya, Mali and Algeria have in common? The three nations have played a pivotal role in the political domino effect culminating over the last week. At least 48 hostages are now thought to have died in a four-day siege at an Algerian gas plant. In response to the Algerian hostage situation Mr Cameron said his government will continue to focus on fighting terrorism: “There is no justification for taking innocent life in this way”.

These are typical words attributed to a politician speaking in the generic foreign policy language. However David Cameron has failed to mention that NATO also played its part in the Algerian hostage crisis. Algerian crisis is a direct consequence of the current Mali conflict and the Mali conflict is the direct result of the Libyan conflict in 2011 as those who supported Gaddafi were thrown out from the country for being black and had nowhere else to go except to join the Mali terrorist groups.

And since it was Cameron and his “peace-seeking” NATO states who encouraged the violence in Libya and helped to carry out a regime change operation, it seems NATO are at least partially responsible for the Algerian hostage crisis. Politics works in funny ways.

Let us examine each claim individually starting with Libya.

The mission to oust Gaddafi and kick start a new dawn for Libya has been claimed by the West to be a success. Yet an uncomfortable truth rarely mentioned in the Western media remains- hundreds of African migrant workers in Libya accused of being mercenaries for Col Muammar Gaddafi were imprisoned and tortured by fighters allied to the new interim authorities.

Indeed it is heavily documented how the victorious rebels were hunting after African mercenaries and the latter had no choice but to escape from the destruction-stricken country. These mercenaries found a new home- Mali. Additionally there are irrefutable claims that homes have been looted, and women and girls beaten and raped. Perhaps removing Gaddafi was a success for the Western nations, but the country is currently in turmoil and is still mostly run by heavily armed mercenaries.

It is clear that the West had a lot of interest in removing Gaddafi. While the UN gave the authorisation to protect the Libyan civilians, this objective turned into a regime change operation. It is not surprising that Russia and China continue to veto any resolutions in regards to Syria as they understand that another aim to protect the Syrian civilians would simply mean regime change in Syria.

We can only speculate what interests the West has in the region. A number of theories have been put forward: oil, a step towards eventually attacking Iran, protecting Israel, all of the above. While impossible to know the truth, it is clear that the West has a grand strategy for the Middle East and Africa.

And so we arrive at the second stage of the domino effect. The current conflict in Mali seems in many ways to mirror the conflict that took place in Libya. Rebels are trying to take over the country and overthrow the government. There is however one difference. The current Mali government is a friend of France whilst Gaddafi refused to get on his knees for the Western powers.

A popular argument used by the politicians is the claim that Libya was a dictatorship while Mali is a democracy and therefore the West has a responsibility to protect Mali from radical extremists. However if this claim was true then the West would have already intervened in Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. However these authoritarian states have good relations with the West and are therefore safe from NATO interventions.

Indeed those who claim that the Mali government are not executing their own civilians like Gaddafi did may be shocked to find that there are growing reports by Amnesty International of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in Mali, as troops battle Islamist militants in the West African country.

Residents of Mopti, in the centre of the country, told the Observer of arrests, interrogations and the torture of innocents by the Malian army. Amnesty International says that it has documented evidence of abuse by the Malian army, including extrajudicial killings. It says that in September, a group of 16 Muslim preachers composed of Malian and Mauritanian nationals were arrested then executed by the Malian military in Diabaly. It seems like the French government is trying to protect those that are carrying out human rights abuses.

Undoubtedly the rebels are not saints either. Nevertheless there has to be some consistency from the West. Claiming to be against Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein as they killed own citizens, while at the same time supporting the regimes in Mali, Bahrain and Jordan, who also treat their citizens with cruelty is simply hypocritical.

Of course this is not the first time a Western power has supported brutality. It is also imperative to mention the case of Syria here. Mr Hollande has claimed that the reason why his country is supporting the Mali government against the rebels is because the rebels are Islamic extremists whilst the rebels in Syria are secular.

Mr Hollande’s remarks are are simply wrong as it is well known that a large section of the Syrian rebels are also radical Islamists. The radical rebels who have connections to Al Qaeda seem to be having more influence on the Syrian population than the Free Syrian Army who claim to be secular.

And so thanks to the continuous hypocritical interventions by the Western nations we have arrived at a situation where a BP gas site has been assaulted by terrorists. Whilst undoubtedly investigations will be carried out, it seems more than likely that the terrorists who have carried out the hostage mission are in some way linked to the rebels in Mali.

It is well known that in life, a particular action always leads to a particular consequence. This is called the butterfly effect. International politics is not immune from this phenomenon, as something that began as a mission by the West to oust Gaddafi in 2011 has ended with Western citizens being taken hostage in Algeria. I say “ended” yet it is probable that this is just the beginning of more violence and conflict which will spread to other parts of Africa.

This is rather useful for the NATO states as America and other Western nations have been itching to find an excuse to send more military to the continent now that the Middle East has been “conquered” and squeezed completely dry. And while the resource-plenty and flourishing Africa will now be the new victim of Western interventions, our media and politicians will continue to tell us that our governments are fighting to make the world a safer place by annihilating the terrorists – the same terrorists that arise through Western interventions in the first place.

Just yesterday David Cameron has announced that the war on terrorists will go on for decades and NATO interventions will switch from Afghanistan to North Africa.

Interventions are a destructive cycle. The West intervenes in other regions as a police state under a pretext of supporting democracy, but end up opening a can of worms. Extremism spreads to nearby regions and the locals are angered by the continuous meddling of the West in their affairs and therefore join the terrorist groups which encourages the West to intervene more.

It becomes a permanent circle, or better known as a perpetual war. Alternative solutions to intervention do exist. Empowering regional bodies and governments through international development programs, foreign aid and cooperation are viable alternatives to militarism. While the West may be reluctant to put more boots on the ground due to the growing frustration from the general public, we are likely to see more military interventions this decade. Due to the development of unmanned drones and other rocket-type weaponry, NATO is likely to continue to intrude in the Middle East and Africa. It seems the West never learns.


Photo credit: US Army Africa

The Consequences of Non-intervention?

The civil war in Syria has gone on for almost two years now. Western states have not intervened directly and the deployment of US American, Dutch and German Patriot rockets is not a preparation to do so. While Turkey and some Arab states have supported the rebel forces with weapons and equipment none of them has gone all in, while Iran has given large scale aid to forces loyal to the Syrian regime. The war has become prolonged, cruel and bloody.

An effect of this drawn out conflict has been the radicalization of the opposition forces which goes hand in hand with an increasing polarization along ethnic lines. The protest in Syria – as in other countries of the Middle East – started with demands for democracy and freedom but was brutally suppressed by the Syrian government. The militarization of the Syrian opposition can be seen as a reaction to a crackdown by a regime that has never had an interest in accommodating their demands. The radicalization equally is a result of the fact that the conflict has been burning for so long.

Long internal wars have the tendency to become prolonged and fester on for years if one side is unable to win the momentum, cleavages become more and more pronounced and community relations entirely determined by violence. Globalization provides the necessary resources to continue such a conflict.

The conflict in Syria is a new theatre for jihadists who want to acquire experiences at the front-lines. At the same time the Western inaction will feed into the narrative that the West stands idly by when Muslims are killed. If the war in Bosnia and its call to arms for a generation of Jihadists can tell us anything than it is that the Western inaction will have consequences in the future.

The thought to ponder about: could all of this been prevented if the West had reacted differently? A no-fly zone would have prevented the deployment of Syrian air force and would have given the Syrian rebels a better chance of opposing the Syrian regime. However, a lot of intellectual effort was spent arguing why such an intervention would be a dangerous adventure. All of those arguments are well reasoned and thought through. Where the debate falls short, however, is when it comes the consequences of non-intervention.

So after almost two years of war and about 60,000 casualties: would an early intervention have been the better choice?


Photo credit: FreedomHouse2

Revolution Is A Messy Business

So 2012 is over and we are looking ahead to 2013. A lot has happened during the last year as the Middle East plodded on through the late stages of the Arab Spring. Now there is talk of an Arab Fall (or an Islamist Spring) due to the rise of Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates as well as Salafists in Egypt, Tunisia, etc..

Among many there was a vague expectation of a liberal democratic turn in the Middle East when the first regimes fell. However – especially in Egypt – the Muslim Brotherhood was simply the most organized organization with the most clout. It was obvious that it would gain a strong role in post-Mubarak Egypt.

A swift and easy transformation was equally unlikely. The Arab Spring in its historical dimension can be compared to the end of the evil empire; the Soviet Union and its satellites. Gregory Gause, III makes a good point when he says that after the fall of Communism, Eastern Europeans had no other ideological paradigm than capitalist democracy to turn to. This is very different to the Arab Spring.

In the Middle East Islam is an alternative program, and the result is the aforementioned rise of Islamists. However, recent events in some Eastern European states might suggest a surprising resurgence of nationalism. Furthermore, the conflicts in the Balkans and in Moldova reveal that the fall of the Iron Curtain did not go over as easily and without violence as suggested by Gause. Hence, if we poke around a little it becomes clear that historic shifts often work out similarly.

We need to keep in mind when dealing with such shifts that the results will be diverse and depend a lot on the circumstances in the respective countries. Revolutions are often connected to violence, and continued conflict after the old regime has been removed is a by-product. We know from empirical studies that transformative regimes are more prone to internal conflict. This is obvious for Syria and Libya, but keep an eye on Egypt as the country faces huge obstacles in the immediate future and holds a lot of potential for conflict that might escape the recent events of street violence. What will happen when politics in Egypt become unhinged?

This does not mean that the Arab Spring will be in vain. Simply that transformative periods are almost never short-lived and countries face numerous possible outcomes.


Photo credit: Denis Bocquet

The Perils of International Recognition

The road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.


united nations geneva building


The past two weeks have seen two significant developments in terms internationally recognized national legitimacy in the Middle East. On November 29, the United Nations General Assembly approved Palestine’s upgrade to non-member observer-state status, and on December 12, the United States and a number of other countries recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. After 65 years of statelessness, the Palestinian people have inched closer than ever before to a juridical homeland, and after two years of increasingly brutal civil war, the international community has acknowledged that Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite regime no longer holds a mandate representative of the Syrian populace. In the West Bank and in northern Syria, however, things continue much as they have, despite what Barack Obama and Ban Ki Moon might say.

The past two weeks have also seen increased belligerence (political or otherwise) by the entrenched regimes that those actions were directed against; Israel and Syria’s Assad-controlled military. Israel’s parliament responded to Palestine’s nascent statehood by approving 2,000 new Israeli settlements in the A-1 zone of the West Bank, which not only drew the rancor of the international community, but also makes a contiguous Palestinian West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital, geographically unfeasible.  While the Israeli action seems a direct tit-for-tat (unilateral UN statehood-bid, unilateral annexation of previously untouchable territory) with significant political and diplomatic ramifications, any settlement construction would not begin for about two years, thus leaving the A-1 as a bargaining chip for the time being. The increased violence in Syria in the hours following the announcement of support by the US et al. for the SOC is a far direr situation. The Assad regime, perhaps sensing its back against a wall, reportedly began launching Scud missiles at rebel targets in the north of the country. And why shouldn’t they, given their most ardent supporter’s recent acknowledgement that there soon may be a Syria without Assad.

In addition to giving pause to rebel forces, should short-range ballistic missile use continue, Turkey, who also acknowledged the SOC as the legitimate representative body of the Syrian people and shares a long border with Syria, has also expressed their concern with regards to this development. NATO has responded in-kind, deploying 400 American troops and US-made Patriot missile batteries to southern Turkey.

Both of these developments came at something of an impasse. Mahmoud Abbas’ UN vote was a response to more than 20 years of failed peace talks with the Israelis, and a firm statement that the Palestinian cause no longer believed that the Israeli government, under Binyamin Netanyahu, was any longer pursuing a two-state solution in earnest. The US support of the SOC follows two years of escalating violence and civil war in Syria and only after it became apparent that Assad’s regime might not actually win. Protracted situations beg for drastic solutions, but in both of these instances, international recognition of ‘change’ may not simply be enough – correlated or no, Palestine’s observer status and the SOC’s recognition have only caused Israel and Assad to dig their heels in deeper.

What is clear is that international opinion does not factor much into the (perceived-to-be domestic) policy calculus of entrenched regimes, particularly in these circumstances. Assad did not respond to the SOC’s elevated status by buying an apartment in Paris, he increased his aggression. Netanyahu did not grudgingly acknowledge the “sovereignty” of the West Bank, he simply doubled down on his illegal settlement building and refocused his attention on Gaza and Cairo, where suddenly conversation seems a bit more productive.

Acknowledged, both of these situations are wildly disparate. A very hot civil war, versus a mostly cold secessionist conflict, call for different foreign policy prescriptions for every state or actor directly or peripherally involved. In both cases, international recognition may be a critical step on the path to juridical and empirical sovereignty. For the time being, however, the road to Palestinian independence and to a peaceful, Assad-free Syria seems to be significantly longer and bumpier still.


Photo Credit: lilivanili

Good Luck President Obama, You Need It!

Most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term?


President Obama looking serious


“The best is still to come” was the soundbite which has resonated from Obama’s victory speech last night. Time will tell if this is the case, but the facts are that the US public has overwhelmingly supported the status quo in this time of economic trouble. The President remains in office, the Democrats keep the Senate and the  Republicans keep the House of Representatives. In that respect nothing has changed. But with no future election to worry about, will Obama’s foreign policy change from the Bush spillover which dominated his first term?

In 2001 George W. Bush faced one of the most dramatic changes in international affairs since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Faced with two falling towers and thousands of dead Bush was faced by a US public desperate for answers, for justice and for vengeance. The result of this was the first term of the War on Terror, 2001 in Afghanistan, 2003 in Iraq. Wars that were supposed to be short interventions to create a change in the Middle East became festering pools of suffering for almost a decade. Tens of thousands died across the Middle East, and by his second term Bush was desperately trying to hold together a mission that was going from bad to worse.

Obama inherited that mission. Bush’s surge in Iraq had already stabilised the country ready for a withdrawal Obama only had to keep on target. However, the ongoing mission to attempt to stabilise the Middle East, destroy the leadership of Al-Qaeda and mend relations damaged by the 2003 invasion of Iraq remained the same.

What Obama faced in taking office was a battle between his lofty ideals and promises and reality. His compromise was pragmatic, driving towards aims slowly and cautiously and making no significant and unbalancing changes to the foreign affairs of the second term of Bush.

What did change was so gradual the world’s population at large barely noticed it. There was a shift from the Middle East to the Pacific with troop deployments in Australia and a new agreement with Japan over Guam and further military cooperation. Although this shift has been slowed by the Arab Spring and the continued fighting in Syria, it is symbolic enough to prompt China’s own challenges for the South and East China Sea. There were significant defense cuts which have placed an emphasis on less of everything, but a greater emphasis on technological and training superiority. Obama has orchestrated a gradual lean to a more impartial role in the Middle East than under Bush, one aided by his faux-pas with Nicholas Sarkozy and the intervention in Libya against a secular dictator on the side of Islamists as well as liberals. More generally there has been a shift away from democratic transition by pressure or force and towards a focus on stability. Transition is now pushed towards supporting stable governments and pushing them towards liberal reform. Again, the Arab Spring was an unexpected reversal of this trend. And, of course, Osama Bin laden is dead.

However, most of Obama’s policies are completely unchanged from those of his predecessor. The War on Terror continues, the drone program has expanded exponentially, relations with western Europe remain strong whilst those with Russia remain hostile. But what of the second term? What of 2012-2016?

Well the answer is: Probably much of the same, but don’t expect the US foreign policy world to look the same in 2016 to 2008. The track of Obama’s presidency has been a gently-gently turn from Bush’s policies to Obama’s, and the US should look very much like Obama’s legacy by the end of the next four years. A turn from the Middle East to East Asia, from military intervention to diplomatic and economic pressure, from antagonism of Muslim states to partnerships based on the national interest of influence.These policies have already proved fruitful and will continue to do so. Japanese support for military bases was prevented from collapse just long enough to actually step up cooperation important to limit China’s expanding Pacific potential. Sanctions in Iran have its economy on the verge of collapse and popular support of Ahmadinejad beginning to turn against him. The intervention in Libya and support for the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions has given Obama political capital there not seen for decades. Despite the Benghazi attacks popular support is actually for the US as militant groups were forced out of Eastern towns across the country by anti-extremist protesters.

That said, just like the Arab Spring revolutions, the 9/11 attacks and the fall of the Soviet Union, sudden and unexpected events can throw the best plans into disarray. How Obama deals with potentially disastrous events could change his foreign policy dramatically.

  • Afghanistan: Withdrawal in 2014, if too soon, could devastate the region and NATO’s influence.
  • Syria: The conflict must be restrained to the country to avoid regional collapse.
  • Iran: Although sanctions are working, should Iran turn to desperate measures or should Israel overplay its hand things could turn very dangerous.
  • Yemen: A potential second Afghanistan/Somalia. Though the risk is smaller should the state collapse, the threat of a new front could give extremists a valuable new refuge.
  • South/East China Seas: The competition between the South-Eastern/Eastern Asian powers over the seas is not a battle the US can involve itself in overtly or risk facing backlash. However it is one which needs to be carefully monitored and one where soft power could be at its most important.
  • West Africa: The continued rise of Bokko Haram, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM) and other extremist Islamist groups in this region could be a new front in the most need for intervention but with the least popular support for it. So far the US has only been able to give token support for these states, but as things go from bad to worse in Mali this cannot be expected to be the end of the conflicts.

Congratulations Barack Obama, but I don’t envy you in the four years to come. You will face a hostile House of Representatives and a demanding public. You will face the challenge of keeping North Africa on your side and yet still combat Islamic extremism, of limiting China without antagonising it, of realising your potential without ceasing to be pragmatic. Good luck President Obama, you need it.


Photo Credit: US Army

Cyberwarfare & Syria – Lessons from Dayr az-Zawr

Warfare may not require boots on the ground and jets in the sky, but instead could utilise ones and zeros and take the battlefield into cyberspace. Cyberwarfare should be considered when thinking about intervention in Syria. 


PC Motherboard


[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ast Monday I attended a public event run by the UCL Debating Society discussing the pressing question of intervention in Syria. Presenting the argument for intervention was a group headed by Shiraz Maher of ICSR, recently interviewed in the most recent episode of Debrief. These reasons were articulated along a number of specific lines. Initially, appeals were made to the moral and legal duty to assist the people of Syria; repressed, tortured, displaced, and murdered by a wantonly violent and ruthless regime. It was further argued that intervention would substantially undermine Iranian dominance in the Arab World, a dominance bolstered by the removal of Saddam Hussein. Should the Assad regime fall, the strategic implications for Iran would be two-fold; not only eliminating a key military base, but also directly impacting the supply chain to Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. Ahmadinejad knows this, which is why members from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) were recently sent to Assad to lend their disturbing expertise in infiltrating and suppressing populations, in an effort to subdue the groundswell and divide the Free Syria Army (FSA). Concurrently, the Syrian government has sought to stir up sectarian violence within a country characterised by a hugely diverse cultural and religious mosaic, by supporting, funding, and arming Kurdish militants within its borders. Were Syria to descend into a full-blown civil war down sectarian lines, it would not only further destabilise the region and undermine the social movement, but also allow Assad to play the long-game until the 2014 ‘election’. The pre-designed outcome of which would almost certainly secure a further 14 years of the present regime, result in claims of legitimacy from Assad, and guarantee the further subjugation of the Syrian people. The final point raised in favour of intervention was in order to kerb the influx of Islamist groups into the country, who are currently seeking to exploit the security vacuum created by the last 19 months of conflict. Al Qaeda and other jihadist groups capitalised on similar situations in Iraq, with AQI witnessing a comeback in recent times, in Somalia, and more recently in Mali on the coattails of Tuareg nationalist rebels returning home after fighting for Gadhafi in Libya.

However, I do not wish to simply regurgitate the increasingly strong case for invention already made. Indeed my own stance on whether we should, or even could, intervene in Syria has chopped and changed over the last year and a half. I am familiar with many of the counter-arguments to intervention, including the militarisation of peace keeping, the risk of escalating violence further, perceived neo-colonist attitudes to world policing, the question of China and Russia, the danger of arming and supporting extremist groups, as well as the distinct geographical and demographical differences between Syria and any other conflict of the Arab Spring. However, with the death toll now over 30,000, I believe the time for negotiation, diplomacy, and debate alone has passed, and there is an increasing urgency for some form of decisive action to assist the people of Syria. In this vein, a number of options were proposed along the lines of funding, arming, and training of rebels, enforcing a no-fly zone and naval blockade in the region, or implementing an Arab lead international ‘peace-keeping’ force to secure a buffer zone for civilians along the Turkish border. At this point a few of the audience chimed in, advocating increased aid without military involvement. The naivety of this suggestion shocked me. Whilst the use, or threat, of military action should never be a casual, throw-away decision, and hopefully the last resort after all alternative avenues have been exhausted, we should not underestimate the nature of the beast and the reality of the situation we are dealing with here. This is a regime that detains and tortures children for daring to write anti-government graffiti or supply protestors with water, the likelihood of them nonchalantly permitting the flow of food, tents, and medicine through to the 1.5 million displaced citizens would be laughable, were the situation not so desperate.

Nonetheless, despite a purely humanitarian mission being wildly idealistic, I do admire the attempt at least to think further the polarised arguments presented or the common courses of action proposed. Indeed this made me reflect on what forms of alternative intervention, what differing strategies could be feasible, other than physical military engagement or diplomatic impotence. Specifically, what forms of intervention could minimise the regimes ability to slaughter it’s people, level the playing field between the Syrian army and the FSA rebels, reduce the necessity of international forces being deployed to Syria, whilst ensuring the Syrian people were masters of their own destiny. Today warfare, or indeed the mitigation of warfare, may not necessarily require the use of bullets and missiles or involve boots on the ground and jets in the sky, but instead could utilise ones and zeros and take the battlefield into cyberspace. While scholars, practitioners, and commentators disagree on Panetta’s alarmist assessment of a pending “cyber pearl harbor”, the utility of cyber weapons in modern conflict is not merely some matrix induced paranoia, but an empirical reality. In fact one of the most significant examples of how such cyber weapons have been utilised, actually unfolded in Syria five years ago. In 2007, the Israeli Air Force carpet bombed a nuclear facility on the outskirts of Dayr az-Zawr in North-East Syria, being built for Assad by the North Koreans. Significantly, the Syrian air defence system displayed a clear night sky when Israeli F15 and F16 fighter jets descended upon the site. Before any protection or retaliation was possible the mission was complete and jets had left Syrian airspace, no one could be rallied because instead of giving up the element of surprise the Israelis controlled what the Syrians saw by hacking their systems at Tall al-Abyad. How this was actually achieved remains debatable, however many believe it is likely that the Israeli attack was most likely preceded by a small ‘stealth’ unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This would not have shown up on the radar, but would have intentionally flown into the Syrian radar beam and used the same open-ended radio frequency to transmit computer packets back to the radar’s computer, from there the Israelis were able to infiltrate the entire Syrian network. The malfunction warning sidestepped, a loop of a clear sky was played leaving Syrian defences completely redundant. The US have a similar cyber weapon code-named Senior Suter.

Given that five years ago the Soviet built Syrian air defence systems were infiltrated relatively easily and with such dramatically successful results, I wonder what role such techniques may play in conflicts in the future? Whilst international standards, legal frameworks, appropriate terminology, and notions of attribution and accountability are still in their relative infancy and often rather ill defined – the utility of such code in, say, minimising atrocities and protecting civilian lives by crippling state defences, military capabilities, and communications, for example, is perhaps something which should be considered. The supplementing of traditional kinetic warfare with cyber-attacks, either during or prior to engagement, will continue to grow in regularity and effectiveness as technologies develop and the strategic application of such weapons is better understood.


Photo credit: Accretion Disc

#4: Shiraz Maher on Islamists, al Qaeda & the Arab Spring

In this episode of Debrief, Tom Hashemi is joined by Shiraz Maher, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR).


Shiraz Maher and Tom Hashemi


You can subscribe to our podcasts on iTunes.

Shiraz & Tom discuss the effect that the uprisings across the Middle East have had on Islamism, and in particular on al Qaeda’s recruitment ability. The conflict in Syria is considered, and Shiraz affirms his belief that military intervention offers the best solution to the destruction that is currently pervasive in the Arab nation.


Shiraz Maher is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). He is currently writing an intellectual history of al-Qaeda, exploring the development of its political thought by drawing on hitherto unexamined material. Prior to joining ICSR, Shiraz was a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange where he worked on Foreign Policy and Security.

Follow Shiraz (@shirazmaher) and theriskyshift.com (@theriskyshift).


Photo credit: Katie Rothman / theriskyshift.com

Syria: To Arm Or To Not Arm, That Is The Question

The choice by the Turkish and their Arab suppliers to hold off high-tech equipment is the correct thing to do in order to ensure that the rebel forces operate in a more unified manner.


Free Syrian Army and National Syrian Council


With the Syrian conflict entering its 19th month, spectators have noticed substantive in-fighting between the different rebel factions that risks their victory over Al-Assad’s forces. With the rebels already on the back-foot in terms of training and equipment, their likelihood of success against the government forces will be further reduced given that many factions can’t even work together to achieve the same goal. But the Turkish and the various Gulf suppliers who are aiding the rebels against Al-Assad have decided, much in the same way parents would with squabbling children, that this argumentative behaviour will not be accompanied by their heavy equipment. Does removing the rebel’s ability to replenish their heavy weapons capability force them into cooperation with each other, or will this move endanger the outcome that much of the world (except for the Chinese and Russian governments apparently) is expecting and hoping for?

Firstly though, why are these suppliers helping the Syrians anyway? Well, although the publicised reasons are all well and good, there seems to be more subtly useful reasons. In general, a unified Syrian rebel force will lead to a more stable post-conflict political situation in the country, something most speculators are hopeful for especially after the recent events in Libya. The Turks, who allow the Gulf-state-originated arms to move across their southern border, have long wanted to be seen as a moral force in the Middle East (perhaps due to their aspiration of joining the EU). Seeing as the Turks have reconciliation with the PKK as a possibility but a resurgent conflict as a reality, they could have a potentially resurgent Kurdish problem on their hands if the Syrian Kurds are not ‘controlled’. By monitoring the supplies entering the combat zone the Turks have acquired powerful means to dictate current and future operations conducted by the Syrian rebels (who may well turn into the future Syrian military) and the Syrian Kurds (who may well assist the PKK from bases in Northern Syria). With the actual arms suppliers in mind, the Gulf states (especially the Qataris) wish to maintain their position in the joint Arab action limelight and also have become the hosts of many Syrian activists since the conflict began, making it difficult not to act if they do indeed want to fulfil that first criteria.

This withholding of arms will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the Syrian rebels’ operations. With the Syrians relying on equipment that is either stolen, smuggled in or given to them by defecting government forces, the chance to get their hands on anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles is a rarity. Surely then, the removal of such a steady and extensive line of supply would seriously inhibit their ability to take on larger and better supported government forces. We have seen scattered and unconfirmed reports of government planes being brought down but the rebel’s ability to accomplish such a task regularly is a necessity if they want to be victorious, and this will be a very difficult job while the missiles are being held back. Anti-tank missiles are important too, although not completely necessary if the government armoured forces are to be defeated given that RPGs and similar systems are readily available.

On the other hand, a move such as this could bring unity and cooperation to the rebel forces. In recent months the rebels have suffered from a lack of mutual support when engaging with government forces; the Syrian army commanders have had years to practice and apply joint battalion, brigade and regimental actions whilst the majority of the rebels have not had that luxury. Although the weapons being, and not being, passed through the border are significant, the rebels’ ability to operate as effectively and cooperatively as the government forces (who enjoy abundant air and artillery cover as well as mutual ground cooperation) is perhaps of greater interest. After all, high-tech weapons are of little importance if the rebel forces aren’t concerted enough to use them effectively.

Although a risky move, this author believes that the choice by the Turkish and their Arab suppliers to hold off high-tech equipment is the correct thing to do in order to ensure that the rebel forces operate in a more unified manner. Alongside this, a more stable relationship between each of the factions in Syria will pave the way for a more stable post-conflict situation if and when the Assad regime is removed. All we have to do now is wait and hope.


Photo credit: syriana2011