If the French and the British mean what they say about actually delaying the selling of arms to the Syrian rebels until 1 August, then the European Union’s decision to lift in principle the embargo on arms sales to any of the Syrian factions is the worst possible outcome of the talks in Brussels this past Monday (27 May).
According to The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, Foreign Secretary William Hague says: “It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so. Tonight EU nations have done just that.… Thousands of lives are at stake in Syria. Our focus remains on efforts to secure a successful outcome at the forthcoming Geneva conference, and a political transition that ends the conflict, allows refugees to return to their homes and prevents further radicalisation in Syria.”
So, if sufficient progress hasn’t been made by 1 August in terms of diplomatic efforts to set up a proposed peace conference/process, Britain and France can then sell arms to the rebels.
That seems to be the message Hague and his French opposite number, Laurent Fabius, intend Bashar al-Assad to receive. However, it may well be read in Damascus that Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies have 2 months to maximise their efforts against the rebels and secure the strongest position on the ground that they can before the 1 August deadline.
RED seem to be the dominant vMEME working the calculations in the heads of Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah whose thinking seems to be very short-term - What can we achieve now? In the Iranians, it seems there is some ORANGE in with their RED/BLUE zealotry as they seek to manipulate the other players to their strategic advantage.
It may well be that the regime forces can make sufficient progress in that 2-month window that the rebels will be so degraded that there is little left of the rebel movement to sell arms to, come 1 August
After all, with the tactical assistance of the Iranians and Hezbollah forces on the ground, it does look as the regime is gaining a significant amount of territory back from the rebels. Certainly the ferocity of the fighting around Qusair, the brutal massacres at al-Bayda and Baniyas, and the almost-certain low-level use of chemical weapons against rebel forces indicates a renewed and evermore ruthless determination by the regime to stop and reverse rebel advances.
It has been mooted by a number of commentators – eg: Gökhan Bacik (2012) – that, in the event of a de facto partition of Syria along sectarian lines, the Iranians are determined to maintain at least a rump Alawite-dominated Syria as an ally to give them access to Lebanon and opportunity for the never-off-the-agenda campaign against Israel. The larger they can make that rump Alawite-dominated Syria the better. If they can effectively destroy or severely degrade the rebel movement so the Assad regime remains intact but beholden to and ever more dependent on the Iranians, then the Iranians really have won the battle for Syria.
While the Russians may be able to keep the Americans and the anti-arming-the-rebels Europeans dangling with the thin hope of a peace process/conference - supposedly in June and supposedly now jeopardised by the EU decision, according to the Russians – Assad’s forces and their allies can get on with destroying the rebels.
Obviously I’m not privy to how hard Hague and Fabius had to work to get the EU to lift in principle the arms embargo - and it’s more than likely a 2-month delay in actually doing anything in practice was the best compromise they could get and still have the semblance of an EU policy, as opposed to purely national policies, on the issue…. But 2 months is a long time when Assad’s forces so massively outgun the rebels, have Iranian intelligence and special forces working for them and more and more manpower to actually do the dirty work on the ground (reportedly now Iraqi Shia fighters, as well as those from Hezbollah).
If I‘ve read the likely Assad/Iranian/Hezbollah response to the EU arms embargo lifting in principle correctly, we can expect to see unrestrained all-out war in Syria over the next 2 months - war on a scale we’ve not seen so far - with much greater loss of life.
One of the paybacks for their support that the Iranians and Hezbollah can leverage off Assad is transport through Syria of sophisticated hi-tech weapons from Iran to Hezbollah. That has already led to at least 3 Israeli air strikes against such convoys. Hezbollah getting such weapons is a ‘red line’ for Israel. So, if the Assad/Iran/Hezbollah axis does wage a much more all-out war with the rebels and weapon transfers to Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon increase, there is a real danger of the Israelis getting involved on a much greater level.
That risks other Arab countries getting involved and even Sunni and Shia joining together against the hated common enemy, the Jews of Israel, as per Samuel Gaertner et al’s Common In-Group Identity Model (1993). Then we have the much-feared regional conflagration with the even greater danger of the United States and Russia supporting their respective clients in the region. The Russian response to the EU arms embargo lift of going ahead with the sale of sophisticated ground to air missiles is an indicator of the kind of superpower proxy war through arms sales that might result from the Syrian civil war developing into a more regional conflict.
On the sidelines the Chinese must be laughing!
How did we get into this mess?
The West touts Democracy as the form of government the world should aspire to.
But Democracy can produce governments that aren’t to the West’s liking – eg: the election of Hamas in Gaza in 2006.
Thus, the West has been rather ambivalent about the results so far of the Arab Spring, with democratic elections producing varying shades of Islamist governments coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya. Thus, as well as the niceties of international law prohibiting unilateral intervention and Russia and China stalling any attempt to use the United Nations to legitimise the rebel struggle, post-withdrawal Iraq on the verge of sectarian meltdown and Afghanistan still to be resolved in anything like a viable manner, the prospect of supporting another Democracy movement that could result in yet-another pro-Islamist government has hardly been appealing to the West.
Thus, in the early days of the conflict, distinctions were drawn clearly between Libya and Syria, with justifications made for the West not intervening as it had done in Libya - eg: when asked on CBS Face the Nation in March 2011 if the US would intervene in Syria, then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said: “What’s been happening there the last few weeks is deeply concerning, but there’s a difference between calling out aircraft and indiscriminately strafing and bombing your own cities than police actions which, frankly, have exceeded the use of force that any of us would want to see.” (Doug Mataconis, 2011)
Truth to tell, it would have probably suited the West - and Israel - if the Arab Spring had never begun. Semi-surreptitiously supporting Middle East dictators - eg: Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian army to the tune of $4B per year - to keep their Islamists in check and their oilfields open to the West must have seemed quite a viable option. It also gave the West and Israel Arab leaders they felt they could ‘do business’ with. According to diplomat, Michael Herzog, in 2010 the Israelis even made secret contacts with Bashar al-Assad’s government, with a view to Israel withdrawing from the Golan Heights (occupied by Israel since the 6-Day War of 1967) in return for a full peace treaty between the 2 countries. The tentative negotiations were scuppered by the beginnings of the Arab Spring (Isabel Kershner, 2012).
Thus, the Arab Spring caught most Western countries on the hop. Probably no one could have seen the self-immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia in December 2010 as the catalyst for a movement which would overthrow Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in less than a month. But, by the time Mubarak was in trouble another month later in the far more strategically-important Egypt, top decision-makers in the West should have been reformulating policy and having alternative strategies in place for if more of the dictators the West had semi-surreptitiously sponsored fell.
Instead, it seemed the planners in the West were caught out by the pace of events on the ground time after time.
Once the rebels in whatever country played the ‘democracy card’, the West was caught between what it said - espousing Democracy in the most holier-than-thou BLUE way - and what it did – propping up corrupt dictators as a RED/ORANGE expediency.
Recent experience – disaster in Iraq, triumph turned into disaster in Afghanistan and military support for the Libyan rebels which resulted in an unresolved chaos ranging from armed banditry to Islamic fundamentalists vying for power – combined with Chinese intransigence at the UN Security Council and overt Russian support for Assad - has left the West dithering for 2 years as to what to do about Syria.
It is remarkable what the rebels have achieved in those 2 years, given how little external support they’ve had. It’s also no wonder that, when French and British jets didn’t appear over the horizon to save them the way they had at Benghazi in March 2011, the rebels inevitably accepted what little help they could get from the Saudis and Qataris who began arming the emerging Free Syrian Army. Given the domination of Sunnis amongst the elites of Saudi Arabia and Qatar and their antipathy towards Shia Iran, this inevitably meant a not-so-latent sectarian element began to take hold in the struggle. The rebel movement has become increasingly identified as a Sunni force while Assad’s reliance on both Iran and his Alawite strongholds has meant the regime is increasingly seen as Shia. This is an example of a nasty PURPLE/BLUE vMEME harmonic dehumanising the ‘others’ and justifying atrocities against them. See Eating Your Enemy’s Heart…
The failure of the West to support the putative democrats of the early revolution also created a vacuum which the jihadists have been able to fill. The likes of the al-Nusra Front, driven by the PURPLE/RED vMEME harmonic of sectarian hatred and RED/BLUE zealotry, are well disciplined and fight ferociously, they have the pick of the weaponry coming in from the Saudis and the Qataris and they can get some of their number to become suicide bombers. More detailed commentary from historians in the coming years may contradict me…but, by and large, it appears to be the jihadists and their Saudi and Qatari arms which have enabled the rebels to fight such good campaigns - in spite of regime airpower! - over the past year.
No wonder the Islamists have real influence among the rebels! The Americans and the anti-arming-the-rebels Europeans can voice soundbite worries all they like about European hi-tech arms potentially passing from moderate rebels to jihadists; if the West had found the means to fill the vacuum quickly and effectively, there might have been much less of a role for the jihadists to play.
There again, the Russians would have been very strongly opposed to another Libyan-style intervention by the West…and what if the result of an intervention was another Islamist-learning government elected through Democracy…?
The Democracy Fallacy
Encouraged by what the West beams into their living rooms via satellite TV and what they find on the internet, many Arabs, particularly at the younger end of the spectrum, think Western-style Democracy is the way for their country to go. They also see the voice a one man/one (secret) vote system would provide as enabling them to start to resolve the crippling poverty, high unemployment and lack of career prospects that is a common factor in all the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
But where Western-style Democracy has been tried, it has failed to deliver what the West intended. In Iraq, Democracy failed because people voted along sectarian lines. In Gaza it gave power to a proscribed terrorist group. Over in Afghanistan, it has produced a manifestly corrupt government.
So why doesn’t Democracy work in these countries? (In asking this question, it’s also important to recognise that Democracy doesn’t exactly work at home in the way the West usually portrays it as doing. The pristine BLUE theoretical process is, in fact, manipulated – sometimes quite overtly! – by the ORANGE of the wealthy elites via their control of the media - see Voters.)
Western-style Democracy doesn’t work in the Middle and Near-East because it’s a BLUE-defined process pushed mindlessly at peoples whose thinking is mostly in PURPLE and RED. Most of them will not analyse the manifestos objectively and make up their own minds; they will vote as the tribal elders tell them to, in the interests of the tribe. Many of them think, via their exposure to democratic notions, that Democracy is the answer; yet, when they do get the opportunity to vote in a democratic process, they still vote along tribal lines.In 4Q/8L terms, the process (Lower Right Quadrant) is not matched to the thinking of the people (Lower Left Quadrant).
What is required is what Spiral Dynamics co-developer Don Beck calls ‘Stratified Democracy’ - see: Stratified Democracy vs Modernisation Theory - the aim of which is to match up the Lower Quadrants by developing forms of government which fit where the bulk of people are on the Spiral.
These themes are explored in greater depth in Well, are the Arabs ready for Democracy?
The upshot of this is that a revolution to have Western-style Democracy is not the answer for the Arabs in most cases. Firstly, the cultural mindset of the majority is not ready to think for themselves in the way true Democracy demands.
Secondly, it’s highly debatable how much the West (and Israel), for all the rhetoric, really want these countries to have democratic institutions they may not be able to control in place of a dictator they usually can – or at least significantly influence.
To avoid more Syrias - and there are plenty more waiting to happen, not just in the Middle East – the concepts of Stratified Democracy need to be applied so that the form of representative government developed is fit for the cultural mindset of the people who will use it. Western-style Democracy needs to be saved for when the bulk of the population are at least edging towards BLUE thinking as a cultural centre of gravity.
So what to do about Syria now…?
While the fighting carries on, punctuated by massacres and atrocities, while the Iranians and the Israelis each look for strategic advantage and the Russians try to hang onto what influence they still have in the Middle East, Western politicians repeatedly fumble haplessly, seeming clueless as to what to do and unable to stop the drift towards a regional conflagration.
However, there is a common interest around which the West and Russia can unite. That then can provide the starting point for a radical series of steps to at least bring the fighting to a relative stop and give both sets of protagonists the space to step back from the brink.
Ironically, it is the use of chemical weapons which could provide the catalyst for a United Nations intervention which both the United States and Russia can lead. Both countries are deeply afraid of terrorists using ‘weapons of mass destruction’. While Russia has nothing in its recent history comparable to 9/11, the Russian Government is deeply concerned about Islamic terrorists from within its federal borders - eg: from Chechnya – and from across the thousands of miles of border it shares with Islamic states such as Azerbaijan. So it would be in the interests of both countries to secure the large chemical weapons stocks in Syria.
And, while most of the allegations about chemical weapons use are directed against regime forces, there have been allegations that rebel forces have used them too. Thus, a decision to intervene to secure the chemical weapons stocks and prevent their use, does not have to seem a one-sided, anti-Assad move
Since not all the chemical weapons stocks are fully itemised and traceable, a rather sizeable force would have to intervene to search all over the country for likely sites. To minimise casualties from that forces, it would have to effectively be an invasion force that could close down the fighting.
For international legitimacy, such a force would need to be authorised by the UN Security Council. However, if the Russians were positioned as joint leaders of the force alongside the Americans, then such a move should be something the Security Council could be united in backing.
Phase 1, then, would be a sizeable invasion force jointly led by the United States and Russia. Not only do they have the interest but they are arguably the only 2 countries with such powerful militaries that they, between them, could close down a ‘hot war’. Their aim would be to neutralise the combat forces so that the specialists could locate and secure the chemical weapons. In practice, neutralising the combat forces probably means the regime forces returning to barracks under Russian supervision while the Americans guard the rebel arms dumps and the fighters return to their towns and villages. Allowing the protagonists theoretical ability to get their weapons and resume the war would possibly help reduce resistance to the occupation forces.
To close down and keep closed down such a war would require a massive occupation force. However, occupation forces can easily become the occupying enemy and unite the factions against them, as per the Common In-Group Identity Model. The Russians and the West leaning on their respective clients amongst the protagonists should help slow the growth of the inevitable resistance to occupation. During this phase, the UN would need to assign Syria ‘protectorate’ status.
Phase 2, then, would involve the setting up of a protectorate administration in Syria, with a sizeable occupation force to keep the peace largely drawn now from the Arab League and those Asian Muslim countries keen on combatting terrorism. The protectorate administration should aim to include as many members of the differing Syrian factions as possible, to get them used to working together (again).
During Phase 2, Stratified Democracy should be applied to design a form of government that is representative of the Syrian people as they currently are - although it could be long-term aspirational towards Democracy
For sure, the devil on such a plan would be in the detail. There would be multiple trust issues at just about every turn and every engagement. Casualties - both amongst Syrians and members of the occupying forces – would not be insignificant; however, they would unlikely to be anything as like as high as in the 2-month window between now and 1 August.
And the United Nations would be in at least nominal control, making it difficult for either Iran and Hezbollah to cause trouble in the way they are now or for Israel to claim provocation for attacks.
Costs of such a huge operation could at least partly be funded from Syria’s sizeable oil revenues.
The plan I have proposed is skeletal, radical…and anything like it very unlikely to come into being. Unfortunately, without such an intervention and with the EU effectively creating a 2-month window for slaughter, the fighting in Syria is likely to escalate into all-out war.
The 80,000 deaths acknowledged so far may seem fairly trivial compared to the body count on 31 July.