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The Continuing Syrian Tragedy

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The continuing horrific destruction and violence in Syria constitute the most severe indictment of the international community’s efforts and ability to deal with issues relating to peace and security.

Britain’s early 20th century version of Paul Wolfowitz

Rewind to the First World War. In December 1915, Mark Sykes, an ambitious British politician was summoned by Prime Minister Lloyd George. He wanted Mr. Sykes to advise the government on the sharing of spoils in the event of an Allied victory.

In a manner reminiscent of the shenanigans and war crimes perpetrated under George W. Bush’s rule a century later by the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Sykes was hyped as an expert of Ottoman affairs, despite his inability to speak either Arabic or Turkish. Supreme arrogance evidently sometimes substitutes for on-the-ground knowledge and expertise.

Like Wolfowitz’s invention of the mission “to bring democracy to the Middle East” a century later, a supremely confident Sykes drew a line with his finger across the map of the Ottoman Empire, connecting coastal Haifa in the west to Kurdish Kirkuk in the east.

Tear apart what belongs together

The resulting imaginary line was to separate the French possessions in the north from the British ones in the south. This division cemented, via the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the San Remo Agreement of 1920, the “line in the sand” – as James Barr calls it.

Like most other lines drawn arbitrarily in imperial board rooms, this one act tore apart ethnic, linguistic and religious equations that had taken centuries to evolve.

Middle East remains disfigured

Little wonder then that, a century later, the Middle East remains disfigured.

The canvas has only got murkier, as Westphalian boundaries continued to knife their way through tribes and folks of the region. Continued Western high-handedness has bred fragile states, sectarian strife and, as an antidote accepted until the removal of Saddam, dictators promising stability at all costs.

The costs of this unsound, basically scatter-brained “strategy” were often high. Sunni-majority Syria, as a case, saw one Alawite family – the Assads – hold on to its reigns for over four decades.

This played itself out through the constant concentration of power and sporadic assertions of their might, as seen during the infamous Hama massacre. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad’s fighter jets and tanks razed an entire city to neutralize a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion.

Will they ever learn the anti-meddling lesson?

In 2011, with the Arab Spring happening around it, Syria was the scene for yet another anti-establishment uprising. As if Western powers weren’t already stretched thin enough at the time, they eagerly drew critical Western manpower and aid away from Syria’s crumbled neighbour, post-Saddam Iraq.

Led by the United States and the Saudis, the new mission civilisatrice was to remove Assad. This was at least somewhat astounding, given the remarkable lack of sustainable success of the earlier missions, including in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Russia and Iran – two true regional powers committed for the long term — put their weight behind the Bashar al-Assad government, a traditional ally of theirs.

This set-up yielded a by now too familiar result in Middle Eastern politics — yet another proxy war supposedly conducted for strategic gains.

Replay of Libya

In the Syrian case, too, like in that of Libya before it, the rebels there expected the three steps of intervention – the arming of rebels, the international urge to intervene, as well as a Security Council authorization for such action – to fall in place effortlessly.

Little did they realize that theirs was an unfortunately ill-timed case, resting on misplaced expectations.

As early as in March 2012, the then UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Valerie Amos, had appealed to the Security Council to heed the flames spreading in Syria.

At the time, there were already about 220,000 people dead and over four million homeless. However, all the Council managed was double vetoes by Russia and China against any intervention in Syria on four occasions between October 2011 and May 2014.

On one side of the equation, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the West insisted on al-Assad’s stepping down as a precondition to further negotiations. On the other side, Russia sought to play its bargaining leverage with the Syrian government to full advantage.

Another fallen “apple”

In the background, as had happened to Iraq before, it was now Libya that was left in a rut of socio-political fragilities – a playground for non-state threats – by the Council-authorized intervention that allowed the NATO to pummel Gaddafi to defeat.

Unlike in the case of Iraq, where military action was undertaken without the Security Council’s authorization, in Libya, the Security Council’s authorization was misused.

The Council resolution contained three elements: the cessation of hostilities, the protection of civilians, and an all-inclusive peace-process.

Instead of adhering to these, rebels were armed and the use of force became disproportionate to the protection of civilians. Consequently, an entire country unravelled.

In October 2012, months after his appointment as the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan claimed that he had secured Russian and American nods for a six-step transition process.

Yet, when the matter reached the UN Security Council, the United States and its European partners tried to mould a resolution on Syria invoking Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

Notably, that was a repetition of what was done to tackle the civil war in Libya. Citing how much the move had gone awry in the Libyan scenario, Russia and China swiftly vetoed the draft resolution. This forced Annan to quit a month later, leaving the Syrian ground fertile enough for the genesis of the ISIS.

Symbolic votes only?

Months earlier, in August 2011, with India presiding over it, the UN Security Council had unanimously called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. That led both sides walking back from their dug-in positions and the start of an all-Syrian inclusive peace process.

The goal was to negotiate a lasting political outcome for Syria, but without foreign support. The solution then and three years of continuing devastation later still lies in the contours of the presidential statement negotiated by India at the Council.

The fundamental lesson regarding the Middle East is that no amount of foreign meddling can solve the problems there. All it achieves, at best, is to clog the arteries of regional compromise with false hopes and false or untenable promises.

In the end, the Middle East must cure itself. Which is why U.S. and European geostrategists should lay low and check their centuries-long instinct to play Weltgeist. The temptation to fix things for others is just that – a temptation.


By Hardeep S. Puri