Friday, 12 February 2016

Syria: history's verdict

I have been granted a sneak preview of a history book due to be published in 2061. In view of the latest headlines about a 'partial cessation of hostilities' agreement in Syria, I thought you might be interested to see it, so here's an extract:

'Fifty years after the start of the uprising in Syria that led to a devastating regional conflagration, the global effects of which are still being felt, it is now possible to attempt an assessment of the world powers' catastrophic failure to prevent the disaster that was unfolding in front of their eyes.

'The question that needs to be asked is why, with so much real-time information available to them, and with the unprecedented amounts of detailed surveillance data that they were able to collect from drones and satellites, world leaders did so little to contain the conflict. Indeed, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that the actions they took fanned the flames rather than damped them down. Their faith in a succession of flimsy so-called ceasefire agreements served only to highlight the inadequacy of their response to what they all knew was a major humanitarian disaster.

'In 1920, the then British prime minister David Lloyd George said that Europe had "staggered and stumbled" into the First World War. The same could be said of the conflict that engulfed the Middle East after the start of the woefully misnamed "Arab Spring" in 2011. Regional powers, especially Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, turned Syria into a battleground on which they fought for domination, and when President Putin committed Russia's air power on the side of the Assad regime in late 2015, the table was set for a war without end.

'To understand the reluctance of the other world powers -- especially the United States and the European Union -- to take early and effective action in Syria, it is necessary to acknowledge the deep trauma suffered by Western decision-makers after their disastrous military interventions in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, and Libya in 2011. In each case, intervention was seen to have done more harm than good. It is no surprise, therefore, that the brief flowering of the UN doctrine known as 'the responsibility to protect' (R2P), did not survive.

'In February 2016, the Washington Post published an article headlined "Syria, already a catastrophe, seems on the verge of an uncontrollable disaster", in which it quoted the then German ambassador to the US, Peter Wittig, as saying of the refugee crisis caused by the war: "The United States has been slow to recognize this is a much bigger thing than anything else we’ve experienced since the beginning of the European Union …We were totally unprepared."

'Coincidentally, on the same day, the Financial Times ran a piece by a leading Russian analyst, Dmitri Trenin, of the think-tank the Carnegie Moscow Center. After Russian warplanes had pummelled opposition positions in Syria's biggest city, Aleppo, he warned, there was a chance that both Saudi Arabia and Turkey would be tempted to commit their own troops to the war. If they did, he said, "With the US, Russia and regional powers directly involved, Syria can become the first battleground in the global competition for power and influence that has restarted after a 25-year hiatus."

'On 11 February 2016, the Russian prime minister Dimitry Medvedev, was quoted as telling a German newspaper: “The Americans and our Arab partners must think hard about [deeper Saudi military involvement in Syria] – do they want a permanent war? All sides must be forced to the negotiating table instead of sparking a new world war.” The warning could not have been starker -- yet it was ignored.

'Another analyst, Julien Barnes-Dacey, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, accurately forecast the next phase of the conflict: "A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides, and we’re likely to now enter a new, equally devastating, phase."

'We now know that this is exactly what happened. Each party to the conflict committed more military resources to the battlefield in the belief that a stronger position on the ground would strengthen their hand in negotiating a political settlement. It is impossible to overstate the wrongheadedness of this approach and the incalculable cost in human suffering that it caused.

'What makes any convincing analysis of European leaders' myopia so difficult is that by 2015, the impact of the Syria crisis was affecting them directly, with hundreds of thousands of refugees from the war flooding across their borders. The net result, however, rather than encouraging them to seek a resolution of the conflict, was that they focused their energies almost exclusively on how to keep the refugees away from their borders and how to protect their citizens from what they mistakenly characterised as an existential terrorist threat. It was to prove a major error of judgement.

'The approach of the US President, Barack Obama, who had come to office on a promise to end wars, not start them, was one of extreme caution verging on paralysis. Towards the end of his eight years in the White House, he relied increasingly on his secretary of state, John Kerry, to keep alive the hope that negotiations could end the conflict. But after the inauguration of his much more hardline successor in January 2017, US military aid to the anti-Assad forces was sharply increased, resulting in turn in an increase in Russian military support for the regime and an intensification of the conflict.

'It is not as if no one saw what was coming. One of the US's most influential commentators, Tom Friedman of the New York Times, wrote in February 2016: "I am certain that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is deliberately bombing anti-regime Syrians to drive them into Europe in hopes of creating a rift in the European Union, strain its resources and make it a weaker rival to Russia and a weaker ally for America."

'The Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin wrote: "The Middle East has entered a period that will probably last a couple of decades, in which there will be little peace and a lot of fighting." He was wrong -- but only in underestimating the duration of the conflict.

'If there were an Inter-Galactic Judicial Authority -- and given the recent discovery of life forms far more advanced than ours elsewhere in the universe, such an authority may soon be established -- it would be fully justified in ruling that the political leaders on Planet Earth in the first half of the 21st century were culpably negligent in the way they mishandled the Syria crisis. The tragedy is that their successors have not shown any sign so far of learning from their mistakes. War has become the new normal.'

For the avoidance of doubt, I should clarify that the history book from which the above extract is taken has not yet been written. I wish I were more confident that it never will be.            


Anonymous said...

Lustig makes no mention of the mainspring of the unfortunate involvement of the US in MENA region wars: Israel. We know that Richard Perle proposed a limited toppling plan to the Israeli government while working there for them. Returning to the USA he had access to the White House and controlled the Pentagon Office of Special Plans. The US government adopted the seven nation toppling plan described by General Wesley Clark.

The purpose of the plan was to fragment any nations that might be or become a threat to Israel.

Today's main error is adhering to that Israeli-oriented Neocon plan.

Anonymous said...

Robin, you write "The tragedy is that their successors have not shown any sign so far of learning from their mistakes. War has become the new normal."

To quote Aldous Huxley - "Men do not learn much from the lessons of history and that is the most important of all the lessons of history." Sad, but seemingly, very true.

A good, if somewhat depressing, article though. Thank you.

Robbo said...

Dear Robin,

An interesting piece and overall, you are probably right in your general observations.

However, why do you take the same western leaning view on this as so much of our media and political elite? You mention Turkey and Saudia Arabia in particular, as contributing to difficulties in obtaining any settlement in Syria but there is little condemnation. But Russia is castigated for apparently bombing there so as to drive hordes of refugees west causing difficulties for West European governments.

The sad fact is that it is western involvement in the region over 50 or more years that has led us to the present position. Western leaders have pontificated on how we know what is best, how we will create good governance and how we will remove from power those who we think are not appropriate.

The result is Iraq and Syria, Libya and Afhganistan. And let's face it, we have also been trying hard in Ukraine too, however, due to Syria that has fallen off the front pages.

That said, I deplore Russian bombing in Syria too, as it all just adds to casualties on the ground and little benefit to the people supposedly being helped.

I think Mr Medvedev has it right in that all sides must get to the negotiating table to avoid sparking a new world war. If not, your book may never be published.