Impractical, unenforceable and unwise

A Free Syrian Army (FSA) leader (the Guardian says he is Mustafa al-Sheikh, identified as head of the FSA supreme military council) says:  

The fighting is like hit and run, we are not aiming to get control of any city in Syria, but we want to exhaust the regime and speed up its collapse.

This is the most sensible thing I’ve heard out of the FSA, which is still vastly outgunned and outmanned by the Syrian Army.  Unfortunately, English-language press coverage seems to focus almost exclusively on the question of territorial control, which not only changes rapidly but is also irrelevant to the outcome of the civil war.

The ebb and flow of control over territory creates enormous risks for civilians who can’t escape to other areas.  Collaboration–even if forced or unavoidable–with one side brings retaliation by the other, even as civilians find themselves unable to obtain adequate food and water, not to mention electricity, cooking fuel and health services.  We are in the midst of a major humanitarian disaster in Aleppo and other population centers in Syria.

The international response is thoroughly insufficient.  Anne-Marie Slaughter proposes a major escalation:

It is time for bold action, of the kind Mr Obama took in deciding to go after Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and to intervene in Libya. In Syria this would mean putting together a coalition of countries that would commit to providing heavy weapons (and possibly air cover) to all commanders on the ground who sign the “Declaration of Values” supporting a democratic and pluralist Syria put forward by the nine commanding generals of the military council of the FSA. To receive weapons, these commanders must show they control safe zones and admit foreign journalists, civil society activists and the UN to monitor the implementing of the declaration’s principles. They must also allow citizen journalists to upload photographs of what they witness to an official website maintained by the coalition.

The problem is this:  the escalation Slaughter proposes could well make things worse rather than better.

Heavy weapons are not going to reduce the intensity or likely even the duration of an increasingly sectarian war.  Nor will a “declaration of values” from revolutionaries who are already carrying out summary battlefield executions.  The Asad regime will treat the “safe zones” she insists upon as target-rich environments and subject them to intense shelling.  The logistics of food and other supplies in these zones will burden the rebellion with responsibilities it will find hard to discharge.

What about our relationship with Qatar and Saudi Arabia suggests that we could constrain their arms supplies in the way Slaughter suggests?  They are far more likely to impose their own conditions:  arms only to Sunnis, preferably religious ones.

The escalation Slaughter proposes will likely also make Russia abandon the P5+1 talks with Iran.  Moscow could also make life more difficult for the U.S. by squeezing the northern distribution network for supplies into Afghanistan, though that option would be far less effective now that Pakistan has reopened its roads and border crossing points.

Some stable liberated areas may well emerge–a number of Kurdish towns along Syria’s border with Turkey seem already to fall in that category.  But requiring that the rebellion give up its “hit and run” tactics is not wise. As Bashar al Asad seems to have declared in his latest statement from unknown whereabouts, Syria’s fate will be determined on the battlefield.  I would have wished it otherwise, not least because the military forces are likely to dominate Syria’s post-Asad transition.

But best now to leave the military tactics to military people to decide.  The highly conditioned transfer of weapons Slaughter proposes is impractical, unenforceable and unwise.

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6 thoughts on “Impractical, unenforceable and unwise”

  1. Just possibly the UN might yet help – not the Security council, but the General Assembly. If the Arab states can win approval for a (non-binding) resolution calling on Assad to resign and for the army to return to barracks it may get Russia’s attention, if not Assad’s. Russia wants to be a world leader – for its voice to be heard on every question, and for no question to be resolved against Russia’s desires, according to an early Putin statement – but according to a Foreign Policy article a few weeks ago, it is having an increasingly difficult time rounding up support at the UN for its positions. The Russians are perfectly happy to spite the U.S. and the EU, but being rebuked by the rest-of-the-world might make them reconsider just what their support of nasty dictators is costing them. If the GA is going to do anything, they’d better not wait too long – Jeremic has been huddling with Lavrov on their shared vision of how the UN should be run.

  2. I remember the time when war started on Balkan. Everyone were so excited about it. Soldiers were respected on each side, and if someone was driving by a soldier walking on the road he would stop and offer him a ride. That was at the beginning. 95′ no one would stop a soldier. This is a subtle but accurate observation. Since all the parties in the conflict are more or less equally strong where I mean one side cannot crush other side. As long as parties are equally strong war will keep going. When parties are equally weak war will stop. Precondition for this is for the war to lose its appeal among non military population. Currently it is feeding on fear and hate. Ambivalence among the people will mean it ran out of fuel. This conflict will require something like Dayton^2 or Dayton^3 (in complexity). I would look at Lebanon as a model for future Syria.

  3. Hello Daniel. I think you are definitely right in highlighting the humanitarian plight of civilians in Syria as the largest cost of this crisis, which goes largely underestimated in the typical English-speaking news coverages seen today. Territorial-control and developments coverage dominates the news. However, the daily human experiences of locals are heart-wrenching when it comes to their violated human rights.

    Some local Syrian academics, witnessing first-hand suffering on the ground in Syria, from their positions amid young students and unfolding troubles on Syria’ streets, have posted a new article on the following log:

    It increases awareness of the daily inhumanity experiences by locals, to the international readership. Many observe that the Syrian suffering is slipping too easily (disgracefully) from the minds of their fellow citizens of the world. News cover latest developments, but such experiences and logs are mind-openers, at the personal readership level, to how it is like to live in Syria today.
    The academics contributing had to keep their full IDs anonymous for the safety of their relatives in Syria (the regime has been known for abusing or even killing people who may have a dissident cousin!)

  4. The General Assembly has voted for a watered-down resolution not even calling for Assad to step down. With the West and Russia/China divided, it’s not surprising how many delegations (about 50) stayed out of the hall, not even formally abstaining. Of course, the GA passed nearly annual resolutions calling on Milosevic to show restraint in Kosovo, and we all remember just how well that worked. Compared to absolutely nothing from the SC, maybe this has some value, but with so many governments uneasy about their own popularity at home, even the stern rebuke of a fellow government may be too much to expect. It should have been called the “United Governments” rather than the “United Nations.” If this is about the most that can be hoped for with Qatar presiding, we can forget about the body once Jeremic takes over.

    1. Correction – I added wrong: 133 for + 12 against + 31 abstentions – 193 total = 17 countries who had something better to do.

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