Syria and the impotence of the West

The absence of an armed guarantor will make peace in Syria harder to achieve, writes Barkawi.

    Syria and the impotence of the West
    Syria, like Iraq before it, is being "discussed in the West in the crudest possible terms" - Shia vs Sunni, democracy vs dictatorship, secular vs Islamic, Free Syrians vs terrorists, good vs evil, and so on [Reuters]

    Many people deeply desire Western intervention in Syria. 

    They do so for different reasons. Some want an end to the war for humanitarian purposes. Others think military assistance to non-Islamist rebel groups, or direct use of Western forces, will help bring about something closer to democracy in Syria. 

    A somewhat different question is what Syria tells us about the limits of Western power, military and otherwise? 

    First, there is one option that is not on the table at all: use of Western ground forces. From Somalia in 1992 to Libya in 2011 that was a live policy option. 

    Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated anew the power of the insurgent to tie down modern armies in expensive, protracted and inconclusive campaigns. The human costs to the insurgents, and to the host population, are tremendous. But the West, too, is counting its dead in thousands for the first time since Vietnam. 

    As occupiers of any kind, Western regular ground forces are worse than useless. 

    Even Western troops policing a ceasefire or providing security for elections would be magnets for jihadis, and at risk of being drawn deeper into local conflicts. 

    The French seem to have missed the lesson. In Mali, they are now faced with the choice of conducting a long, tough counter-insurgency campaign or getting out. The Islamic groups are driven back and scattered, but very much forces in being. 

    All these pose a very significant issue for Syria: what forces would guarantee any peace process? Regional states are partisans in the conflict, while almost no one but the US and Russia has the logistical capacity to introduce and sustain large forces. 

    Absence of an armed guarantor 

    The absence of an armed guarantor will make peace in Syria harder to achieve. Lebanonisation - the division of Syria into competing armed enclaves - will be all the more likely. 

    If not Western ground forces, what about airpower? After all, that is the preferred Western option in the wake of defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

    Bombing can be very satisfying. It offers revenge and the appearance of decisive action. Syria has impressive air defences, but these can be overcome and are presumably degraded. 

    The more fundamental problem is what would bombing do? The likely effect would be to more rapidly reduce Assad and his forces to the status of one warlord among several. 

    The regime is unlikely to be toppled through airstrikes alone, especially without killing an unacceptable number of civilians. And even if it was, it would only lead to more civil war. 

    This is part of a larger problem with the use of airpower in the “War on Terror”. Precision strikes on jihadi targets, whether conducted by drone, conventional aircraft, or special forces, is a tactic not a strategy. 

    It punches holes in the enemy’s order of battle, but has no answer to a world plentiful with young hotheads to fill them. 

    Through no fault of its own - after all you can see much from the sky - airpower is also an excuse for lack of knowledge. One of the astounding things about Western interventions is that, again and again, they are conducted in inexcusable ignorance of the people being intervened upon. 

    Intellectuals, especially area experts, are often shocked to discover this fact when war comes around to the part of the world they know about. They try to advise Western leaders and bureaucracies only to come away frustrated and bitter. 

    More important to the West than knowledge is the story Westerners want to tell about themselves: liberators, civilisers, peacemakers, or whatever narrative is being pedalled by the latest batch of politicians and media consultants. 

    As a result, Syria, like Iraq before it, is being discussed in the West in the crudest possible terms - Shia vs Sunni, democracy vs dictatorship, secular vs Islamic, Free Syrians vs terrorists, good vs evil, and so on. The complex ethnic and class dimensions of the conflict are invisible, as is the character of the regime and its reach into society, among other things. This almost guarantees that any intervention will be based on poor analysis and conducted in ignorance. 

    "More important to the West than knowledge is the story Westerners want to tell about themselves: liberators, civilisers, peacemakers..." 

    Balkanising the conflict

    With airpower, you can retain the simplistic debate about good guys and bad guys - we only bomb the latter - while appearing to do something decisive on television news. This is why airpower is so attractive to Western leaders like Cameron and Obama. 

    So if in fact Western military forces offer few effective policy options in Syria, what about diplomacy? 

    Despite appearances, it would be remarkably straightforward to convene a peace conference for Syria that would have a good chance of negotiating an end to the conflict and initiating some kind of political process. 

    The problem is that such a peace conference would have to be a Big Tent, to include Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, China, the Assad regime, as well as the Gulf states and the Western powers, among others. Such a conference would bring together all the players with a stake in the conflict which is exactly why it would have more of a chance of success than small cabals of Western states with their favoured Gulf allies. 

    The Western powers will never call such a conference, of course. It would involve admitting that Iran is an important player with a legitimate and potentially constructive stake in regional relations. It would involve talking to the Assad regime and contemplating some fate other than war crimes tribunals for regime officials (and giving up on the good vs evil story). Most of all it would involve admitting that the West cannot call the shots on its own. 

    But if one really were sincere about ending the fighting, such a Big Tent conference is the most obvious way to do it. Certainly it makes more sense at this point than stoking the flames of war. 

    Instead, what is likely to happen is that the Obama administration will resist calls for the direct use of force and consider instead arming the Free Syrian Army. Not only will this release yet more weapons into circulation, it is likely only to further balkanise the Syrian conflict. 

    Syria will become another failed state in perpetuity, an arms bazaar and training ground for jihadis, and further proof that the West has neither military nor political answers for the problems of our times. 

    Truly does Syria offer lessons in the limits of Western power. 

    Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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