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Jaw jaw better than war war over Syria... for now

Publication Date : 16-07-2012


WHEN Bashar al-Assad became Syria's leader 12 years ago, following the death of his father, there was hope that the British-trained ophthalmologist would reform the country.

He made some cogent arguments speaking to American journalist Charlie Rose in 2010. For example, he said that Syria wanted closer ties with the United States and that Iran did not want nuclear weapons.

What a difference two years has made. Widespread uprisings against Assad's regime broke out in March last year. Since then, more than 17,000 Syrians have been killed, say human rights activists. Last Friday, Syrian armed forces reportedly killed more than 200 people in the central province of Hama.

No wonder the US State Department declared Assad a "dead man walking". In calling the Syrian opposition "terrorists", Assad also seemed to have gone down the same deluded path as other deposed dictators.

Libya's Muammar Gaddafi had called Libyan rebels "rats" and "cockroaches". Despite Iraq's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein remained convinced that Iraqi forces were superior.

Dr Dan Scheuftan, the National Security Studies Centre director at Israel's Haifa University, says that Assad's modern persona belies the dictatorial tendencies he inherited from his father Hafez Al-Assad.

"For years, my colleagues and students kept telling me that Mr Assad is an eye doctor from London, that his English is good, that he doesn't like blood. Moreover, he uses the Internet - the ultimate argument.

"To them, I would say: 'He's a barbarian like his father... If he were a moderniser and reformer, he wouldn't have stood a chance, they'd have eaten him alive'," says Dr Scheuftan.

Dr Schueftan's view of Assad is not rare, and calls for foreign intervention in Syria have increased.

US Senator John McCain told reporters at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last month that it was 'bizarre' for the Obama administration to say it did not want to militarise the conflict. "It is such an Orwellian statement in defiance of the facts on the ground that I am embarrassed and that we should be ashamed," he added.

Senator McCain and other prominent personalities have made a strong argument for intervention.

At the height of Libya's uprisings last year, more than 2,000 were killed and Western estimates warned of "tens of thousands" more Libyans killed as and when Gaddafi's forces targeted Benghazi and other cities. In Syria, there is a similar dynamic panning out.

The logic for intervention is also straightforward - to stop the killings in Syria.

The use of coalition air power would enforce a no-fly zone to protect the Syrian opposition - and hopefully, like in Libya - be used against Assad's security forces. More importantly, a weaker Syria, an ally of Iran, would have an impact on the collective position of both countries and strengthen the hand of US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

However, the problem with such arguments is that Syria is not Libya. It might be easy to talk about intervention, but effective implementation in Syria's case would be quite difficult.

Syria's armed forces outmatch those of Libya. In particular, Syria's Russian-supplied air defence network would prove quite a challenge for coalition air power.

Unlike in Libya, where 75 per cent of the main population areas broke away from the Gaddafi regime, the Syrian opposition has been unable to take control of a main population area. Their numbers are estimated to total only 1 per cent of Syria's total population of 22 million.

The question of who exactly to arm and support among the Syrian opposition is also apposite.

Earlier this month, a meeting of Syria's divided opposition in Cairo descended into scuffles and fisticuffs, and failed to resolve the differences between different groups. This dealt another blow to the objective of forming a unified front against Assad.

In the latest issue of International Security, a Harvard journal, Chicago professor Robert Pape wrote that global norms against genocide had set the bar for intervention too high, since there had to be unmistakable evidence that there was "clear intent" to destroy a certain national, ethnic or religious group.

That said, a newer norm - the "responsibility to protect" (R2P) standard - had set the bar so low that virtually every instance of tyranny represented an opportunity for the global community to intervene.

Pape proposes something in between - a new standard of "pragmatic humanitarian intervention" based on three factors: the evidence of mass homicide, low risks for intervening states; and an exit strategy that provides enduring security for threatened populations.

Using this standard, he argues that Libya had ticked all the boxes for intervention: there was mass homicide, the threat to an anti-Gaddafi coalition was relatively low and Libya rebels were able to prevent the country from spiralling into chaos after Gaddafi's downfall.

By contrast, the Syrian case only fulfils one of his three conditions - mass homicide. Risks to any coalition would be high because Syrian security forces can operate effectively in urban areas. In addition, there are currently no credible proposals for lasting security in Syria after the downfall of the Assad regime.

Pape's arguments are valid. Even Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister and mover behind the R2P concept, has expressed doubt as to whether intervention would be beneficial.

"Will military intervention do more harm than good? This is where the argument in favour of military intervention in Syria runs into the most trouble," Evans wrote.

It would be more beneficial for the global community to wait for the Syrian opposition to unify and get their act together, argues Professor Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert at Oklahoma University. Toppling Assad's regime now might stop the killings, but a full-fledged civil war might result.

"I think Washington is very worried that the Syrian regime could be destroyed before there is anything to replace it with," says Landis.

The lessons stemming from America's interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan are instructive. Military 'shock and awe' might topple a regime fairly quickly, but to ensure lasting security, the global community has to ensure that there is a new and viable political entity to take over from the old regime.

The so-called Pottery Barn Rule applies: just like a retail store holds a customer responsible for damage caused to merchandise, an intervening country that 'broke' another country would have to 'buy' it.

Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier this month, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke about how he tried to dissuade George W. Bush from invading Iraq in 2003.

"It is said that I used the 'Pottery Barn rule'. I never did it ... But what I did say... (is that) once you break it, you are going to own it, and we're going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us.

"And it's going to suck up a good 40 to 50 per cent of the army for years. And it's going to take all the oxygen out of the political environment," he said.

In the end, shock-and-awe might appear to be as compelling for Syria as it was for Libya. Given the long-term considerations for Syria and the wider Middle East, however, talk and drawl would be more appropriate now than shock and awe. And that's not necessarily bad.


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