The west’s alliance against Assad is riddled with contradictions
The Guardian, Tuesday 26 March 2013 19.36 GMT
The tragedy in Syria lies as much in the dysfunctional international response as in the war on the ground
Over the past week there has been much wringing of hands over Syria, and rightly so. At every turn, the Gordian knot has been tightening, with little prospect of it being cut.
Monday’s grim news was that the founder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the erstwhile Syrian army colonel Riad al-Asaad, was seriously wounded in a targeted car bomb just before the Syrian National Coalition assumed Syria’s seat in place of the Assad regime at the Arab League meeting in Doha.
In war things rarely run smoothly, but the tragedy of Syria lies as much in the fragility of the coalition supporting the rebels as in the inconclusiveness of the rebels’ own political and military battles. Since the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN in early 2011, there has been no single “international community” voice on Syria. On team A we have the US, EU, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Russia, China, Iran and sundry others make up team B. Far from resolving the crisis, these competing actors cancelled out each other’s efforts over the ensuing two years. As the main instigators of Libya’s liberation from Muammar Gaddafi, the French and British clearly want to do more than train rebel soldiers in Jordan, or increase humanitarian assistance to refugees. In pushing for arms to reach the FSA in Syria, however, they are failing to manage their own allies, much less the opposing team.
The Arab League, meeting this week, is once again calling for more robust UN action, but this reflects neither diplomatic realities nor developments on the ground. Journalists covering Syria from the inside have revealed how Turkey and the Gulf states are already training, funding and arming rebel groups; but from a Franco-British perspective, they are clearly the wrong ones. Last week’s news that a low-level, chlorine-based chemical weapons may have been deployed from an area controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamist militia supported by Qatar, sits uneasily with the more secular FSA’s appeals for hardware from the west.
So far, the US is sitting on the fence – the new secretary of state, John Kerry, having failed to convince President Obama that inserting more weaponry into Syria will save lives down the line. The alliance struck with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey over Syria remains circumstantial. It is not clear that all of team A wants the same thing. Opposing Iranian, or indeed Russian, influence in Syria is not the same thing as securing the best outcome for the Syrian people. With the shadow of 2003 Iraq hanging heavily over western intervention, which lacks domestic support in both Europe and the US, the next best options remain no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors. Neither is anywhere close to being legally viable or practical on the ground.
What worked in Libya in 2011 now looks like a fortuitous sleight of hand. Given the EU’s tensions with Russia over Cyprus, the solid veto of China, and the regional activism of Qatar and Turkey, the Nato-led Libyan campaign may go down in history as one of the last actions of a consensus-based “international community”. The closer the crisis, the more local agendas prevail. Whether this means the Gulf favouring jihadist strongmen over democracy, or Turkey backing some of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian communities over others, it is not the Syrian people who will emerge victorious in any of the senses championed by the US and EU.
Facing up to the dysfunctionality of its own alliance over Syria should now be the priority of any UK-French plan. The alternative is to continue to back one increasingly narrow, divided and poorly resourced set of Syrians against another armed and championed by the west’s own regional allies