If we arm the Syrian rebels, how do we stop British bombs and bullets getting to al-Qaeda?

The perils of intervention.

Is it too late to stop Syria’s descent into hell? Since the uprising against the despotic Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, 70,000 people have lost their lives, one million refugees have fled across the border into the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and four million Syrians – a fifth of the population – have been internally displaced. In recent days, the Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons in Aleppo and the rebels tried (but failed) to assassinate the Syrian prime minister in Damascus.

The popular uprising long ago morphed into an armed insurgency, backed by a motley alliance of the United States, Europe, Turkey, the Gulf states and . . . al-Qaeda. Syria, a secular state, has been engulfed in the flames of a vicious, sectarian civil war in which both sides want to kill their way to victory. Viable solutions of the diplomatic, non-violent variety are few and far between. “Syria poses the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive,” declared General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in March.

The clamour for a military intervention in Syria is getting louder – especially following the (as yet unsubstantiated) chemical weapons claims. On the right, there’s the US senator and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, who, in recent years, hasn’t come across a war he didn’t want the US to fight. The Obama administration, McCain told NBC on 28 April, should arm the rebels, impose a no-fly zone and “be prepared with an international force to go in and secure these stocks of chemical and perhaps biological weapons”.

On the left, there’s the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the driving forces behind Nato’s 2011 war in Libya. In an interview with me for al-Jazeera English, which will be broadcast in June, he said “there is no question” that a military intervention in Syria, beginning with a no-fly zone, is “doable”. When I asked him how he could be so confident, he shrugged: “Bashar al-Assad is weak . . . a paper tiger."

If only. Assad may be a loathsome dictator but that doesn’t change a central fact: that he continues to command the support of a significant chunk of Syria’s population (Alawites, Christians, some secular Sunnis). Nor does it change his air defences, which are far superior to those of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar. Syria is believed to have up to 300 mobile surface-to-air missile systems and about 600 fixed missile sites. Oh, and did I mention the chemical weapons?

The experts are much more honest about the limits of military action than the Lévys and McCains of this world. Dempsey, America’s top soldier, has said that he can’t see a military option that would “create an understandable outcome”. His opposite number in the UK, General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, has told ministers, “Even to set up a humanitarian safe area would be a major military operation,” according to the Sunday Times of 28 April.

The reality is that even the best-intentioned humanitarian intervention could end up costing hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives. Those who flippantly claim that life couldn’t get any worse for the Syrian people should be reminded of Algeria (ten years; 200,000 dead), Lebanon (15 years; 170,000 dead), the Democratic Republic of Congo (ongoing; five million dead) and Iraq (ongoing; 600,000 to a million dead).

Let’s be clear: diplomacy, whether of the coercive or the non-coercive variety, isn’t a panacea. So far sanctions haven’t worked and the Russians continue to bat for Assad in the UN Security Council chamber.

But isn’t it depressing to witness how the west’s interventionists are always waiting for diplomacy to fail? Their targets – Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, Saddam, Gaddafi and now Assad – are always latter-day Hitlers: crazy, irrational, immune to political or diplomatic pressure. To negotiate is to appease.

It is a simplistic, Manichaean view of the world. Yet as the then leader of the Syrian opposition movement in exile, Moaz al-Khatib, acknowledged in September 2012: “Negotiation is not surrendering to the cruelty but it is choosing the lesser of two evils.” (Al-Khatib has since been smeared by some of his fellow rebels – most of whom, admittedly, crave a western military intervention – as an Assad apologist. He has had to stand down as opposition leader.)

Listen to Haytham al-Manna, the anti-interventionist spokesman for the opposition National Co-ordination Committee, whose brother was killed by the Assad regime. “We must adhere to a negotiated political solution in this difficult phase so as to give every Syrian a chance to see the end of destruction,” he wrote in the Guardian on 18 April.

“We cannot let the bloodbath go on like this,” Lévy told me. However, there is little evidence to suggest that sending in our bombers or arming the rebels will ratchet down, rather than ratchet up, the violence. Remember: weapons are fungible. We have no way of preventing the al-Qaeda-affiliated members of the opposition from getting hold of bombs and bullets supplied by Britain and France. Nor does anyone have a credible plan of action for the day after Assad falls.

The west should be pouring water, not fuel, on the Syrian fire. Our ministers should be putting pressure on, and offering incentives to, Moscow to detach itself from Damascus; our diplomats should be trying to convince the Gulf states to rein in the rebels, especially those of the ultra-Islamist, hand-chopping variety; our lawyers should be threatening Assad and his underlings with International Criminal Court indictments.

It may be that none of these options works. But, a decade on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, the alternative – all-out war – is too dreadful to contemplate.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column also appears, and a columnist for the New Statesman. His new al-Jazeera interview series, “Head to Head”, will begin airing on 7 June

A rebel fighter from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade in April. Photo: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Battle for Mosul: will this be the end of Islamic State?

The militant group's grip on power is slipping but it has proved resilient in the past.

The battle for Mosul is the latest stage in the long struggle to defeat Islamic State. The group has been around since the late 1990s in one form or another, constantly mutating in response to its environment. Undoubtedly its ejection from Mosul will be a significant moment in the group’s history, but it is unlikely to be its final chapter. The destruction of the group will only be complete when some fundamental changes occur within Iraq and the war in Syria comes to an end.

IS’s roots go back to a training camp established by the militant Islamist Abu Musab al Zarqawi in the late 1990s in Herat, Afghanistan. Founded as an army to overthrow the apostate regimes of the Levant, it fled to northern Iraq in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan post-9/11 where it re-established itself as a force alongside Ansar al Shariah, a hardline Salafi jihadi organisation.

As American attention shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq, the group was ideally placed to become one of the leading lights in the post-Saddam Iraqi insurgency. Brutally announcing itself to the world in August 2003 with successive attacks on the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, the UN headquarters and a Shia shrine in Najaf — the latter being the deadliest attack in Iraq that year with a death toll of 95 — the group grew to assume the mantle of al-Qaeda in Iraq. By 2006 this brand had become somewhat damaged through the brutal sectarian campaign the group waged, and when its founder, Zarqawi, died it sought to reinvent itself as the Mujahedeen Shura Council. This incarnation did not last long either, and eventually it assumed the title of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), alongside a more Iraqi leadership.

This was the start of a diffcult period in the group's history. Its excesses in Iraq (including indiscriminate slaughter of Shia Muslims to stir sectarian hatred and filmed decapitations of prisoners) lost it local support and led to the tribes in Sunni Iraq rising up and supporting the government in Baghdad's fight back against the group. By 2009, when the west abruptly stopped paying attention and withdrew from Iraq the group was largely perceived as in decline, with the Shia Muslim-led Iraqi government appearing to slowly assert itself more effectively across the country.

The terrorist attacks by the group continued. And the new government started to advance an increasingly sectarian agenda. These two played off each other in a downward spiral that was given a fresh boost of blood when the civil war in Syria erupted in 2011. Drawing on its existing networks (that were leftovers from when Syria was used as a staging point by the organisation to launch attacks into Iraq), the leadership sent a cell to Syria to explore what opportunities existed within the emerging fight there. This cell became the seed that grew into Jabhat al Nusrah and ultimately IS – a label the group adopted when in June 2013 IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided it was time to reveal this link between his Iraqi group and Jabhat al Nusrah. This led to divisions and the breaking up of the two organisations.

For IS, however, it was the beginning of an upward trajectory, building on this division to grow itself substantially in Syria (with Raqqa as its capital) and in 2014 taking over Iraq’s second biggest city of Mosul. We then reach the apex of IS’s success and the biggest expansion of the group yet.

It now seems that this growth had a shelf life of just two-and-a-half years. As the group appears to be losing Mosul, it is likely that we will see the beginning of a period of retraction. But this will not be its end – rather, it will flee back to the hills and the ungoverned spaces in Iraq and Syria from where it will continue a persistent terrorist strategy in both countries. Here it will bide its time until the moment presents itself to rise up. Waiting until the governance in Iraq and Syria fails its people again, the group can paint itself as the protector of Sunnis and once more build on that group's disenfranchisement to win supporters and occupy a space vacated by local governments.

IS's grip on power might currently be slipping but as history has shown, it has waxed and waned depending on the context it is operating in. We are now going to see a period of withdrawal, but unless attention is paid by the global community, it will expand again in the future.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Visit his website at http://www.raffaellopantucci.com