Middle East politics reminds us that sometimes we have a bleak choice – the choice between a disaster and a catastrophe. Idealists and bleeding hearts will often eschew the disaster in the forlorn hope of finding a perfect solution, whereas a disaster would have been the best possible outcome.
As always with political decisions, we don’t have the luxury of a controlled scientific experiment whereby we can see what happens if we do something and compare it with what happens if we don’t. We can only look at the available evidence, blend historical outcomes and make a judgment. Often that judgment is finely balanced and the law of unintended consequences applies to both action and inaction.
Due to the disastrous military intervention by George Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq in 2003 the West was very reluctant to get militarily involved early in the current Syrian civil war. This was a mistake.
Now any western military intervention in Iraq and Syria is too late and would still have been too late 12 months ago.
When the Syrian civil war started in 2011 the Government opposition was mainly moderate and President Assad’s government forces were caught unprepared, even if they were better equipped. There was a small window of opportunity to support moderate opposition groups in Syria and bring the conflict to an early conclusion, whilst at the same time getting rid of an unpleasant Syrian dictatorship.
Sunnis account for 60% of the Syrian population, while 13% are Shia (Alawite, Twelvers, and Ismailis combined) and 10% are Christian. Assad and his henchmen are part of the tiny Alawite minority. The moderate Sunnis were therefore unlikely to be loyal to Assad so their struggle for independence from a minority dictatorship was legitimate.
International inaction and appeasement allowed the war to escalate. This inaction allowed extreme Sunni islamists loyal to Saudi Arabia and al-Qaeda to come to fight against Assad. At the same time extreme Shia islamists loyal to Iran and Hezbollah came to fight for Assad. Russia and Iran had time to rearm Assad’s forces allowing them to regain lost territory. The chaos of the civil war left large tracts of Syria ungovernable allowing extremists of all flavours to strengthen their hold.
Out of this festering vacuum extremist islamist groups have morphed into ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). They have carried out acts of barbarism and genocide with impunity – mass executions, public beheadings, crucifixions and floggings. These atrocities are committed without restraint, due process or rule of law. They have taken large tracts of Syria, invaded Iraq and now hold territory very close to the Turkish border. It will take years to eradicate them. From these territories they now encourage and plot terrorists attacks on Western cities.
Now, whoever wins this brutal civil war will be a victory for extremism.
International inaction has allowed this deplorable state of affairs to develop. And as usual innocent civilians pay the price. Over 200,000 people have died, schools have been bombed and chemical weapons have killed innocent children. Millions more have had their livelihood destroyed and have been displaced creating a humanitarian crisis affecting Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
If we are to allocate blame for our shameful inaction I believe Russia should shoulder most of the blame. It deliberately neutered the legitimate international voice early on in this conflict – The United Nations Security Council. This would have been the most effective way to send a clear and unequivocal message from the international community to the Assad regime and force him to find a political, negotiated solution. A Russian aversion to any Western political actions, a desire to have a Mediterranean naval base and lucrative weapons sales seem to be their primary motivation. Not a moment’s thought for the innocent victims now or in the future.
We must also recall that the current problems with Afghanistan started with the Soviet invasion in December 1979. This aggressive action destabilized a large and unruly country, gave rise to the Mujahedeen, which morphed into al-Qaeda (admittedly with US funding) and the Taliban. Resulting attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and numerous other terrorist atrocities is the final legacy. Russia also gave political and military support to Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party in Iraq as well as to Assad’s Syria. Both countries have disintegrated into dangerous chaos as a result.
So Russia must take much of the blame for its contribution to Middle Eastern (and consequently world-wide) insecurity.
But President Obama also deserves some of the blame for his prevarication. He commands the only military power with sufficient clout to have got the early attention of President Assad. Obama could have done much more to put pressure on other Gulf States, the UN and Russia to intervene sooner. Failing that he could have made direct threat of military action to Assad before he became emboldened and the war escalated with extremists entering the conflict on both sides. Obama also missed a window of opportunity to militarily intervene when Assad was caught using chemical weapons. Instead he hesitated and allowed Russia to make a diplomatic coup and play for time by negotiating a long drawn out eradication of chemical weapons. This gave even more time for extremists on all sides to consolidate their gains.
So thanks primarily to Russian intransigence and American prevarication the international community has missed its chance to make an early difference in Syria. Extremism has taken hold of the country and has now spread into Iraq. All sides of this conflict continue to act with impunity. As usual nobody will win – there will only be degrees of losing, with the innocent losing the most.