In the most recent broadcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about the turn (back) towards hard power competition in international affairs. You can find it here.
Well, it was bound to happen. After all the hemming and hawing and the kerfuffle that led to the announcement that New Zealand was sending 143 troops to Iraq as trainers and their force protection, the Prime Minister has now said the he would consider eventually sending to Syria a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) such as those previously deployed in Afghanistan. He said as well that he was open to the idea ofÂ deploying NZSAS in Syria as target selectors for anti-Daesh air-strikes. So much for his previous ironclad assurances that the training mission was the extent to which the NZDF would get involved in the anti-Daesh fight.
What is interesting about his statement is that he has the order of engagement reversed. For the PRT (which deploy about the same number of personnel as those currently stationed in Iraq) to be tasked in Syria Daesh will have to be pushed out of it, or at least significant portions of it. Even then, the mission will be difficult as the experience in Bamiyan attests (six of the nine NZDF combat dead came from the Bamiyan PRT, and Bamiyan was considered one of the safer Afghan provinces). However, for an eventual PRT deployment in Syria to happen, the conflict against Daesh will have to be ramped up exponentially, which is something the European members of the coalition and Australia are currently in the process of doing. The UK has started to use lethal drones against Daesh targets (primarily British citizens), and the French and Australians have decided to increase the number of air strikes they will fly against Daesh in Syria as well as Iraq.
Part of the air battle against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria is the use of UK, Australian and US special forces as target finders. US Army special forces are now fighting alongside Kurdish peshmerga in northern Syria, and it is widely believed that UK and Australian SAS are doing a bit more than just finding targets for air strikes, to include nighttime raids on Daesh facilities and troop formations in Iraq as well as Syria.
The New Zealand government denies that the NZSAS is in the conflict theatre, but it would be naive to take that assertion at face value given the close working ties between the NZSAS and the afore-mentioned special operators already there. If for no other reason, that scenario is possible because deploying of SAS assets in Syria in any role requires a fair bit of lead-in time, something that has now grown short as the migrant crisis deepens. There is some urgency to finding a front and back-end solution to the crisis: addressing the refugee flows on the back-end in Europe but upping the ante on the front-end (the Syrian/Iraqi conflict zone) so as to stop the refugee flows from continuing.
That is going to take some doing. The Iraq armed forces are no closer to re-taking Ramadi than they were before the NZDF “advisors” arrived in May. The oil refinery town of Baiji, north of Camp Taji where the NZDF troops are stationed, is still surrounded by Daesh fighters and at risk of falling to them. Mosul remains in Daesh hands. In Syria the Russians have decided to put skin into the game by sending the 1000-strong 810th Marine Brigade to Latakia (where RussiaÂ maintains an electronics signals intercept station) while reinforcing its naval base at Tartus. US intelligence has reported hearing Russian voices on Syrian armoured communications, which is not surprising given that Russian crews fought in Syrian tanks in the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel.
Russian involvement should be seen as a potentially positive development as it has indicated that it is open to joining the coalition against Daesh. It differs on the question of what to do with Assad, but the hard fact is that no solution to the Syrian civil war will come without Russia at the negotiating table (and Iran, for that matter). Sending combat troops to bolster Assad gives the Russians increased leverage as well as a greater stake than what they already have (which is considerable given that over 100,000 Russian citizens live in Syria and the Assad regime is its closest ally in the Middle East). Most importantly, it takes pressure off the West to solely shoulder the burden of rolling back Daesh. With the Russians and Iranian-backed shiia militias (including Hezbollah) on board in both Syria and Iraq and air strikes on Syria added to the coalition target list, a simultaneous pincer movement on Daesh in Iraq and Daesh in Syria can begin. Cutting off cross-border re-supply routes will be a priority and once that is accomplished, the squeeze can be placed on places like Mosul and Raqqa (the de facto capital of the Islamic State).
There is much more to the scenario and it will inevitably be ugly. Turkey is now involved but spending more time trying to kill Kurdish PKK fighters than those of Daesh (and the PKK obliges the Turks by turning its guns on Turkish targets) That will have to change, or at least Turkey’s security priorities will have to be reversed–Daesh first and then the PKK. Iran and the West will need to find an accommodation with regard to the former’s armed proxies in Iraq and Syria (something that has tacitly occurred in Iraq between Coalition forces and the al-Sadr Brigades). Other European and Middle Eastern nations will have to increase their military contributions to the fight. But it is clear that there is movement in these regards.
It appears that the refugee crisis has been the tipping point for that to occur, which is why the front- and back-end solution set is now being addressed and why John Key is being asked about what NZ proposes to do on both ends. If his recent waffling about the NZDF role is anything to go by, the process of mission creep could soon be underway and may well have started already.
I must be getting soft, but the image of the drowned Syrian child haunts me. Perhaps it is because I have a two year old or perhaps I am just getting sentimental and weepy in my advancing age, but it is doing my head in. I am not going to be the same for having seen it.
I say this because I have watched and read the coverage of the crisis for a while now and like so many others have not only wondered why the EU cannot craft a viable humanitarian response, but have also been struck by the nasty attitude of so many commentators here in NZ as well as in Europe, most of them on the Right, when considering the plight of these godforsaken people. So let me outline my thoughts on the matter.
The Syrian civil war is a man-made humanitarian disaster. Had it been a natural disaster with the same human impact, I doubt that the response would be the same as it is today. It no longer matters who started it, who is involved, who is to blame and when it might end. The people who are fleeing the war are non-combatants whose hand has been forced by events beyond their control. Those who say they have a choice to stay or go are either fools or cynics. That is like saying that a person subject to domestic abuse has a choice to stay or go. Or that a person has a choice to stay or go in a fire. Sure, they could stay but is that really an option? Did that Syrian child and his family really have a choice? Did they deserve their fate for having “chosen” to seek refuge in a supposedly safe part of the world? (the mother and two boys, ages 3 and 5 died; the father survived and has returned back to Kobani to bury them).
When people up stakes, leave most of their material possessions behind and bring their children on perilous journeys to foreign lands to which they have no prior ties and which are culturally alien to them, they are not “migrants.” They are refugees fleeing catastrophe. It does not matter if the catastrophe is human or environmental in nature (and in Syria it has been both). The bottom line is that they have undertaken great risk–in fact, they are risking it all–to flee the country of origin because of a calamity that is no fault of their own. They are refugees seeking safe haven wherever they can find it (which means a place that is stable and economically viable), and any attempt to define them otherwise is not only wrong but viciously inhumane.
Many of those leaving are secular Muslims and Christians who have been targeted by either Assad’s forces, Daesh or both. Many are the bulk of the shopkeeping and white collar service classes whose livelihoods have been destroyed by four years of war. The majority are moderate in their beliefs and political orientation, which is why they (or at least the men) have chosen not to fight. Their children have no educational opportunity at home, much less future careers. Â They do not seek passage to Europe to establish a caliphate or even Islamise it. To the contrary, they are fleeing exactly that possibility.
For those who say that they should have “chosen” to seek refuge in Gulf or North African Muslim states, be aware of two things: 1) they are refused at the borders; and 2) they are considered undesirables in any event given their relative secularisation and the fact that they are considered second-class Arabs (as are Palestinians) by many Gulf oligarchies (they very same that are funding and arming Daesh). So that possibility simply does not exist.
Refugees do not choose to leave or where to stay. They may have their preferences but they live at the mercy of others. But that is the operative term: mercy. Along with compassion and empathy, that is what distinguishes open societies from closed ones. Â And yet Europe has shown itself closed-minded on the issue in spite of the ongoing tragedy unfolding on their beaches and doorsteps.
Unfortunately, in today’s polarised ideological climate those virtues are disappearing in the West. That includes New Zealand, where Islamophobia and the “greed is good” mantras of the so-called neo-liberal elite have combined to encourage xenophobic, “me first” Â “f*** them” attitudes in the population. In spite of the fact that as far as I can tell no Syrian has ever done harm to New Zealand (and NZ has a small Syrian expat community), the National Party and its supporters do not want to increase the country’s refugee quota in the face of this humanitarian crisis. It apparently does not matter that NZ’s international reputation as a humane and open society rests in part on its attitude towards refugee issues. Nor does it apparently matter that as part of the UN Security Council, New Zealand has a diplomatic obligation to lead by example. Or that a broad reading of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine suggests that protection be awarded to those fleeing conflict as well as those immediately subject to it.
Say what you will, the Syrian exodus is a true humanitarian crisis. The people fleeing are refugees, not migrants. The world, or at least that part of it that is open and funded on notions of compassion, empathy and mercy, has a duty of care to them. It is therefore imperative, and a matter of pure humanity, for Europe and other open societies to step up and help the refugees as much as possible. We may ask ourselves why China, Russia and other nations do not heed the call of the desperate. But the fact is that it does not matter whether they do or not. The moral imperative is to ourselves as well as to those in need.
That is why it is despicable for the Key-led government to shirk its responsibilities on this matter. We have the room, the facilities and the community to support an increased refugee quota targeted at the displaced Syrians. The people we accept will be vetted and are highly unlikely to be interested in jihad or Islamisizing the country. If we can spend $28 million on a flag referendum and $42 million on a boat race challenge, then surely we can find some (considerably less) money to cover the costs of their assimilation. And who knows, we as well as they might be the better for it.
To not do something is a sorry indictment of what we have become as a society, and for those in the government that refused to act, their collective shame will last long after they have departed. The bottom line is clear: regardless of partisan orientation the time to act is NOW.
There are several things to consider when digesting news about the recently signed nuclear limitation agreement between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the UNSC permanent members US, UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, with the EU as a mediator/facilitator). First, what is publicly announced about international agreements is not always all that is agreed upon. Often times what is not publicly disclosed is as or more important than the announced terms.
Second, actors given majority credit for an international agreement may not have been as decisive as they and their home media would like the public to believe.
Third, no agreement stands alone or occurs in a vacuum: other geopolitical and strategic considerations are bound to frame and influence the terms of the finalized compact.
The agreement between Iran, EU and six world powers on the conditions by which Iran would de-weaponize its nuclear research program in exchange for a temporary relief from international sanctions is a case in point. The agreement is for six months, with an eye to negotiating a more permanent contract at the end of that period. The 7 billion dollars in sanctions relief is not a huge amount by global standards, but significant in that it demonstrates the effectiveness of the sanctions regime imposed on Iran as well as its the flexibility of it (since it can be reimposed in the event Iran reneges on its promises).
The technical details are pretty straight forward: Iran agrees to suspend the enrichment of natural uranium (U238) beyond five percent and to neutralize its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium (U235). This is a step away from weaponization because most weapons grade U235 is enriched above 80 percent, which is relatively easy to produce if 20 percent enriched U235 is on hand. Most civilian nuclear energy programs use 3 to 5 percent enriched U235 fuel, thereby making weaponization more time consuming and costly. The agreement therefore does not interfere with Iran’s ability to enrich uranium for civilian power production.
Iran will also curb its use and purchase of centrifuges employed for said enrichment as well as suspend the heavy water reactor extraction methods used to produce plutonium. The entire Iranian nuclear complex will be placed under tighter international inspection controls.
The Western media has variously described the deal as a “US-Iran” or “Iran-Western” accord, but the importance of China and Russia should not be ignored. Both of these powers have friendly relations with Teheran and have supplied it with weapons and diplomatic support. They were not at the meetings in Geneva to serve as props for the US and UK. In fact, their presence in the negotiations should be considered to be decisive rather than incidental, to the point that they may have had a large say in the broader issues being bargained over that eventually sealed the deal.
What might those issues be? That brings up the larger geopolitical and strategic context.
Iran, as is well known, is a major patron of the Assad regime in Syria, currently engaged in a civil war against a Sunni opposition backed by the West and Sunni Arab states. The Assad regime receives funding, weapons and direct combat support from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiia militia that serves as an Iranian proxy and power multiplier in the Levant. Assad also receives weapons from Russia, which has a naval base at the port of Tartus and which considers the Assad regime as its closest Arab ally.
Should Assad fall, not only Russia but more importantly Iran will lose a major source of power projection in the region. This would suit Israel and the Sunni Arab world, as Iran is seen as an existential threat by Israeli and Arab Sunni elites alike. Defeating Assad will pave the way for Israel to turn its military gaze more directly on Hizbollah, something that will not meet with much opposition from the West or the Sunni Arab elites. Israel is less concerned about the radical nature of a future Sunni government in Syria or the fragmentation of that country into sectarian enclaves, as the heterogenous rebel coalition now fighting Assad will be consumed by factional in-fighting that will limit its ability to project meaningful military force across its borders whether Syria as presently constituted remains intact or not. Sunni Arab elites will welcome a Sunni dominance in Syria as another bulwark against Shiia influence in the eastern Mediterranean, again, whether Syria retains its present boundaries or divides into smaller Sunni states.
However, it has become increasingly clear that the leading rebel groups in Syria are led by al-Qaeda inspired jihadis who are as bad if not worse than the Assad regime when it comes to committing callous atrocities against civilians as well as armed opponents. They are people who do not have much regard for the laws of war and who have published videos of themselves gassing dogs using crude chemical weapons (which may have had something to do with the rush to reach agreement on removing Assad’s CW stockpiles in the midst of the civil war), and who have had to apologize for “accidentally” beheading a fellow Sunni rebel leader under the mistaken assumption that he was an Alawite or Shiia Assad supporter (all videotaped, of course). Their atrocities (as well as those of the Assad regime) are well documented in the propaganda war now raging on social media.
Jihadist government in Syria may not be an existential threat to Western, much less global interests, but it is the most visible. It would be the first and most important place outside of Afghanistan where Islamicists fought their way into power (Somalia does not count). That is a significant issue regardless of their actual military power because symbolism matters and diplomacy is as much about symbology as it is about substance.
Following Russia’s lead and over Israeli and Saudi protestations, Western powers have become very alarmed about a possible jihadi victory in Syria, and now see a weakened Assad remaining in power or as part of a brokered coalition as the lesser evil. Hence the previous Western moves to give material and technical assistance to the rebels have slowed considerably while calls for a negotiated solution grow louder. Not surprisingly and following on the success of the Iran nuclear accord, negotiations on the Syrian crisis are now scheduled for January in Geneva, and include the Iranians as interested parties along with those supporting the anti-Assad forces grouped in and around the non-jihadist Syrian National Coalition and Free Syrian Army.
For Iran, this was the bargaining chip. It can agree to temporarily halt its nuclear enrichment efforts in exchange not just for sanctions relief but also in exchange for a reprieve for Assad. As things stood, its nuclear program invited massive preemptive attack and Assad’s fall spelled the end of its geopolitical influence. By agreeing to curtail its nuclear program to verifiable peaceful uses in exchange for a withdrawal of Western aid to the Syrian rebels and sanctions relief, Iran is able to buy Assad enough time to defeat the rebels, thereby maintaining Iran’s influence as a regional power while it re-builds its domestic economy unfettered by sanctions. Israel and the Saudis may not be happy about this, but their narrow interests have been shown to not be coincident with those of their Western allies on a number of strategic issues, Iran being just one of them.
Political scientists would call this the nested game scenario: within the public “game” involving negotiations between Iran and its foreign interlocutors lie other confidential or private “games” that are key to resolving the larger impasse over its nuclear program (Iranian involvement in Iraqi domestic politics might be another). These games are defined as much by those who are excluded as those who are involved in them.
All of this is speculation, and any “nested game” deal on Syria would be part of the non-public aspects of the agreement Â and therefore deliberately non-verifiable over the near term absent a leak. But there is enough written between the lines of the public rhetoric to suggest that this may be what is at play rather than a simple compromise on the limits of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
One perennial argument in international relations is that between realists on the one hand and idealists and constructivists on the other. Idealists believe in the perfectability of humankind and in the ability to interject moral and ethical authority into international affairs. Both Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush adopted this approach to US foreign relations, Carter with his human rights policy and Dubya with his Pax Americana doctrine for transforming the world into the neoconservative’s preferred image. Closer to home, the Lange government’s non-nuclear declaration appealed to the higher minded elements in the global community.
Constructivists are not as prone to believe in the power of moral authority in international affairs. Instead, they believe that the behaviour of international actors can be constrained and regulated Â by international norms and institutions. New Zealand’s support for multinational institutions and multi-lateral approaches to international conflict resolution, as well as its support for Â international norms such as those embodied in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), are examples of constructivism in foreign policy. Idealists and constructivists dovetail in their belief that multinational institutions and norms can promote better international behaviour than otherwise would obtain.
Realists do not believe this is possible. Realists operate on the premise that because there is no moral, ethical or ideological consensus in international affairs, and because there is no superordinate authority to consistently and effectively enforce its rules of conduct, then the world is effectively in a state of nature (as used by Hobbes). Absent Leviathan in international affairs, states and non-state actors pursue their interests checked only by the relative power of other actors. Self-interest, not morality, rules the day. Classical realists see war as a systems regulator and military force as the ultimate determinant of power. Neo-realists (who emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s) believe that economic power is more important than military might and that the exercise of economic power determines the ability of actor’s to project force in defense of national and self-interest. They used the example of the USSR as a case where military power did not equate or supersede structural power in the long-term course of foreign affairs.
For realists international norms and institutions are nice and ideally preferable, but are no substitute for self-interested power projection as the basis for international stability. Realists see a place for idealist-based international institutions and norms in peripheral areas of international behaviour, but not in core areas of national interest. Thus saving whales can be approached via constructivist means, but securing trade routes and borders cannot.
In the realist view, international actors need to fend for themselves in the last instance, and therefore should approach the global arena with a view to best defending their own interests rather than those of the world community as a whole. Where national power is insufficient to defend core interests, alliances are constructed to do so. Contrary to the perception that realists are military hawks, realism is risk and war adverse in any circumstance where core national interests are not at stake. They do not believe in perfectability campaigns such as democracy and human rights promotion, nor do they believe in wars of choice fought to promote a preferred political outcome or moral ideal. Realism, at its core, is pragmatic and self-limiting.
The Syrian crisis has shown that when it comes to enforcing international norms the global community does not have the will or capability to do so. The bulk of world opinion is against US military intervention to punish the Assad regime for using sarin gas against his civilian population (not once, but a total of at least eleven times in the past 18 months). This occurs in spite of the 1927 and 1993 international bans on chemical weapons and the 1997 international convention calling for the destruction of all chemical weapon stockpiles. The political leadership of the majority of nation-states oppose the use of force to punish Assad for his war crimes (I will leave aside for the moment the question of who did the gassing, as the focus here is on international norm violations). Amongst those who believe that Assad should be punished (including the National government), only France appears willing to go to war. Even the US Congress is divided on the issue.
That is striking. The ban on chemical weapons is one of the oldest international conventions. It has obvious moral weight. It has been ratified by over one hundred countries. Images of the victims of the latest attack have been compelling and transmitted world-wide. One would think, if idealists and constructivists are correct in their views of the international community, that Assad’s transgression of such an important norm would prompt a call to arms by fair-minded people the world over. Yet it has not. To the contrary, it has elicited apathy, denial, disinterest or fretful handwringing by the world at large.
What this demonstrates is that when push comes to shove, pragmatism and self-interest trump idealism and constructivism in world affairs. While seemingly promising on the surface, the Russian proposal to have Syria hand over its chemical weapons to the UN can also be seen as a cynical ploy to give Assad some time to disperse his chemical weapons stores while continuing his counter-offensive against the rebels by conventional means (which the Russians are supplying). I say that because ensuring the transfer of Syria’s several thousand tons of chemical agents will be lengthy and exhaustive process that will require thousands of foreign technicians on the ground in Syria, and assumes perfect cooperation by the Syrian authorities and the rebels in the midst of a nasty civil war. That is an optimistic view at best, and something that idealists and constructivists may believe possible if a negotiated settlement can be reached under the auspices of the UN Security Council.
However, the Russians are no idealists when it comes to foreign relations and international affairs. Instead, they are very much informed by realist notions of inter-state behavior, so it is safe to assume that their proposal has less to do with humanitarian concern and more to do with Russian power projection and strategic interests in Syria and beyond.
One could argue that the same is true for the US and its allies, and that the call for military intervention by the US against the Assad regime has little to do with humanitarian concern or international norm enforcement and more to do with the geopolitical competition between Iran and its proxies (including the Assad regime) and the Sunni Arab world and the West. This view is backed by the misuse by NATO of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine to justify the Libyan intervention. Under R2P foreign military intervention is justified in order to protect vulnerable populations from the depredations of their governments or in the face of government incapacity to defend them against the violence of others. But in Libya it was used as a pretext for forcible regime change over the objections of the Russians and Chinese. Given the outcome, that has for all intents and purposes killed off R2P as an international norm.
The situation with enforcing the norm against use of chemical weapons is even more fraught. Besides the reluctance of the global community to enforce a norm in a conflict in which most have no strategic stake, there is the problem of its prior unsanctioned use. Not only did Saddam Hussein use chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war (with the CIA providing targeting data to Iraq fully knowing that Saddam intended to use chemical weapons against Iranian troop formations). More recently Israel has used white phosphorous (another banned agent) in Gaza and the US used white phosphorous in the Battle of Falluja. In both cases the dense urban combat environment made it impossible to discriminate between civilian and military targets, so their use was arguably criminal even if there were not a ban against them.
In each of these instances the perpetrator used chemical weapons because it was felt to be expedient and because they could get away with doing so. Although there was some hue and cry about their use, no effective action was taken against any of these perpetrators. Only later, in the first Gulf War, was Iraq’s prior use of chemical weapons used to justify the military response to his invasion of Kuwait (and even then his suspected chemical weapons stockpiles were not destroyed by Desert Storm and the US-led alliance refused to help the Shiia uprising against him in the wake of his defeat).
Israel and the US have paid no price for having used chemical weapons in recent years.
Moreover, in spite of the 1997 convention on destroying chemical weapon stockpiles, it is widely believed that most countries that had them at the time (including the US, UK, Israel and Russia), failed to completely eliminate them from their respective inventories. Others, such as Syria, never signed up to the chemical weapons ban and thus have proceeded to develop that capability as a deterrent and a hedge against conventional military defeat.
All of which to say is that at least when it comes to the ban on use of chemical weapons, idealists and constructivists have been proven wrong and realists have been proven right: besides the strategic calculations of many nations that advise against involvement in the Syrian conflict, regardless of the outcome the international norm against using chemical weapons is not worth the paper it is written on. It is, as they say in Spanish, letra muerta.
Bashar Assad has likened the civil war in Syria to a surgeon performing messy emergency surgery. Much blood is spilled but it is in the best interest of the patient’s survival that it do so. In this case the patient is purportedly Syria (but in actuality the Alawite regime), and the surgery is required because of the gangrenous actions of foreign-backed “terrorists” and extremists.
That comment brought back some unhappy memories. On March 24, 1976 the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional” (Process of National Reorganization) was installed in Argentina. Over the next seven years it killed over 30,000 people and tortured, imprisoned and exiled at least that many more. It refined the concept of “disappearing” people without a trace (although it was later revealed that many of the disappeared were sedated and dumped from aircraft over the South Atlantic). It was a very bad moment in Argentine history, and the psychological and social scars of that sorry time are still evident to this day.
Assad’s surgical analogy struck an unpleasant chord with me because that is exactly the language used by the “Proceso” to justify its actions. In one of its first proclamations the Junta spoke of the need to rid Argentina of the “malignancies” of subversion, economic instability, social disorder and moral decay, and that in order to do so it would have to “extirpate without anesthesia” the cancers afflicting the Argentine body politic (on this see “Acta fijando el proposito y los objectivos basicos para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional,” Republica Argentina, Boletin Oficial, 29 March 1976 and Republica Argentina, Documentos basicos y bases politicas de las fuerzas armadas para el Proceso de Reorganizacion Nacional. Buenos Aires: Junta Militar de la Nacion, 1980). It seems that when it comes to “organic” parallels between the state and society, Arab and Argentine dictators think alike.
It might behoove Mr. Assad to remember the fate of his Argentine counterparts. Their regime collapsed under the double-barreled weight of popular unrest and foreign conflict (the Falklands/Malvinas War, which was staged by the Junta as a diversion from its internal problems). The generals who commanded that regime were all eventually tried and convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, where several have died. Argentine justice certainly was not swift or completely fair, but in the end the self-professed “surgeons” were found guilty of homicidal malpractice rather than lauded as the triage medics of the country.
Assad has that double-barreled weight now resting upon his regime. His conflict is internal rather than external, but the involvement of external actors is substantial and not limited to UN proclamations, jihadist infiltration or covert military assistance to the Syrian Free Army. He is therefore well on the path to following his Argentine counterparts down the road to collapse and overthrow, and it is now more a question of whether he will die in a prison cell or on the street rather than if he will fall. After all, once the dictator starts talking about emergency surgery on the body politic, it may be the case that he is the worst tumor of them all.
The double veto cast by Russia and China against the UN Security Resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s repression against unarmed civilians and calling for Bashar Assad to step down in favor of a coalition government harks back to the obstructionist logics of the Cold War. Besides confirming the ingrained authoritarian ethos in both countries (an ethos that does not see human rights as universal values but as contextually constructed), the blocking of the resolution stems from a mix of realist and idealist perceptions.
The idealist perceptions are rooted in the principles of non-interference and sovereignty. Russia and China argue that the UN’s actions amount to externally-forced regime change. That would be true. In their view the right to self-determination, no matter what brutality is evident in a regime’s behavior, is more important than the defense of unarmed populations against the depredations of their rulers. Dating back to the Treaty of Westphalia, sovereignty is the founding principle of the modern nation-state system, and other than as a result of a declared state of war it is illegitimate to attempt to externally impose a political outcome on a sovereign state (exceptions to the rule notwithstanding).
Russia and China are well aware that in recent years the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine has been formalised as part of the UN mandate. R2P states that the international community must act, with force if necessary, to protect vulnerable populations from state violence or in the face of state unwillingness or incapacity to prevent atrocities committed against innocents. Â The genocide in Rwanda was the catalyst for the R2P and it has been invoked in the Sudan and Somalia, among other recent cases.
Most importantly, R2P was invoked in UNSC resolution 1973 authorizing the use of external military force in Libya. Starting out under the pretext of protecting Libyan civilians from military assaults by the Gaddafi regime, it morphed from enforcing a no-fly zone to arming and advising anti-Gaddafi forces on the ground in pursuit of regime change. The Russians and Chinese had flagged this surreptitiously planned mission creep from the onset, and had warned that misuse of the R2P to justify armed intervention against a sovereign state government would set a bad precedent.
That is the precedent now being applied to Syria. The Russians and Chinese know full well that external intervention in Syria in pursuit of regime change is on the cards, using R2P as the justification. They also know that military intervention in Syria, should it come, has nothing to do with protecting innocents and all to do with the geopolitical balance in the Levant.
That is where realism enters the equation. China and Russia are partners of Iran. Iran is the Assad’s regime’s closest ally. Under Assad Syria has facilitated the extension of Iranian influence in Lebanon and Gaza by providing land routes for the provision of Iranian weapons, money and advisors to Hezbollah and Hamas. Should the minority Allawite Assad regime fall to a Sunni-majority coalition, then Iran will likely see its influence curtailed significantly, which in turn places Hamas and Hezbollah at greater risk from their enemies (Israel in particular). Moreover, Russia has a military base in Syria and has long been a strong military ally of the Assads. Taken together with Chinese and Russian diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran, the Assad regime’s forced demise could spell trouble. It will remove a source of Russian influence in the MIddle East. Amid all the sabre-rattling about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will leave Iran feeling more vulnerable, at least in its own eyes, to Western machinations and internal subversion at home. This not only increases the risk of war but diminishes China and Russia’s ability to act as negotiators between Tehran and the West. Thus the fall of Assad means a diminution of their respective influence in that part of the world.
Thus, by standing on principle (non-intervention in sovereign states), Moscow and Beijing are protecting their geopolitical interests, and their relationship with Iran in particular. It may seem callous for them to do so in what increasingly looks like a civil war between the Assad regime and its people, but it is also in their short-term interest to do so. By holding their UNSC veto power, they can exercise leverage in pursuit of a more favorable accommodation that, if it does not allow Assad to remain in power, does protect their respective spheres of influence in the Middle East.
That is what is behind the double veto. In the absence of universal values and standards in the global community (due to the so-called anarchic state of nature that all realists perceive as the founding principle of international relations), the matter boils down to national interest and the exercise of power in pursuit of it. As such, Russia and China are just doing what they have to do to ensure an outcome more favorable to their respective interests, and by that logic humanitarian appeals and the invocation of the R2P simply have no place as either genuine concerns or as ruses designed to camouflage external meddling in Syrian affairs.
Sad but true.
Over the years teaching about authoritarianism I developed a series of one-liners that summarized specific aspects of that form of rule. With regards to the circumstances of its demise, I coined the phrase “when the dictator starts wearing capes, he is soon to fall.” The point being that once the head honcho started dressing like Liberace or Elvis in their late phases they had lost touch with reality and, worse yet, had no honest feedback loops within their inner circle to correct them of their delusions. It was a play on the “emperor has no clothes” line and students much enjoyed it. And if we think of Idi Amin, Gaddafi, Somoza, the Shah and assorted other despots, sure enough their final days were literally cloaked in an over-the-top fashion sense that only Lady Gaga would think reasonable and appropriate.
I now have another such observation: the dictator’s end approaches in direct relation to the ferocity of his rhetoric. The more the dictator talks violently tough in the face of mounting popular unrest, the quicker will be his end. I say this after hearing Syrian president Bashar al-Assad talk about using an “iron fist” to “crush” foreign-backed “terrorists” after six months of popular rebellion. I will leave the overuse and abuse of the word “terrorism” for another day, but what strikes me is how Arab dictators under siege ratchet up the violence in their rhetoric even as the walls crumble around them. Who can forget Saddam and his spokesmen talking about American blood running in the streets even as US tanks encircled Baghdad? Or Gaddafi and his sons railing about what they would do to the “cockroaches” and “rats” slowly closing the noose around them? Even Mubarak was using words like “crushing” and “merciless” to describe his response to the Tahrir Square demonstrators, at least until the Egyptian military told him to shut up because he was the problem, not the solution.
The point is simple: once a (here Arab) dictator starts shouting about the nasty ways he will deal to his enemies in a situation of popular unrest, he is finished. This is because such rhetoric suggests a divorce from reality and a lack of proper, realistic council on the part of the tyrant’s advisors (who with few die-hard exceptions will jump ship once the opposition has seized the upper hand in the armed struggle).
It may have something to do with Arab political culture or notions of masculinity, but this type of response is exactly the reverse of what would give their moribund regimes some room for maneuver, if not a longer life span. Once demonstrators spill in to the streets and are not intimidated by police and para-military repression, and before their numbers grow to the point that a full military response is needed, the safest course of action for tyrants is to promise reform and accommodation of dissident demands. If nothing else this can be used as a divide and conquer strategy to weed out moderates and militants within the opposition, thereby allowing better targeting of the hard-core resistance while seeking to co-opt those less inclined to assume the physical risks involved in an escalating fight. It provides the dictator and his coterie an opportunity to listen to grievances and for negotiation of specific demands. It may entail having to offer concessions and perhaps even increased opposition access to or power-sharing with the authoritarian elite, but it could serve as a pre-emptive reform-mongering gesture that keeps the basic composition of the regime, or at least the governing elite, more or less intact.
The alternative is to go fully militarized at the opposition, which entails using disproportionate force against one’s own citizens. This certainly does not ingratiate subjects to the regime and invites foreign condemnation and isolation. It is a no-win strategy and, quite frankly, is the beginning of the end of such regimes for a variety of reasons, military factionalization under the pressures of such a scenario being one of them.
It is thus with bemusement that I watch the Syrian opthamalogist-turned-dictator fulminate against his enemies. Although it is true that his Alawite regime is relatively united and fearful of the Sunni majority and thereby willing to commit atrocities until the bitter end, and that Syria has a geopolitical position that Libya does not, Assad’s rhetoric clearly indicates that he does not realize that his regime’s utility as a strategic buffer has ended. Israel, the US, Arab and other Western states understand that removing the Assad regime and replacing it with a Sunni majority coalition will deny Iran land routes for the logistical supply of its allies in Lebanon and Gaza, who in turn help spread Shiia influence in the Sunni Arab world. After the demise of Gaddafi and other convolutions of the Arab Spring, it has become politically expedient for foreign parties to back the Syrian opposition, which they are now doing with material, safe haven and military advice. At least on this issue Assad is right–foreign actors are now at play in Syria, although he neglected to mention that Iran is one of them because it realizes what is at stake in the proxy struggle in the Levant.
All of which is to say that the outcome is clear and encapsulated by my new authoritarian demise rule of thumb: now that Assad has started to talk hyperbolically tough in the face of a continued uprising that is not bowed by the ongoing military violence meted out against it, his days are numbered. Best for him, then, to tone it down, pull his troops back and look for an exit strategy so that his departure will be unlike that of Gaddafi, Mubarak or Saddam.