“Las Vegas rules don’t apply in Syria”

Britain is trapped between David Cameron’s commitment to act against Assad and the intransigence of the Tory party. But could a new line from the US and shifting events offer a way forward for our foreign policy?

The incinerated remains of Syrian army tanks litter a street in a rebel-held neighbourhood of Aleppo, July 2013. Photograph: Moises Saman / Magnum Photos

When it comes to the politics of intervention, history can obscure as much as it can advise. Even the proposition that it is now “too late” to save Syria rests on the assumption that its fate is about to follow a recognisable path, for which there is a precedent.

It was as long ago as 1859 that John Stuart Mill suggested we might try to establish “some rule or criterion whereby the justifiableness of intervening in the affairs of other countries, and (what is sometimes fully as questionable) the justifiableness of refraining from intervention, may be brought to a definite and rational test”.

A century and a half later we are no closer to establishing this rulebook for intervention, though we do find ourselves rehearsing remarkably similar dilemmas. For Mill it was justified to intervene in the case of “a protracted civil war, in which the contending parties are so equally balanced that there is no probability of speedy issue”, or if the stronger side tried to secure victory “by severities repugnant to humanity, and injurious to the permanent welfare of the country”. Syria is facing at least one of these two scenarios.

In the 19th century, Britain’s default position in international affairs was, as Mill put it, “to let others alone”. Yet time and time again, in another pattern that President Bar­ack Obama will recognise, it was the politics of the Levant that shook Britain out of its non-intervention stance.

In 1860, less than a year after Mill’s essay was published, Britain and France sent a joint force to modern-day Syria and Lebanon following the collapse of the Ottoman governing authority and the massacres of thousands of Maronite Christians in Damascus and Sidon. Incidentally, Sidon is the Lebanese port town 30 miles south of Beirut where a radical Sunni militia shot dead 16 Lebanese soldiers last month.

“Beneath the full blaze of modern civilisation,” commented a horrified Lord Dufferin, the British diplomat in the region and future viceroy of India, “we find in Syria habits of thought and practices prevailing for which the only historical parallel can be found in the books of Moses.” The intervention, according to the French and British foreign secretaries, was an “oeuvre d’humanité” that included the protection of civilians, medical aid, the burying of corpses and the cleaning of streets.

But here is the real story, one that still resonates today: from start to finish, there was a realist rationale to every intervention that took place in the “Eastern Question”, from the “first humanitarian intervention” of 1827 to prevent a massacre of Greeks by the Turks to the disastrous Suez mission of 1956. The pattern was set: Britain, France and Russia danced around each other, acting as self-proclaimed protectors of minorities, seeking access to new markets and resources, highly jealous of their own security, and poised to fill the void left by crumbling regimes – in this case, the Ottoman empire, the “sick man of Europe”.

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The current debate about Syria is stalked by the ghosts of more recent history, from Bos­nia to Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya. For that reason, it is also mired in neuralgia. On the surface, it appears to be a test case for every dilemma that emerges when the question of intervention is raised. In other respects, Syria rips up the rulebook.

The conflict contains the combination of nearly every national security nightmare scenario in the world post-11 September 2001: terrorist safe havens; new fronts for both al-Qaeda and Hezbollah; training camps for western jihadists to learn their trade; chemical and biological weapons; rogue states with nuclear aspirations; sec­tarian bloodlust; the marginalisation of liberals and reformers; huge flows of refugees and a humanitarian crisis; and destabilisation across the Middle East, with the growing prospect of regional war.

Some have compared the crisis to the Spanish civil war – a dress rehearsal for a greater struggle. Yet it is said that, so far, only the fascists and the communists have taken part; the liberals and democrats have yet to turn up. As the former director of policy planning at the US state department Dennis Ross has put it, “The Las Vegas rules don’t apply to Syria – what takes place in Syria won’t stay there.”

The notion that we are faced therefore with a choice between idealism and realism, or intervention and non-intervention, is the first of many false starting points. That debate is a luxury of simpler times. More than two years after the Syrian rebellion began, the only question that still matters for makers of western foreign policy is what species of interference we choose to adopt.

The second false starting point, which has misguided the western response from the start, is that Syria’s path would follow earlier manifestations of the Arab spring: that an unrepresentative and brutal police state would go the way of Tunisia or Egypt, or even – with a little outside assistance – Libya.

The extent to which the west bet the house on a post-Assad dispensation, right up to the end of 2012, now looks highly precipitate. As Patrick Cockburn pointed out in a recent essay in the London Review of Books, a multitude of analysts and foreign leaders continued to predict the imminent fall of the regime until very recently.

Following this logic, over the course of 2012, the UK locked itself into a hardline negotiating position that President Assad “must go” before talks could take place. In November, it took the step of recognising the National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people. The US followed suit in early December. Much of this now looks to have been premature hedging. In some ways, it is the reverse side of a much-vaunted rapprochement with Syria which was attempted in 2010. At this time, following the re-establishment of the US embassy in Damascus, it was hoped that the US could cajole Syria to “decouple” from Iran and act as a mediating influence on Hezbollah and Hamas.

Given that most of Syria’s large Sunni majority opposes the government, Bashar al-Assad has defied the odds. Above all, he has benefited from the masterclass in real­politik, terror and patronage practised by his father, the former president Hafez al-Assad, between 1971 and 2000. Among other important legacies that Hafez left was his co-option of a substantial portion of the Sunni middle classes and elites. Added to this, the survivalist instincts of the Alawites and other minorities in Syria, such as the Maronites and Druze, have been strengthened by the increasingly sectarian tone of the rebellion. In the region as a whole, the stakes are so high as to have led to interference from Iran and Hezbollah on a scale that no one predicted. The Shias believe this is a fight in which they cannot afford defeat.

During the second half of 2012, after the bulk of defections by Sunni members of the army had taken place, the younger Assad began to recalibrate the basis of his regime. The first step was accepting that he could not re-establish complete control of the country but would concentrate his efforts on securing the main strategic urban centres. In addition to the influx of thousands of highly capable Hezbollah fighters, he encouraged the formation of new militias under the umbrella of the National Defence Forces.

Although a palace coup inside the regime remains the west’s dream scenario, hopes of “flipping” regime loyalists against Bashar are wishful thinking. Bashar may have lost legitimacy in Syria as a whole but loyalty to him is stronger than ever before among the regime’s core supporters. Pushing Bashar aside may represent a neat denouement for the international community and a prelude to negotiations, but the calculation among government supporters is that it would give a huge boost to the rebels, who have shown their true sectarian colours, and are on the back foot in any case.

Malik al-Abdeh, a Syrian oppositionist living in London, told me that Bashar has played the cards available to him well. Even though he can no longer pretend to be the ruler of Syria as a whole, he has become the “strongest warlord in the country”. In some respects, Syria increasingly resembles what it once was: a collection of 14 provincial city-states with no overall control. However, the regime can claim to have held most of Damascus, Homs and Hama for most of the conflict and it now threatens to overwhelm Aleppo. What started as a “peasant revolution”, according to al-Abdeh, has not yet proved capable of establishing authority in the main urban areas.

As such, the president presides over a much-diminished regime but has a loyal, united and cohesive force behind him – which is well stocked with its own supply of fanatics. This is in stark contrast to an increasingly fissiparous Sunni opposition. They are divided not only over how to fight the war, but along traditional lines of class, tribe, region, and political and social attitudes. Lord Dufferin’s 1860 assessment that Syria was a place beset by the practice of “feuding” rings true in much of what al-Abdeh says. As the revolution began to turn in on itself, it was through the cracks this left open that well-organised jihadist groups – with steady lines of funding (primarily from private donors in the Gulf states), clear structures of command and a modus operandi – first began to emerge.

“The rebels are their own worst enemy,” al-Abdeh told me, estimating that they spend 50 per cent of their time arguing with each other or fighting over resources and financing. It is an increasingly familiar refrain that the revolution has been “corrupted” by foreign money and that the members of the Syrian National Council (SNC) are the puppets of those that pay their salaries, chiefly Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

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Following the capture of the strategic town of Qusayr on 5 June, in which Hezbollah fighters played a critical role, the regime has what my former colleague Yezid Sayigh calls “escalation dominance”: that is, the ability to increase the overall intensity of the war at the moment of its choosing.

That does not mean it is on the march to total victory, however. In the past week, there was a renewed offensive in Aleppo in an attempt to take back areas of the city previously held by rebels. Some prominent figures among the rebel leadership are of the opinion that Assad could retake the whole city. But there is also an “escalation trap” and the costs of attempting total victory are prohibitive. The irreducible demographic reality is that the opposition still has hundreds of thousands more men to draw on.

While al-Abdeh still believes that the west should arm the rebels, he is surprisingly circumspect about what such support would achieve. The fact is that there is no obvious military game-changer that will ensure an overall rebel victory, not even the “no-fly zone” that was used finally to oust Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya. The road to Damascus has not proved as easy as the road to Tripoli. Even if the rebels were to pull themselves together and regain momentum, there are substantial parts of Syria in which they have no hope of victory.

Arming the rebels will not lead to what Mill would call a “speedy issue” to the conflict. If the British government wants to do this, it has to find a different justification.

An artist's impression of the massacre of Christians in Damascus, July 1860
Image: Adoc-Photos / Lebrecht Music & Arts

The diplomatic process has not always moved in step with events on the ground, nor have France, Britain and the United States always moved in step with each other. As in the case of Libya, Obama has ceded international leadership on the question to the French and the British. “It is said that we lived in a bipolar world for decades, and then people talked about a unipolar or a multipolar world. It is actually a zero-polar world we have today,” the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has said of US quietism.

In the last week of May, I met a delegation of Chinese academics from a government-funded think tank interested in the various western approaches to the conflict. Just a few days earlier, Britain and France had successfully pushed the European Union to lift its embargo on arming rebels fighting in the Syrian civil war, but had stayed shy of sending arms themselves (a position that has yet to change).

This strained combination, of hyperactive diplomacy at the international level and squeamishness about making a meaningful military intervention, left the Chinese perplexed. They could understand how the US, chastened by two long and costly wars in the Middle East and struggling to get its domestic house in order, had been so reticent about becoming embroiled. But why then had the UK put its head above the parapet and consciously tried to “take the lead” in condemning the regime? “Many words, but no action,” remarked one of the delegates. “Why say so much when you do nothing?”

To the Chinese, the UK’s sabre-rattling sounded hollow. This does not quite do justice to the British position. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have approached the problem with care, consistency and energy, and with not a little moral urgency, to use a phrase more commonly associated with the Blair years.

In a relatively favourable assessment of Britain’s position last August, the Arabic-language international newspaper Asharq al-Awsat described the UK’s “frenzy of activity” over Syria on the international stage, sponsoring resolutions at the UN, urging accountability on human rights abuses and freezing the Assad regime’s cash supplies in London. Britain has been the second-largest humanitarian donor, the Department for International Development giving over £170m towards non-lethal aid in rebel-held areas such as food, shelter, trauma kits, surgical equipment, medicines and water purification kits.

In March Samantha Cameron visited a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, and the Prime Minister, who made a similar visit to a camp in Jordan last November, has not shirked from keeping the issue on the agenda. He has set the bar high for his own government’s response with Blair-style calls to action, such as the one he made in Washington in May, when he said: “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people and it is happening on our watch.”

In many ways it would be easier to leave the matter alone or to hide behind President Obama’s reticence to become involved. Not only is the cabinet divided over foreign policy towards Syria, but a Tory rebellion (with Boris Johnson in the ranks of the rebels) will take place at the first sign of any slide towards further intervention. Labour has made it clear that it regards any arming of the Syrian rebels as a mistake, retreating behind the rather anaemic line that the government “should do more” on the diplomatic track. Labour insiders insist that there is “no chance” of this position changing.

So why has the government run out ahead on this issue? Cameron’s personal conviction, for sure. The French and the British have also got used to “leading from the front”, following close co-operation on Libya and, to a lesser extent, Mali, where a new and successful model of intervention was tried successfully last year.

There is also reason to believe that – rather than Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which it is easier to pin on Tony Blair – the Tories have not yet shaken the ghosts of Bosnia and the failure of their policy towards the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Much has been made of the influence of Dr Arminka Helic, William Hague’s chief of staff, who is a Bosnian Muslim who fled the conflict there. The most damning criticism then was not that Britain did not intervene to prevent Serbian aggression against newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that it undermined and hampered the international efforts to do so, leaving Bosnia at the mercy of a much superior military force.

Now the former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind, who is often painted as one of the “offenders-in-chief” over Bosnia, has come out strongly in favour of arming the rebels in Syria (just as he did during the Libyan crisis). The Bosnian precedent may also explain the government’s decision to push so hard for lifting the EU arms embargo on Syria recently. The embargo was the handmaid of non-intervention in Bosnia – something that Rifkind now concedes was a “serious mistake”. One calculation behind this move was that it would give the west further leverage against Vladimir Putin, Syria’s most powerful ally. Now that the G8 summit has come and gone with no breakthrough, what began as a bold diplomatic manoeuvre is in danger of looking like an empty gesture.

Labour insiders criticise this obsession with the arms embargo as “totemic” and a “straw man”. Worse still, they claim, it has undermined the EU’s capacity to work together over other challenges such as Iranian nuclear proliferation. “Cameron has hooked himself on this issue,” I was told, “and now has nowhere to go.”

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Another uneasy echo from Bosnia is the linkage of foreign policy with domestic Islamist extremism in the UK. In the 1990s, British inaction against massacres of Bosnian Muslims assisted the “awakening” of a generation of Islamist activists, many of whom gained front-line experience of “jihad” before returning to the UK.

Reports of hundreds of citizens of the UK and other European countries taking part in the fighting on behalf of the Syrian rebels and alongside al-Qaeda-linked groups have heightened these concerns. Aaron Zelin, an expert in jihadism who monitors the flow of foreign fighters, confirms that most of the Europeans travelling to Syria are embedded with the most extreme organisations. Chief among these is Jabhat al-Nusra, which emerged from the brutal al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and which announced itself on the battlefield in January 2012.

Some have argued that a failure of the west to intervene created a void, which was filled by well-funded and operationally experienced jihadist groups. Brutalisation and radicalisation are inevitable consequences of a conflict in which the death rate is twice as fast as the one in the former Yugoslavia over the same period. Just as important was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) suffered a decline in its control over its rebel member groups in the second half of 2012 due to its lack of central command and unifying ideology.

Syria has a unique and central place in the global jihad movement which pre-dates the regime’s crushing of the 1982 rising in Hama by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the cost of 40,000 lives – a story told in Raphaël Lefèvre’s superb new book, Ashes of Hama. Above all, however, Bashar al-Assad is also experiencing “blowback” from his biggest strategic gamble since taking office in 2000. That was his decision in 2003, at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, to allow Syria to become a hub for jihadist groups travelling to Iraq to attack coalition forces. Having found a niche in Syria and established networks and avenues for transportation, funding and communication, these groups began to turn their attention back on the regime. The first time the problem impressed itself on international observers was following the violent suppression of a riot started by Sunni militants at the Sednaya Prison near Damascus in July 2008.

Significantly, Jabhat al-Nusra has learned from the mistakes made by al-Qaeda in Iraq and has been more careful not to upset the local Sunni population in areas where it operates. “The liberation of many villages in the north and east of Syria during the spring and summer of 2012 gave them an opportunity to highlight their competence in proto-governance and social services,” Zelin says. “Unlike FSA units, which were looting, extorting and overtaxing, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi Islamist elements brought stability and were fair arbiters in the provision of basic needs like bread and fuel.”

As the Foreign Secretary, too, has put it, Syria has become “the world’s number-one destination for jihadists”. This, of course, is also the first argument used by those who oppose any arming of the opposition.

Confronted by a fractious opposition leadership, western powers are limited in what they can do to mould the rebels into a more palatable and cohesive force that would be accountable for any arms sent their way. Last summer, there was much talk of how Britain and the US were coaching the opposition in leadership and governance. Opposition activists were vetted over two days, consultants were engaged to train them and an office was set up in Istanbul under the auspices of the Foreign Office and the US state department’s Office of Syrian Opposition Support.

Once again, however, the premise on which much of this work was based was the assumption that the Assad regime was on its way to collapse. The Syrian National Council criticised the scheme as a distraction from the fight on the ground, and as a symptom of western inaction and broken promises, rather than sincere support for the cause. More importantly, the exiled oppositionists with whom the west was dealing – including senior defectors from the Syrian army – were increasingly out of touch with what was happening on the battlefield, where the pattern of fighting was highly localised and fluid.

As the diplomatic merry-go-round continued beyond Syria’s borders, two things began happening in the second half of 2012: Assad began a bold counteroffensive, and where the rebels did make gains the jihadists stole the show. In short, the contours of the civil war shifted much faster than the process of western political tutelage.

The harbour at Beirut, July 1918, a US warship hovering out in the bay. 
Photograph: Janet M Cummings / National Geographic Society / Corbis

All this was until the superpower awoke from its slumber in the second week of June. After two years of trying to keep its distance – having ended one war in the Middle East and heading for the exit from another – Washington began to be sucked back into the Levant. Having sent only “non-lethal aid” to the rebels from April 2012 onwards, including night-vision goggles, body armour and Jeeps, on 14 June the White House announced it was ready to send them the “military support” they had been requesting for over 18 months.

The story behind this change is a lesson in the highly contingent process of making foreign policy in western capitals. On the surface, the chief justification was the confirmation that Assad had used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians, thereby transgressing the “red line” that Obama had set. But much else besides lay behind the recalculation, including the working-out of yet-to-be-resolved debates on Syria policy inside the Obama administration that have been going on for more than a year.

Changes in personnel have also played a part – not least the departure from the post of national security adviser of Tom Donilon, an opponent of intervention, and the return of two “liberal hawks” – Susan Rice, who replaced Donilon, and Samantha Power, the next US ambassador to the UN. Even more important than the Republican senator John McCain’s headline-grabbing visit to the rebels in Syria in May were leaked remarks by Bill Clinton that Obama was in danger of looking “like a total wuss” over the conflict.

But, above all, there were strategic realities that could no longer be ignored. The large-scale deployment of Hezbollah fighters on the battlefield removed what was previously regarded as a firewall between the Syria and Iran questions. It was becoming harder and harder to avoid the conclusion that Syria was in meltdown and that the problem could no longer be contained within the parameters of existing policy.

The US faced the destabilisation of Jordan (which is creaking under the strain of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees), Turkey (a Nato member and another key ally), Lebanon (which is seeing the struggle for Syria spill over on to its streets) and Iraq (which has suffered a sharp increase in sectarian violence that mirrors the Syrian conflict, and in which the US has invested so much blood and money that it cannot afford to see it deteriorate again). And this is not to mention Israel, America’s chief strategic ally in the region, which is watching as a dream team of all its enemies assembles in a country with which it shares a border.

Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, likens Syria to a “row house in the middle of the block” – when it catches fire, or fills up with rats, it endangers every other house on the street. Even 15 years of civil war in Lebanon were tolerable from a selfish US perspective, because Lebanon, at least, was “at the end of the block”. For the first time in a hundred years, the boundaries of the Middle East established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of the First World War have been severely jeopardised. For all their faults, they have provided a modicum of stability.

For this reason, Tabler believes that US involvement can only escalate from this point. Even if the crisis can be contained in the Middle East in a geopolitical sense, that leaves the question of the ungoverned spaces that have sprung up inside Syria, which are not under the control of any constituted authority and in which jihadists are filling a void: “Waziristan syndrome”.

Again, it is said that the west should not arm the rebels in case the arms fall into the wrong hands. Yet this still does not quite answer the conundrum. In any other place where al-Qaeda and its affiliates have been setting up shop (Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Mali) the US, Britain and France operate ruthless and well-developed counterterrorism strategies.

Opponents of arming the rebels also make the case that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have more than enough money to do this and are doing it already. But perhaps this is to mislearn one of the lessons of Afghanistan. It was not so much the arming of the mujahedin in the 1980s that stored up problems for the future, as the west forgetting about the country after 1989 and subcontracting management of the Taliban to Pakistan.

So, in the coming months, the US will begin arming the rebels on an incremental and conditional basis under the auspices of the Friends of Syria. It will be a complex and risky endeavour but it will give the US more leverage on the ground and more ability to manage the conflict inside the country.

Tabler believes that there are three other species of “direct intervention” also being considered. The first and most ambitious is a no-fly zone across Syria. Recent reports from Washington claim that this was Secretary of State John Kerry’s preferred option, only for it to come up against strong opposition from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey. The second is some action on the “red line” that Obama drew on chemical weapons and which may involve a direct attack on military facilities, of the sort that Israel has conducted suc­cessfully in the past. The third is the idea of establishing a 30-to-50-mile buffer zone or safe haven on Syria’s borders with Jordan and Turkey, secured by the threat of attacks using Patriot missiles or American F-16s based in Jordan.

The thrust of any strategy will be containment of the problem, preferably followed by de-escalation of the conflict inside Syria, and then, ideally from an improved vantage point, negotiations. It is much easier said than done. As Tabler puts it, and as Obama’s caution confirms, “Although we have now crossed the Rubicon, we are still in the shallow waters on the other side.”

From a British perspective, the irony is that, having led from the front, London may now be forced to retake a back seat as the big boys take over. The government would be unable to pass any of the options being considered in Washington through parliament. Actions that were acceptable in the case of Libya have been ruled out this time round.

There is a “realist” case for greater intervention in the Syrian conflict. In any case, the change in US policy suggests that the traffic is heading in that direction, albeit tentatively. A logical course for the UK, it having taken a robust line on the question thus far and hedged (perhaps too much) on a certain outcome, would be to fasten itself closely to the US as it steps up its involvement, perhaps even to cajole it along this path.

There is also a case for exercising more leverage on the ground by taking the risk of offering military support for the rebels on a highly conditional basis – not to ensure their victory, of which there is little prospect, but to shore up their positions and provide a better platform for negotiations. This might entail a counter-intuitive retreat from the position that Assad “has to go” before such talks can begin. In other words, any escalation of involvement would be matched best by a lowering of diplomatic demands. The greatest flaw in Syrian policy so far has been the distance between means and ends.

In some respects, the choice has been made easier by the abrupt halt in rebel advances and the greatly reduced prospect of seeing the black flag of Jabhat al-Nusra raised over Damascus. That the same group did, however, recently hoist its banner over the largest dam on the Euphrates underscores that things are already going in its favour. Jihadist narratives are resilient, flexible and impervious to subtle developments in western foreign policy. But the one constant in the “war on terror” is that “ungoverned spaces” pose the greatest concern: opportunities for training, mobilisation and access to resources but not – in itself – the proliferation of weaponry.

It seems that the government is inclined to do more about Syria but that its room for manoeuvre is highly constrained by domestic politics. The first thing it must do, then, is press the reset button on the debate. Above all, there has to be a recognition that the Syria question today is not the Syria question of 2011, or even 2012. And it is certainly not Iraq, Libya, Bosnia or Afghanistan.

In 1853 Ludwig von Rochau, a German writer of John Stuart Mill’s generation, coined the expression “realpolitik”, which has been used and abused ever since. For von Rochau, realpolitik was “a mere measuring and weighing and calculating of facts that need to be processed . . . It does not matter whether these facts are the result of violent acts and meanness or of justice and nobleness . . . the matter of Realpolitik is to deal with the historical product, accepting it as it is . . . and to remain otherwise rather unconcerned with its origins and the reasons for its particular characteristics.”

Somewhere between Mill and von Rochau a sensible course exists. Mill argued that non-intervention was as much of a moral choice as intervention. History tells us that usually we intervene when we recognise that non-intervention is also against our interests.

John Bew is reader in history and foreign policy in the war studies department of King’s College London. From October, he will take up the Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC

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