The Syrian Conundrum

Spearhead Analysis – 16.07.2013

syriaThe conflict in Syria has prolonged beyond all estimates. The turmoil inside Syria threatens to destabilize Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon with an estimated 1.7 million refugees outside Syria’s borders and almost 4.2 million displaced inside the country. As the conflict rages on the misery of these people spawns anger and the younger ones look to Al Qaeda and its affiliate in Syria, Al Nusra, for revenge. Like all protracted conflict situations this one has created mafias that control weapons and finances, various militant organizations loosely linked to a common objective but with their own agendas and there is a Sunni-Shia as well as an ethnic angle to the violence. Atrocities have been and are being committed by both sides and these are being cited as grounds for external intervention.

By now it is clear that Saudi Arabia and Qatar and perhaps the US and UK are supporting and supplying the rebels while Iran, Russia, China, Hamas and Hezbollah are supporting the Syrian government forces. The Shia-Sunni divide not only gets accentuated but spills over into many other areas in the region and beyond. There is also the impact of the Saudi-Iran and the US-Iran confrontation. The rebels who started with shotguns and pistols now have heavy automatic weapons, missiles and rocket launchers against the government forces who have pulled out all the stops and are even accused of having used chemical weapons. Much like WMD in Iraq these chemical weapons are being discussed in the context of external intervention in support of the rebels. The rebellion has become a proxy war and it is not clear that if the US and UK and perhaps others were to start arming rebels exactly where these weapons will end up unless some kind of a fool proof tracking system is put in place—not an easy undertaking. It is also not clear what impact the flow of more weapons into Syria would have on the ground situation and the suffering of the people. The slaughter may increase manifold as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far President Assad has refused to consider a transitional government. The option favored by those advocating intervention is selective arming of rebels with the Free Syrian Army as the most suitable recipient and the focus of all support. The status of the Free Syrian Army and its ability to exercise control remains doubtful but this is being seen as the only option to pressure Assad into a diplomatic settlement and to address the humanitarian issue. There is therefore an element of risk because the result may be a strengthening of the Jihadist groups with the threat to Israel increasing — something the US and UK will not want. The option, however, remains on the table. The legality of such an intervention is also a question mark because the only government in Syria is the Assad government and a UN Security Council Resolution is by no means a certainty given the Russian and Chinese positions.

The other possibility is a no fly zone to establish a corridor and restrict the Syrian Air Force backed up by selective air strikes to tilt the situation in favor of the rebels. If Syria has stock piles of chemical weapons then there is an inherent risk in this option. The Syrian situation is quite different from the Bosnian situation earlier and there are the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan. The retaliation may lead to genocide of the Kurds. There is, however great pressure on the US and UK to intervene because of the escalating humanitarian situation. Given its previous experience and with Egypt descending into turmoil the US is not likely to be in a hurry to intervene beyond agreeing to training facilities for the Free Syrian Army. The danger is the impact on the region — especially Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. There is also the thinking in some quarters that the artificially and arbitrarily drawn borders in the last century may not be sustainable under new demographic, social and political pressures.

A negotiated settlement much like the reconciliation process in Afghanistan may be the only viable option beyond the military option of arming the rebels and giving them full support. There are many lessons for Pakistan from this evolving situation; the impact of protracted internal violence and the danger that it will become or be turned into a permanent feature, the dominance of militant groups and the incentive for them to multiply as the state loses control, the success of an insurgency if only the military option is exercised, the exploitation of an unstable violence prone situation by ethnic, sectarian and criminal groups and external intervention on ‘humanitarian’ or other grounds in pursuit of different interests—above all a steady economic decline that leads to societal pressures and upheavals. These lessons must be learnt quickly and responses developed as Pakistan faces the blowback from thirty years of violence around it and past policies based on mindsets that now need to be changed.

(Spearhead Analyses are collaborative efforts and not attributable to a single individual).