On Thursday, Sameer Rahim argued that there is a difference between stepping in to start a war and stepping in to end oneby Sameer Rahim / April 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
The latest chemical attack on Douma by Bashar al-Assad’s regime has aroused strong emotions. Though the Syrian dictator has attacked his own people with impunity since 2011, there is something especially horrifying about these outlawed weapons. I shall never forget a Syrian woman telling me about her two sons who were killed in the 2013 Sarin attack in Ghouta. At the time, Ghouta seemed to have breached Barack Obama’s famous red line but in the end, as we know, there was no retaliation. (Thanks, Ed Miliband.) The 2014 OPCW deal between US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian equivalent Sergei Lavrov was supposed to disarm the regime of its chemical weapons. It didn’t work. Since then Human Rights Watch has estimated that Assad—aided and protected by Russia—has carried out 50 chemical attacks using both sarin and chlorine.
Donald Trump’s contradictory tweets—in 24 hours we’ve gone from “Get ready Russia” to “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”—hardly inspire confidence that he has a thought-through plan to stop further chemical attacks. This time last year he bombed an empty airfield but didn’t follow up—it was simply an emotional spasm. Only a couple of weeks ago, he was saying that he wanted nothing more to do with Syria.
But those who would rather do nothing, or “tragic realists” as Obama grandly thought of himself, are wrong. There is the chance of intelligent intervention and the grown-up leaders in this situation, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron, should be guiding Trump towards that outcome.
What would intelligent intervention look like? Each time Assad violates the chemical weapons ban there should be proportionate retaliation: a man of force will only understand force. This may well mean hitting supply lines, his airforce or command and control centres. Hillary Clinton had plans for a no-fly zone similar to the one her husband set up in 1990s in Iraq, which allowed the Kurds to develop their own nascent state. That requires diplomatic skills that Trump and the US sorely lack right now, and is militarily more difficult than it sounds: such zones require enforcement, and that means bombing. But it should remain an option.
Of course that would mean facing down Vladimir Putin, the perpetrator of his own chemical attack on British soil last month. He saw an opportunity in 2013 and made Assad’s cause his own. All the heated—frankly overheated—claims of a new World War buy into the Russian government’s line about its own strength. Putin is brutal but not stupid. If challenged by the combined forces of the west he is of course unlikely to fold and come grovelling—but he may start to calculate his options.
One of those options might be to remove Assad from the equation. In a very complex conflict with multiple actors and interests, there is one simple truth: Syria’s ruler is the source of the country’s strife. His family has run the country like a mafia state for decades and since 2011 has inflicted unspeakable brutality that has cost an estimated 500,000 lives. The appalling scale of rape and murder in prisons has been documented, based on defectors’ testimonies.
“A man of force will only understand force”
Contra his apologists on left and right (George Galloway, Nigel Farage), even before the war he ran the county like a fascistic cult. When in Damascus in 2006, my mild-mannered Arabic tutor told me how during his military service had been mocked for saying his prayers. He and a friend were forced to bow down in front of a picture of Assad and chant: “You are my God.”
But still Assad could have chosen another path. When protests broke out against government abuses in 2011, he was apparently called by Jordan’s King Abdallah. Both young leaders were facing serious threats from the Arab Spring: Abdallah had advised him to embrace some sort of reform, as he had done, in order to quell unrest. Assad refused. He’d rather destroy his own country than give up an ounce of power. He released hardcore jihadis from prison so he could frame the coming revolution as a battle between him and the extremists. (This plan has worked all too well: the people who until recently ran Douma, the Army of Islam, are an unpleasant group and have cracked down on pro-democracy rebels.)
But there’s self-interest as well as morality at stake in removing Assad. Syria seems a very far-away country about which we know little. But it’s on the edge of the European Union and as we have seen with the refugee crisis, the conflict has destabilised our politics. Those tempted to “let Assad win” don’t realise that things have gone too far. Refugees won’t return for fear of reprisals. There will be another civil war, in five years, or 10. There will be more misery, and more refugees. Ideally the Syrian people should be the ones to remove their dictator. Realistically, Russia holds the cards and will only think of dumping him if he becomes a liability to their interests. Our aim in intervening would be to encourage the Russians to remove Assad.
All the Syrians I know and follow on social media—admittedly opposition supporters—are desperate for Trump to attack. Perhaps they are letting hope get the better of them. But what other option do they have? For those fearing this will be another Iraq should realise that there’s a difference between intervening to start a war and intervening to end one.
Crucially, I’m not talking about overthrowing the whole regime, or boots on the ground. Simply that we have some skin in the game. Like all civil wars—and despite what some revolutionaries tell you, it is a civil war—both sides need to negotiate with each other, so the painful task of reconciliation can begin. I cannot see that happening with Assad in charge. Only with his removal will talks be able to proceed in good faith. He has his backer. The question is, do we have the courage to back the Syrian people?