Syria – the death toll reaches 93,000, the US administration says it has firm evidence of nerve gas use by the Syrian government and further says it will supply arms to the opposition. Things are moving – but towards what? The debate is focused on the arguments for and against armed intervention. I think that may well be very misleading.
Intervention, for and against
The news and social media are overflowing with familiar and predictable positions on either side of what is going to be a heated argument. On the one hand, the awful death toll and the "red line" of using nerve gas; on the other the dangers of military intervention and, when taking measures short of full intervention, measures such as arms supplies, the high probability of mission creep.
The prospect of starting with arms supplies and ending up with at least air strikes and possibly ground forces involved is real for several reasons. The first is that the prospect is always real. As Max Hastings put it a few weeks back, 'It is almost impossible to do a little bit of intervention. Once one undertakes sponsorship of one side or the other, one is stuck with the client.'
The second reason is because, as one major supporter of arms supplies, John McCain has said: "Just supplying weapons is not going to change the equation on the ground (or) the balance of power." It appears that within the US administration, arming the opposition is the moderate position; there are plenty of takers, especially in the State Department, for blocking Iranian arms supplies by air strikes on the key airfields.
Not such a slippery slope this time?
My sense of what is going on, however, is that the slope leading towards direct military intervention is less slippery than it has been in the past or seems today. There are two key reasons for this assessment. One is rather optimistic, the other is horribly gloomy.
Optimism first. There is considerable awareness of the risks of that slippery slope towards direct military intervention. There is and will continue to be a deep aversion to fighting for a side that is also supported by al-Qaeda affiliates. And Max Hastings makes a solid point when he reports what somebody in military planning somewhere told him in May: "We can work out 20 scenarios for getting stuck into Syria. But we can't see one for getting out again afterwards."
The US has been visibly reluctant to get in too close with the opposition groups and its caution has provoked considerable anger among the Syrian opposition's regional backers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.
In this, the EU is neither less nor more bold, despite having decided to suspend its ban on supplying arms to parties to the Syrian conflict, for it did not amount to a decision actually to start supplies. Under this decision, no EU arms will flow before autumn and some of the conditions (such as ensuring weapons are only used to protect civilians) are impossible to fulfil.
And the US and the EU are not the only outsiders whose actions are quite cautious, whatever the language of denunciation that is deployed. As soon as the US made its announcement about the use of sarin gas, Russia responded that the evidence is unconvincing but President Putin's line in the lead-up to the G8 summit, while defending Russia's supply of weapons to the Assad government, places the greater emphasis on attempting to achieve a diplomatic solution. And trying to get a diplomatic solution – an agreed solution – is what nearly everybody seeks. It's possible that the Iranian presidential election result will help that desirable outcome.
In short, outsiders supplying weapons are not necessarily starting off towards sending in their own forces.
Which Afghanistan parallel?
But there is another much gloomier explanation as well. Bill Clinton hinted at it during a private event In New York on Tuesday 11 June. He was there alongside John McCain, an outspoken supporter of forcible intervention, and remarked that people focused too much on Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11 when thinking about parallels to Syria today.
Instead, he suggested, they should think about Afghanistan in the 1980s and the decision taken by President Reagan to arm the anti-Soviet resistance. Here is some of what he reportedly said:
"Nobody is asking for American soldiers in Syria. The only question is now that the Russians, the Iranians and the Hizbollah are in there head over heels, 90 miles to nothing, should we try to do something to slow their gains and rebalance the power?"
According to Clinton afterwards, this was an answer to a question near the end of the evening. It was not a scripted speech. So let's not over-read it. But nonetheless, take another look at what he suggests the purpose of arms supplies would be and it's chilling: not to overthrow Assad but to slow him and his allies down, not to ring peace or democracy but to rebalance the power.
The realist game
Why? What could be the rational point of that? Answer: to weaken Assad's major external supporter – Iran. The parallel with Afghanistan in the 1980s is instructive here, because support for the anti-Soviet forces is widely (and in my view somewhat exaggeratedly) seen as being partly responsible for bringing down the USSR.
It is a parallel with lots of attractions for contemporary US policy-makers and a policy that, once an acceptable supply pipeline has been set, and – assuming the idea of providing shoulder-launched ground-to-air missiles is ruled out because all pipelines have their leaks – a policy that looks pretty easy to run and to calibrate. When the adversary gains, accelerate up supplies; when the adversary faces some reverses, ease up again. That ease of operation may be deceptive but when there is an opportunity to play the great power game, that kind of long-term risk assessment may fall by the wayside.
The war has killed nearly 100,000 people and 1.6 million refugees have fled. But a greater tragedy awaits the Syrian people, for the country has become an arena where a great power game is being played out.
If power game continues, there will be no end to Syrians' suffering. They will not just be collateral damage, they will not even be pawns, they will collectively form the chessboard on which the game is played. This is what is known in foreign policy as realism – à l’outrance, partially disguised by being cloaked in the language of a reluctant liberal internationalism.
Few commentators have picked this up. Daniel Drezner has expressed it explicitly in the Foreign Policy magazine blog, calling it a "form of asymmetric warfare" for the US, and Frank Ledwidge touched on it when he noted that "no 'game-changer' weapons are on the agenda." Because the true awfulness of the great power game played out in a country like Syria is that it would be a tactical error to win too quickly.
Diplomacy, the only alternative
It has not been much discussed but it is probably a more real prospect than a decisive win in the short-to-medium term for either government or opposition.
To limit the discussion of how outside powers should act towards Syria to a thumbs up or down for intervention is therefore short-sighted. It ignores what might happen. It will result in a lot of energy being wasted attacking and defending positions based on unlikely eventualities instead of looking at what is actually happening.
On the other hand, to acknowledge that the great power game could be where this is going suggests all efforts to prevent Syria facing an even higher death toll must go into getting the parties to sit down for diplomatic talks. It will be a slow and difficult process at best. But at the moment, if there is a better alternative, let's hear it.
Dan Smith, Secretary General
Photo: Syrian refugees in Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan, 2012. Photo by UNCHR/Brian Sokol