Saturday, 19 January 2013

Syria, the US, and NATO: Failure yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Even now, with the rate of killing in Syria worse than the worst years of the Iraq war, there are still some who argue that the West’s policy in Syria, though a failure, remains a better option than military intervention.

In his Foreign Policy column this week, Marc Lynch, who has consistently argued against US military intervention in Syria and in favour of diplomatic efforts, writes that “US military intervention would very likely have made things in Syria worse.” However the only way in which he seems to see such a scenario as worse is that the US would have incurred the direct costs of military action.

This is not a small thing, and is of course a reasonable concern for the US if not for Syrians, but the acknowledged failure of non-military efforts to date also has a cost or the US, and continued failure could lead to very great costs indeed, including military ones, for the US and for allies in the region, including NATO.

Arguments about numbers killed in war are choked with contradictions between a desire to do justice to individual deaths and the impersonal anonymity of statistics. Worse, in these grim versions of the trolley problem, we see again and again how the dead of other nations are counted for less than ones own. But even if we allow the inevitability of this dehumanising abstraction, this contextualisation of the thousands dead in terms of national interest and strategy, the killings still count.

Returning to my comparison between rates of killing seen in the Iraq war and the rate of killing in Syria, in strategic terms the killing rate is relevant as an indicator of the likely outcome. The strategic aim for the US in both Iraq and Syria must be a stable state that doesn’t pose a threat to US interests. By extension, the aim must be for a state that largely respects the rule of law and is capable of enforcing it within its own borders. The higher the killing rate, the poorer the prospects for such an outcome in the near future.

The worse the killing now, the more likely a Somalia-like future where US drones pursue Islamist terror groups sheltering in the rubble of a fractured Syrian nation that is unable to maintain rule of law within its own borders.

In an earlier column this month, Marc Lynch suggested the lessons of Iraq had been “long since internalized” by Americans, while praising Obama for keeping the US military out of Syria. It seems to me that while he’s understood some of Iraq’s lessons, he is ignoring others.

While all can see much of the extent of failure in Iraq, a greater failure was possible, and was avoided, in the post-invasion civil war. If the US hadn’t backed lesser evils when the most extreme forces were at their height in 2006-2007, Iraq would be in a much worse state today. Now in Syria, by failing to back the more moderate elements in the uprising, the US is helping the extreme ones to flourish. This is a lesson from Iraq that Marc Lynch misses out. [1]

Marc Lynch also seems blind to lessons on military intervention in the recent history of Bosnia. In March 2012, Radwan Ziadeh published an article titled Have We Learned Nothing From the Nineties? Syria is the Balkans All Over Again. Ten months later, it’s worth re-reading. At the time Marc Lynch responded with an ill-judged tweet, “People do realize that Bosnia war eventually ended through diplomatic negotiations with Milosevic, right?”

This flip factoid wholly ignored the part played by NATO’s Operation Deliberate Force, the air campaign against Bosnian Serb forces carried out between 30 August and 20 September 1995 that belatedly brought an end to the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo and forced Serb leaders to negotiate. While the air campaign was successful in this, the negotiation ended in the Dayton Agreement which rewarded ethnic cleansing and failed to deter Milosevic from carrying out further crimes in Kosovo, leading to another NATO air campaign in 1999.

More usefully, in this blog post Marc Lynch points to some alternative views on Syria. They are A Syria Strategy for Obama by Andrew Tabler, Syria: Is It Too Late? by Frederic C Hof, and The Road Beyond Damascus by Michael Doran and Salman Shaikh.

The US and NATO’s Syria failures of yesterday and today can’t be allowed to excuse continuing failure tomorrow.

[1] Added 20 Jan: In his February 2012 policy paper for the Center for a New American Security, Pressure Not War (PDF), Marc Lynch does mention the 2006 arming of the Sons of Iraq militias, but uses it more as a lesson in unintended consequences than as an illustration of reducing violence by militarily strengthening a political centre against extremes. It must be remembered though that in February 2012 the estimated number of killed in Syria was a tenth of what it is today, and many still saw change by primarily peaceful means as a viable option. The relevant passage:
... However, providing weapons is not a politically neutral act. Those with greater access to the networks that distribute Western guns and equipment will grow stronger, politically as well as militarily. The arming of the Sons of Iraq in 2006, for instance, dramatically shifted the political power of competing Sunni tribes and families in unexpected ways, and the effects continue to unfold today. Better armed fighters will rise in political power, while groups that advocate nonviolence or advance political strategies will be marginalized.


Patrick Porter said...

Hi Kellie,

Long time no debate!

I agree with you that the decision to empower lesser evils in Iraq at the height of the catastrophic communal bloodletting was a prudent decision.

But I'm not sure that your recipe is easy to pull off, ie. empowering moderates to keep extremists at bay. Even if we try and pick and choose the good guys in the rebellion, we usually end up empowering a whole range of other predators.

Take Libya: on the one hand, we have backed a moderate, Beghazi-centered constitutional democratic movement. Indeed I'm lucky enough to be supervising one of their young principled men for his thesis! But by toppling Gaddafi, we have triggered a surge of conventional weapons to a whole host of Islamist militants, and we have facilitated widespread torture and dispossession of black Africans (and I gather some of the Islamists that we are at war with in Mali are fleeing Libya for that reason).

What's more, by (yet again) overthrowing a regime that has peacefully abandoned its nuclear programme and enabling the killing of its leader, we have given another incentive to truly vicious regimes (in Tehran and Puyonyang) to acquire or maintain a nuclear deterrent. Human rights matter - but so does the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, and we have to carefully judge the tragic tradeoffs involved. That's the problem with international security - it involves compromises and dilemmas that aren't always recognised through the prism of liberal idealism.

In Syria, as I understand it, should the Assad regime fall, there is a non-trivial chance of the genocide of the country's Christian minority (and let's not even get started on what happened to Iraq's Christians as a result of our shockingly naive invasion). How confident are we that we could prevent this, or alternatively, are you saying that the West should invade and occupy for years to prevent it, with all the horrors that would probably attract?

I'm also not sure we can interpret the Balkans case as straightforwardly as you do. One result of our intervention was not just to rescue victims, but to enable counter-atrocities against Serb minorities. Liberal interventionism generally suffers from this oversight - as a well-intentioned movement for human emancipation, it ignores the nature of civil wars, treating them as a matter of predator versus victim rather than as a clash between increasingly brutalised groups.

Its because of worries like this that I think we should stand well clear, while doing what we can to assist refugees and neighbouring countries handle the fallout. I know we'll never agree, but I hope you can see that this counter argument, like your argument, is a serious one.

kellie said...

Hi Patrick,
l agree with some of your points:

- empowering moderates to contain extremists is not easy,

- today's liberators may be tomorrow's predators,

- there is a widely-reported danger of genocidal crimes against minorities post-Assad (though reports usually focus on Alawis rather than Christians),

- displacement and persecution of Serbs in Kosovo occurred post NATO intervention,

- all sides become more brutalised as civil wars progress.

However, I don't however think some of your cause-and-effect narratives stand up, and I don't think our points of agreement lead clearly to your conclusions. The points of agreement above can be seen as bolstering the case for a more effective intervention that goes beyond supplying arms, one that focuses on shortening the conflict with air power as well as helping build the political capacity of moderates and encouraging rule of law.

kellie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kellie said...

Now some disagreements on points of fact:

- Dispersal of arms in Libya began prior to NATO intervention, and did not depend on the air campaign,

- Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs were well-advanced prior to the Libya intervention and I don't know of evidence to indicate a change related to the Libya intervention,

- while Syria has no nuclear weapons, it has chemical WMD so a successful intervention could undermine the perception that such weapons have a deterrent value to such regimes,

- in Bosnia, my limited reading suggests atrocities against Serbs occurred mainly prior to decisive NATO intervention, in a period when the Bosnian Government relied on militias, prior to it adequately developing its conventional forces, a history that might support arming and training of moderate centrists in Syria.

On Mali, I haven't previously heard of the Islamist forces there including black Africans fleeing persecution in Libya. The more common narrative of Gadafi's downfall being the cause of the Tuareg uprising in Mali is quite effectively countered here and here, while this report tells of Islamists recruiting black Africans not from Libya but from the local population in Mali.

I'm not wholly clear on the thinking behind your point on post-intervention human rights abuses in Libya and in the Balkans. In these arguments people usually have two moral principles in view. One is that of rule of law and human rights, where nothing we propose should involve exempting any party from rule of law, including our own forces and our allies. The second is the utilitarian approach which recognises that where a state of war exists, or where a non-democratic government relies on force to maintain power, parties beyond the reach of the law will commit crimes and injustices including the killing of innocents, and our aim should be to minimise the scale of these crimes.

Given that the uprising and consequent killing in Libya began before NATO's intervention, the relatively low number of casualties in the Libya war would seem to justify that intervention in utilitarian terms. If the degree of human rights abuses post-war is less than that carried out by the previous regime then that would similarly justify it.

Where a consequence of a war is a strengthening of democratically accountable rule of law and human rights, then it begins to satisfy the first moral principle. While the no exemption principle should be absolute, its application is still a work in progress in Western societies, and to expect immediate perfection elsewhere after violent political change would be unrealistic. Progress seems likely to be easier to achieve in circumstances where abuses are fewer, so pursuing this principle should usually be in sympathy with the utilitarian principle of choosing the path of least number of killings and injustices.

In the former Yugoslavia, all war crimes by whatever side fall under the jurisdiction of the ICTY, and democratically accountable rule of law and human rights are central to the accession process to the EU that the successor states to Yugoslavia have engaged in, so intervention there clearly led to progress. Libya is different of course, without the incentive of EU membership to aim for, and with ongoing difficulties between the Libyan Government and the ICC, but it seems to me much more hopeful now than it could ever have been under the old regime.

Patrick Porter said...

Hi Kellie,

thanks for your responses, much appreciated!

It seems we do broadly agree on some of the historical dynamics of these conflicts. But we disagree on some matters of fact and causation, and on the policy conclusions we should draw.

On the issue of incentivising proliferation: its already pretty well established that biological and chemical weapons do not usually serve as an effective deterrent to military intervention. The Gulf War of 1990-1 saw to that!

Equally, nuclear deterrents almost always do deter a head-on military assault, except for relatively minor/peripheral conflicts such as the Kargil War of 1999, border skirmishes between the Soviets and China, etc. If Syria now had a nuclear deterrent, there is no way we would be entertaining even the thought of invading/intervening directly.

While we don't have evidence of what Tehran thinks about the overthrow of Gaddafi in 2011, we do know that they have taken a continued interest in the fate of that regime especially as it agreed to disarm in 2003. We know from Cablegate and from a public speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that the bribes offered to Gaddafi for giving up his nuclear ambitions were like “giving candy to a child.” We know from Cablegate that the Iranians derided Gaddafi's disarmament deal, saying he didn't get enough for it. We can surely assume that Gaddafi's disarmament, and subsequent overthrow and death, hasn't gone overlooked.

Its true that the fate of Gaddafi is not the only factor in Iran's mind as it develops its nuclear programme. But the general pattern in which we attack and overthrow regimes that are effectively defenceless (for want of a nuclear deterrent) and don't attack those that do would, as a matter of logic, empower the argument further for nuclearising, to avoid being the next target.

The North Korean regime has, in fact, pronounced on this issue. Its news agency during the 2011 war announced that it was teaching the world a lesson and that North Korea needed a powerful military.

Now clearly, we don't know exactly how much both regimes have changed their calculations based on the Libya war. But the decent chance that serial military interventions will incentivise proliferation is enough in itself for a reasonable worry, and a sizeable entry in the 'minus' column on the case for intervention.

Some other points:

Dispersal of arms did predate the bombing. But the point is that overthrowing Gaddafi and further empowering Islamist groups has accelerated and widened it. There was once a vicious but decidedly anti-AQ and anti-militant Islamist in power in Tripoli. Now, on this issue, there is far less control exerted from the state, and a vacuum of sorts. Admittedly, I get this from various North African experts writing columns in high brow papers, so it could be wrong. I don't claim that the Mali uprising was primarily caused by Gaddafi's downfall. But the downfall was an important enabling factor.

You may be right about the chronology of atrocities in Bosnia - I must read more about that, though I'm pretty sure our intervention accelerated the cleansing of Serbian peoples. But from other cases of communal or sectarian conflict (like Iraq) its hard to train and create impartial, responsible security forces intent on preserving a rule of law. The penetration of security services to the point where they act as agents of one 'side' in a war is a serious issue hard for us to control.

Patrick Porter said...

I should have mentioned two further points: first, the KLA in the Balkans as well. Our intervention in 1999 certainly did enable it to ramp up its atrocities shortly after the conflict, from the chronology of atrocities given by Human Rights Watch in any event.

Second - one thing you have defended, skilfully, on your blog is the moral necessity of sticking it out in Afghanistan. One problem is that to succeed there, even just to sustain operations, we have become reliant on Russia through the North Distribution Network, and presumably will be looking to Russia amongst other important players to help assist Kabul after America's drawdown. One big reason for the Obama Administration's caution on Syria is its awareness that further antagonising Moscow on the question of Syrian sovereignty could jeopardise what will be an increasingly important issue in Central Asia, namely keeping Russian cooperation in the stabilisation of Afghanistan. If I'm right (and of course, I may not have the whole picture), doesn't this suggest another good reason for not doing anything to over-internationalise the Syrian conflict?

On the issue of just war: I'm hardly an ethicist (laughter), but I think humanitarian intervention should be held to a higher standard than the 'balance sheet' approach of utilitarianism, given that we are intervening in the name of human rights principles. If our intervention replaces a torturing/repressive regime with a less bad torturing/repressive regime (and it is conducting widespread torture), and furthermore if that helps to fuel nuclear proliferation abroad and the empowerment of our existing Islamist enemies, then something in me says that this really isn't good enough.

But I could be wrong, that replacing one regime with a less bad regime at considerable strategic cost could still be justified. But then it would be our duty to take steps to ensure, as far as possible, that post-bellum atrocities didn't take place. But that would require a ground troop presence. And we should think twice, or even three times, about that prospect, in Syria at least.

Good stuff anyway. Where are you based? We should have beers.

kellie said...

Hi Patrick, there's a lot of different points in those two comments, and a lot I either doubt or disagree with, but for the moment I'll focus on the nuclear proliferation issue.

This seems to be relevant solely to Iran and North Korea, agreed? Pakistan and India are now established as nuclear powers, and no other states appear both able and willing to incur the costs of going down that road in the near future.

Of the two, the fate of Iran's nuclear program is directly connected with Syria, as Syria is key to Iran's use of Hezbollah to deter a military attack on its program.

The longstanding policy response by all opposed to Iran's program has been one of threat, economic and military, and it's reasonable that Iran's leadership should continue to feel threatened whether or not there's an overt Western military intervention in Syria.

It's also reasonable for them to expect continuing threat even if they halt their nuclear program, given the history of Iraq next door, given their own history of threatening behaviour, and given their domestic insecurity. There is simply no credible way the current regime can be assured that they are not under threat, whatever policy is pursued in Syria.

Because reassurance cannot be credible, we are left with continuing a strategy of making the nuclear path the one that carries greatest threat for Iran's leadership. Denying them the ability to use Hezbollah as a deterrent serves that strategy well.

On to North Korea - I don't think the North Korean bomb can be driven solely by fear of invasion by South Korea or the US, as its conventional forces already provide a massive deterrent against that. I think a very important factor might be to give them increased independence from China. As a buffer state for China, they are expendable. It seems another buffer state of China, Vietnam, has drawn closer to the US in order to resist Chinese dominance. North Korea doesn't have that option, so the bomb may seem their best option for assuring them of independence from China. This consideration obviously won't be affected by events in Syria.

kellie said...

On Afghanistan, and remembering Russia's recent history re. Chechnya, I think Russia's interests would best be served by a stable Afghanistan without a significant US presence, with maximum Russian influence at minimum cost, in which case the rational course for Russia would be to play along with the US-ISAF wind-down and sell Afghanistan as many arms and services as possible (for American money).

But of course I don't think one should assume that Putin is wholly rational..