9 April 2018

Syria’s humanitarian disaster is fast becoming a global crisis

By Bob Seely

The world is becoming a more dangerous place.  

The bad-tempered row between the West and the Kremlin over the Skripals’ poisoning is being significantly compounded thanks to the latest chemical weapon attack by Syrian leader President Bashar Al-Assad on his own people. President Trump has warned of a “big price to pay” for this weekend’s strike in Douma, near Damascus, which has killed dozens.

It’s difficult to see what Trump’s words can mean, apart from more missile strikes.

Syria risks becoming the Balkans of the 21st Century – a confused cauldron of competing factions – with the danger of great power conflict.  

Whilst there are many good reasons to bomb Assad’s repugnant regime, it won’t stop the killing and won’t change the balance of power, but it will make our relations with Moscow worse. Not only is Syria now a critical Russian client state, but the UN has also concluded that chemical weapons have previously probably been delivered with Russian-supplied kit, which may make them a party to war crimes. The question is not whether we are in a cold war with Russia. We are. The question now is: how bad might it get, and where?

The Assad regime entirely bears responsibility for the horrors of Syria’s civil war and the chemical attacks. However, the miserable reality is that Western states left effective intervention in Syria too late. The history of Western involvement has been a catalogue of misjudgments.

First, Western states, especially the UK, misunderstood the nature of Syrian uprising. We saw the demonstrators as human rights activists. Some were, but many of them were religiously conservative farmers from northern Syria who had endured poverty and weak harvests. The Syrian uprising was only partially about democratic rights. It was also about economics and religion too.

Second, we misread the determination of Assad’s circle. When the protests began the regime, a Soviet-model totalitarian state with a brutal secret police, engineered provocations. Peaceful protests quickly became violent. The regime freed violent jihadis from prison, trained a murderous paramilitary force called the Shabiha, besieged communities and slaughtered civilians.

Third, Western support was pitifully slow and disconnected. Both the US and its military allies, the UK and France, equivocated past the point of useful action. When the US did act, CIA and Department of Defence programmes competed with each other. They failed to produce enough Syrian fighters who would fight. Some handed over their kit to extremist factions as soon as they returned to Syria.

Fourth, the Saudis, who also invested in Sunni militias, weren’t much better. Within the damaging Russia/West dynamic, there is also the Saudi/Iranian proxy battle. Riyadh threw money at Sunni groups, but, as with the US, they didn’t produce. Some of the strongest Sunni fighters have tended to come from AQ and ISIS affiliated groups.

The time to act was when the August 2013 Eastern Ghouta chemical weapon attack took place. Russia had yet to be involved, the regime was struggling and the opposition still had influential moderates. That nervous Western Coalition fell apart, thanks largely to the UK Parliament’s vote against military action.

That decision now looks awful. I hope former Labour leader Ed Miliband (remember him?) in particular hangs his head in shame.  Hundreds of thousands of people have since died, murdered by all parties in the conflict. UN war crimes investigators believe that the Syrian Government has used chemical weapons more than two dozen times since 2013 (for a useful timeline please see here).

Instead of a Western red line, Russia moved in Sept 2015, with speed and surprise, to buttress its former client state. It has since established advanced Air Defence systems there, covering parts of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Turkey. It has tested over 50 new weapons in the Syrian theatre.

Thanks to Russian air support as well as Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces, the situation has drastically changed. Assad’s Alawite-Shia regime is secure, the rebellion is being crushed and the US has been disengaging from its Sunni Arab proxy groups.  

Iran in particular has gained. As well as being the dominant influence in Iraq, it now has a land corridor, via Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon. Israel is nervous. Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza are Iranian clients. Syria is in its pocket too.

The one positive note for the West has been the US alliance with Kurdish Syrian forces in the north of Syria, which have been instrumental in destroying the Islamic terror state, ISIS, in Syria. This has come at the price of strained US relations with Turkey.

So, whilst US bombing the regime makes much moral sense, it makes little strategic sense because the war has already been won and previous bombings have not prevented chemical weapons’ use. Bombing may be right, but it is also gesture politics on a grand scale and with significant potential cost.

Syria is one of several proxy battlefields being contested between Russia and the West. The other battlefields are: in cyberspace; in eastern Europe where Russia is developing conventional military dominance over neighbours, as well as missile and tactical nuclear weapon advantage in the European theatre; in the Balkans where Russian has been accused of arming its client the Bosnian Serbs; in Ukraine, where Russian has elements of two divisions; and in Afghanistan, where Russia has allegedly armed the Taleban.

So how will Syria and its Iranian and Russian sponsors respond if the US bombs?  They have many options. In Syria, Assad and Putin could target remaining US proxies still in theatre. Assad will also increasingly demand that the US withdraw entirely from his country, supported by Russia and its allies at the UN.

In Kurdish Syria, Moscow and Damascus will redouble efforts to encourage the Kurds to ditch the US as their sponsor and instead accept Moscow’s support to reintegrate Kurdish Syria into a federal state. If this happens, it will be a major victory for Russia and a humiliation to the US which will reverberate throughout the Middle East.

Russia can hurt the US in other ways too. Outside Syria, it can supply advanced weaponry systems to Iran, which may then go to Tehran’s proxies in Lebanon or Yemen. Perhaps Russia and Iran may train Shia activists in the Middle East in the sort of subversive conflict that the Kremlin has been practising elsewhere.

In Europe, Moscow could export its “managed conflict” warfare model to the Balkans using the Bosnian Serbs. It could annexe a part of Moldova called Transdniestria. It may increase pressure on the Baltic states or turn up the heat in the managed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In short, there are many ways it can strike back. The one counter-balance may be the World Cup. Moscow wants the World Cup as a sign of its great power status. Should Moscow react cautiously now, it is because it wishes to limit the damage to the success of the competition.

So, apart from bombing, do Western states have other options? The UK has backed NGOs who have catalogued Syrian war crimes – there are a staggering number in this extraordinarily vile war. But Russia will veto any UN resolutions and there is little chance of Syrian war crimes suspects being sent for trial, unless they are enemies of the regime.

Therefore, whilst the Assad regime survives, there will be no justice in Syria.  The dead will have no day in court. The time to have done something game-changing has passed. Regardless of whether bombing is the right thing to do, whatever we do in Syria is too little, too late. What it will do is worsen the cold war with Russia, and create a multitude of dangerous possibilities.

Bob Seely is MP for the Isle of Wight. He sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee and writes on military strategy and nonconventional forms of war.