Syria: Leave bad enough alone

By Jonathan Power

“An unpleasant truth often overlooked is that although war is a great evil, it does have a great virtue: it can resolve political conflicts and lead to peace”, wrote Edward Luttwak in the June, 1999, issue of Foreign Affairs.

But he also made the point that the tragedy of war or violence is not that sometimes it does not have positive outcomes, it is that these same goals could have been met without war if the protagonists had been more far-sighted, wiser, more prepared to be patient and creative in their diplomacy and kept to non-violence as their tool of confrontation.

Both of these two propositions are arguably true for Syria. It is beginning to look as if the Syrian government and its military have turned the tide and are pushing back the rebels. There have been around 100,000 deaths of civilians, mainly the innocent. The figure might double or treble before it’s over. The government, partly thanks to Russian arms supplies, will continue to be better armed. Unlike the government of Libya’s president, Muammar Gaddafi it is militarily strong enough to give any Western and Arab intervention a bloody time.

The US and the European Union, having sanctioned in principle the supply of arms to the rebels, are not implementing their decision, fearful that the arms would end up mainly in the possession of the Islamist jihadists who have the upper hand among the fighters. The rebel offensive becomes weaker by the day.

“The history of civil wars”, continues Luttwak, “suggests that more often peace arrives when there is a clear cut victory by one side. If no party is threatened by defeat and loss what incentive do they have to negotiate a lasting settlement?”

In the Libyan civil war Gaddafi was toppled quite quickly. He didn’t have a military sophisticated enough to take on the British, French and Qatari war planes. It was a short war with one clear victor. Doubtless, this is the kind of war Luttwak would like to see more often.

If outsiders intervene and impose an armistice does it not just put the conflict on hold? As in Bosnia it can put the war in the freezer to be taken out and perhaps thawed ready for another round at a later date. It was a short-sighted idea of the Dayton peace negotiations to carve out a Serbian enclave in the east of Bosnia with its own local government but yet consider it to be part of Bosnia.

The UN Security Council has a long record of imposing cease-fires, armistices or giving humanitarian aid before conflicts could burn themselves out.

But a cease-fire tends to arrest war-induced exhaustion and lets belligerents reconstitute and rearm their forces. It was true of the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-48 which might have been over in a matter of weeks if two cease-fires ordered by the UN Security Council had not let the combatants recuperate.

Humanitarian aid can recharge one side of the combatants. We saw this during the war in Cambodia when the genocidal regime of the Kymer Rouge fought the Vietnamese and retreated to the Thai border where, posing as refugees, they were fed and watered by UNICEF. The same thing happened in Rwanda. When the Hutus fled to the Congo to escape the Tutsis during Rwanda’s civil war Hutu fighters hid themselves among the refugees. There they could eat and receive medical attention from the UN, Ngos and Western governments and prepare themselves to fight another day.

“The Protestant theologian Reinhold Neibuhr used to ask”, wrote Robert McNamara, US Secretary of Defence during the Vietnam War, “’How much evil must we do in order to do good?’”. McNamara commented: “Posing the question in this way will be painful at times, because not to intervene will seem like an endorsement of the killing. It may rather be an honest acknowledgement of the limitations of the international community to intervene successfully in these sorts of conflicts. As difficult it is to accept, we may have to admit that at times some of these conflicts have no solution, at least no solution achievable by the application of external military force.”

In Syria one can only wish that the initial non-violent protests against the government had not been taken over by those who believed in violence. Then the Syrian government instead of fighting back might have considered serious reform – if the outside world had also piled on the pressure too. The press and outside governments tended to ignore the non-violent protesters- but that would have been the time to extend the hand of support and media coverage. That was Luttwak’s second point and the one we should focus on when future conflicts are in the making.

For the present, however, there is little we can now do to stop Syria’s civil war. Leave bad enough alone.

Copyright: Jonathan Power

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