Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How Does the U.S. Have to Intervene in Syria?


September 24, 2014

BEIRUT, Lebanon — This article follows a conversation I had some days ago with a very good friend of mine who happens to be a U.S. expert of international affairs. My friend pointed out that given the fact that I live in the Middle East and that I speak Arabic I should try to convey my ideas about the current situation in relation to how the West has to deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (a.k.a. ISIS or ISIL). Who knows me knows that I am an energy analyst and that I normally write analyses related to the geopolitics of energy in the Middle East with a strong attention given to economic and legal issues. Notwithstanding my strong inclination toward the oil and gas sector, I have decided to convey my thoughts about the current events in Syria through the following paragraphs. 
At the time of my writing, the U.S. and some allies (Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — although the real role these five countries are playing is not clear) are launching airstrikes against ISIS positions in Syria, in specific around the city of Raqqa, in eastern Syria and along the Syrian-Iraqi border. For the past two weeks the Obama administration had looked for ways in order to expand its strategy against ISIS, which controls a good portion of central and western Iraq, and eastern Syria as well, while since August 7, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes against ISIS positions located within the territory of Iraq. Indeed, the airstrikes in Iraq have permitted some positive results: Erbil and Baghdad are not anymore under the direct threat of the Islamic fighters. The following two maps show the areas currently under control of ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  


The Areas Under the Control of ISIS
Source: Caerus Associates, Long War Journal, Institute for the Study of War

BBC's Recently Updated Map of ISIS Controlled Areas (as of Sept. 22, 2014)

In light of the current situation, extending American airstrikes against ISIS in Syria is probably the only viable option the West has within Syria without engendering excessive and uncontrollable political repercussions throughout the region. Western actions in Iraq and Syria need to be centered on meaningful and achievable targets and not on pure wishful thinking like regime change here and there. The clear and present danger in Iraq and Syria is ISIS, which is a terrorist organization, and this should be the primary target. Any other attempts at implementing a regime change supporting the so-called "moderate" opposition in Syria would risk replicating the foreign policy failure of the Obama administration in Libya, a failure which happened just three years ago. In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi 's long gone but the country is still in shambles and under the existent risk of fragmentation.

In general, for Western countries winning a war in a Middle Eastern country is an achievable goal, but lately pacifying that country is a complex task. Since 2003, the U.S. and the U.K. idea of toppling Saddam Hussein has not been able to create a stable Iraq; and after 11 years Iraq is now enduring a civil war and is practically fragmented in three macro areas, which reflect ethnic and religious differences. Instead, in 1991, George Bush Senior understood very well that, in addition to exceeding the U.N. mandate, taking out Saddam Hussein would have plunged Iraq into a never-ending tribal war. Lately in 1991, between March and April, Saddam Hussein crushed the Kurdish and Shia revolts that had started in Iraq's provinces. Tens of thousands of people died in just one month and approximately two million people were displaced. Were Western countries responsible for this bloodshed? It is difficult to say. The point is probably that in the Middle East every political action carries out, in terms of human costs, heavy consequences.   

The real and sad reality is that the Middle East has to find its way toward democracy by itself. Western countries are not able to create for Middle Eastern countries a fast path toward our concept of democracy for the simple reason that the Middle East does not have Western countries' democratic institutions. Middle East and North Africa in the last forty years have had very limited democratic governments. In specific, in Syria, the al-Assad family has held on power since 1971, while, in Iraq, Saddam Hussein had been president from 1979 to 2003.  Implementing a regime change without a viable alternative, i.e., a coalition capable of expressing the will of the majority of the involved population while guaranteeing the rights of the opposition, is a game lost even before starting to play. Moreover, creating such a coalition in Syria and Iraq is almost impossible given the history of the two countries, which, thanks to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, are the products of France and the U.K. during World War I when occurred the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

Source: Wikipedia — Image Uploaded by McZusatz (Dec. 2011)

The huge problem in both countries is the structural division of their populations along sectarian and religious lines. Probably, this demographic division is more complex in Syria (and in neighboring Lebanon) because there the division is very patchy. In the last three years, in Syria, many journalists have been kidnapped exactly because they did not understand the patchy fragmentation of the Syrian territory. They have tried to move around in Syria without realizing that, just after few miles, the territory they were traveling through could be under control of a different warring faction, which then kidnapped them. Differently from Syria, in Iraq there are at least three macro areas: Iraqi Kurdistan under Kurdish control, central and western Iraq under ISIS control and southern Iraq and Baghdad under government control.

Some observers point out that fighting ISIS in Syria will reinforce the Syrian government, which has recently reduced its actions against ISIS in the eastern part of the country and which is unable to retake possession of the territories in the areas around the two cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zour.  Definitely this will be the result. Attacking ISIS will reinforce President Assad. But what are the other real and viable alternatives? We do not have them. In Syria and in Iraq, Western countries should act like an E.R. doctor, who always prioritizes the interventions he has to carry out on patients. First red codes (ISIS) and then the other less problematic codes (the al-Assad family and the moderate opposition, both with all the related financing streams coming from the countries involved in this proxy war).


Raqqa: "Sunset Over the Rooftops in One of the Modern Quarters of the City" Source: Wikipedia — Image Uploaded by Magnus Manske on May 15, 2006

It is difficult to see an end to the current Syrian conflict. U.N. estimates put the death toll of the conflict at more than 200,000 casualties and, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) the Syrian economy will take 30 years before returning to the level of 2010. These are scary and depressing numbers and the Syrian people are sustaining a huge burden. But meddling at the political level in Syria is quite a guarantee of an incoming failure for the West. A simple look at the Syrian map shows that in Syria apart from the coastline, which is under government control, and the northeastern part of the country, which is under ISIS control, no other area is completely under the control of only one of main the warring parties, i.e., the government, the opposition and ISIS. The area around Aleppo, which is Syria's largest city, sees now the contemporary presence of all the warring parties.  

Chances are high that the current divisions will continue in the future. So, according to political realism, choosing a side between the government and the "moderate" opposition — and it's not clear whether a moderate opposition exists today — would be nonsense. 

In general, a state may intervene in the internal affairs of another state under a juridical basis when:

  • Previously the two states have signed a treaty of mutual defense or an alliance (NATO is a good example) and one of the two is under an attack of any external party. But in Syria, Western countries do not have any specific linkage with the Syrian government, nor of course with the opposition.
  • When it is necessary to stop an ongoing genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. At this regard, it is difficult to choose between the Syrian government and the opposition because during the last three years both have implemented atrocities.
  • It carries out a preemptive war (not a preventive war), i.e., a war commenced in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war before the attack materializes. Neither the Syrian government nor the opposition is a direct threat to the West. Different thing is ISIS, the Nusra Front and the Khorasan Group, all of which may be defined as terrorist groups operating at the international level.
  • It acts under the system of collective defense as defined by Art. 51 of the the U.N. Charter. According to the Art. 51. "Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. ... " In this case the focus would on Iraq, which is under the attack of a terrorist organization that has its sanctuaries in Syria.        

The first two arguments mentioned above do not easy apply to the current situation in Syria and would force Western country to choose between the Syrian government and the opposition. And deciding to support one side or the other right now would be a very premature decision triggering many unknown consequences. Instead, the third and the fourth arguments could provide a sounder justification for the intervention in Syria in light of the danger that ISIS, a terrorist organization, represents respectively for Western countries (third point) and Iraq (fourth point).

Summing up, it would be illogical for Western countries to support (be it clear with no boots on the ground in light of the present reluctance to send ground troops to the Middle East) one of the two sides, which risk being enmeshed in a long-term and violent stalemate with no real winner. In such a case, the Syrian government could claim "legal sovereignty", i.e., ownership, on a part of the country and the opposition a "factual sovereignty", i.e., jurisdiction and control, on another part of the country.

Instead, for Western countries, fighting international terrorism, which is a menace at the world level, makes sense, notwithstanding the necessity of doing it without giving the idea of too overtly supporting President Assad of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Surely this is easier said than done. The ongoing attacks against Syria are occurring without the approval of President al-Assad, who skillfully has never requested the U.S. intervention against ISIS. The U.S., at least with its public declarations, is still demanding President al-Assad to step down and is supporting the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group fighting the Syrian government. But how much truth there is now in the U.S. declarations against Mr. Assad is difficult to say. What is sure is that the U.S. could not take on board of its fight against ISIS the Syrian government, lest Gulf countries not participate or help fighting ISIS.

But although fighting terrorism is the only action Western countries could reasonably carry out in Syria, this action includes an important caveat. In fact, we risk creating a "power vacuum" in eastern Syria. And, in general, in a power vacuum, which often occurs during or following a civil war, other forces tend immediately to rush in to fill the vacuum. Who will fill the power vacuum in eastern Syria? It is not easy to say although probably the al-Qaeda-affiliate Nusra Front will be in a better position to reclaim the lands of eastern Syria. The Nusra Front already controlled those territories before being evicted by ISIS.      

What is quite evident in today's Middle East is that Western countries have to reposition themselves with reference to the Shia groups present in Middle East. Policies centered exclusively on the interests of the Arab states of the Persian Gulf are anachronistic because they do not reflect anymore the current state of affairs in the area. Western countries need now to develop in the Middle East a policy balancing in a better way Sunni and Shia interests. Acting in Syria and Iraq under the aegis of contrasting international terrorism is the only tangible mechanism Western countries have in order to try to stabilize the area. And if Syrians and Iraqis do not want America or any other external actors to dictate their policy agenda, at the same time they strongly request the U.S. intervention in order to stop ISIS' irrational violence.

Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians and Westerners living in the Levant understand very well the current dynamics in the Middle East. Now it is time for the U.S. administration and its counterparts in Europe to show that they are able to work in a complex and partially transformed Middle East. It's from these kinds of endeavors that we understand the greatness of an administration.