Back in 1980 I attended my first event at Wilton Park, the FCO country house conference centre near Brighton, an in-house gathering to brief youthful British diplomats on the Menace of Communism. In those days I was a fat-headed idealist bent on achieving a world peace within which the communist tendency would play a glorious role. Stern warnings about the malevolence and inefficiency of Soviet communism did not impress.
One presentation nonetheless did make an impression, namely the late Chris Cviić (a British journalist of Croatian extraction) explaining communist Yugoslavia. He befuddled us on Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Bosnians and Muslims. He explained the fine constitutional distinction between narod and narodnosti, Yugoslavia’s impenetrable socialist self-management ideology and the ekavski, kajkavski and ijekavski dialects of the even more impenetrable ‘Serbo-Croat’ language. We all reeled away stunned that anyone could hold so much bizarre information in his head.
Yugoslavia later crashed under the weight of its internal contradictions and is now six or seven small countries (depending on who’s including Kosovo, or not). Could the same fate befall Syria?
To an ignorant outsider such as myself, Syria too is impossibly complicated. Wikipedia assures me that most Syrians are Arabs with the rest comprising Kurds, Assyrians, Armenians, Circassians and Syrian Turkmen. 90 per cent of Syrians are Muslims, mostly Sunni but with sizeable Shia, Alawi, Ismaili and Druze communities. The ruling Assad family are supposedly secular Alawites whose Ba’ath Party traces its ghastly intellectual roots back deep into Nazi and Communist ideology.
Decades of incompetent Ba’athist socialist authoritarianism have held back normal economic growth. Before the civil war started, Syria’s GDP per capita was a pathetic US$5,000. The ‘opportunity cost’ to Syria of the civil war is said to be US$100 billion and rising, as the economy slumps, infrastructure is wrecked and hundreds of thousands of Syrians flee the carnage. Even if peace and harmony break out tomorrow, it will take Syria long decades to recover – if it ever does.
Syria is a classic example of The Shrek/Onion Paradigm. Shrek tells Donkey that ogres are like onions: they have layers. Diplomatic issues also have layers. Look at Syria’s layers, in ascending order of abstractness. National borders that make no intrinsic sense. Sharp religious and community differences (Bosnia, but far bigger). Lebanon’s stability. Sunni v Shia. Kurds’ aspirations for self-determination. Arabs v Israel v Palestine v Jordan. Saudi Arabia v Iran v Turkey. Russia v USA v EU. The world v WMD. Arab national socialism v Islamism. Democracy v modernity. Peace v justice.
Those issues have lurked below the surface for a long time, kept more or less quiet by the Assad regime’s oppression. Precisely because no-one knew what to expect if Syria went bad, it suited the world that the Assad/Ba’athist tendency stayed in control. Back in 1982, during the Cold War, thousands of people were tortured and massacred in the Syrian town of Hama by the regime of Hafez al-Assad as it crushed a local uprising by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. East, West, North, South, Non-Aligned all looked away or mouthed shifty clichés about ‘stability’. Better the devil you know.
This cynical approach to domestic relations rests upon the principle of ‘non-interference in the internal affairs of another state’. Any regime can be as beastly as it likes to its fellow citizens as long as the violence is kept within its own garden fence. It’s no surprise that this doctrine enjoys such broad support at the United Nations, and above all from Russia and China on the UN Security Council. Which state wants to open the way to other states intruding in its affairs? Won’t any qualification of this core idea of national sovereignty (including the so-called Responsibility to Protect) be exploited by meddling neo-imperialists?
Perhaps. Yet some measured and principled, if flawed, intervention as a crisis in a country starts might be far better than what happens after it escalates. If you keep the lid on a hot pressure-cooker far beyond the safety limit, it sooner or later explodes with catastrophic force. As we saw in Yugoslavia and now in Syria, once the central regime loses full control outside powers lunge in, arming or funding their favoured faction. The conflict mutates from being mainly about how political and national life in that territory is to be organised. Instead, it starts to be driven by external rivalries and interests. The devastated local population is collateral damage.
Back in 2012 Russia and China vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions aimed at bringing strong international pressure to bear on the Assad regime. They felt tricked by the way Washington and many NATO members had used the Libya UNSC resolution to topple Gaddafi. And they rejected any policy that aimed substantively at regime change in Damascus: why should anyone expect a new regime in Syria to be an improvement on the current one? Maybe the opposition forces opposing Assad would be strong enough to do what it took – including incurring casualties on a massive scale – to overthrow Assad without direct Western military support as given in Libya. If so, they would be worthy winners. But, then again, maybe they would fail. Why not wait and see who’s really tough down there?
Washington, London and other Western capitals, as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon himself, denounced these vetoes as ‘undermining the United Nations’. Yet the core purpose of the Security Council is to adopt legally binding international norms if, and only if, there is agreement to do so. In 2012 there was no such agreement concerning Syria. That’s not a failure of the UN system: it’s the defining feature.
The obduracy of Russia in particular presented President Obama with a serious problem. Doing nothing to stop the carnage in Syria looked weak. But back in 2011 he had proclaimed that the time had come for Assad to step aside: any attempted settlement including Assad and his regime as part of the solution also looked weak. In 2012 President Obama staked out a new strong position:
‘A red line for us is if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised.’
In August this year chemical weapons were used near Damascus, with the weight of evidence pointing firmly at Syrian army forces loyal to Assad. Red line crossed!
Confusion ensued. First London then Washington tried to win the votes they said were needed to make a direct military response. Russia pounced, proposing a new international process aimed at removing chemical weapons from Syria. Assad politely concurred. Washington and London seized this idea like a drowning man grabbing a modest plank.
What is really happening here? Sooner or later the two sides in such grumpy diplomatic exchanges get bored with disagreeing and look for something they can work on nicely together.
Washington and Moscow have now decided that they cannot do anything useful together about the layer of the Syria onion that is mainly about Syria. Instead they are focusing on the layer that is mainly about their own relationship and trying to cooperate on a specific layer of the Syria problem (namely chemical weapons) that has little if anything to do directly with the wider calamity.
The cruel genius of the Russian plan thereby reveals itself. The fact that the Assad regime has a heavy case to answer for war crimes is brushed aside by both factions. Global media attention shifts from the misery of the situation in Syria to statements from US and Russian diplomats poring over detailed chemical weapons texts under United Nations auspices.
Back in real life, the painstakingly complex task of controlling and destroying chemical weapons can happen in war-torn Syria, if at all, only with the full, generous and sustained cooperation of the Assad system. The political dynamic has in effect been flipped, from ‘Assad must go!’ to ‘Assad must stay!’
As for Syria itself? The misery drags on. Maybe the time is coming when the rival internal forces and their sundry external sponsors decide that a costly stalemate is bad for business, so a new peace process must start. But how can that happen without a massively expensive international intervention to monitor a ceasefire that ends up legitimising the current facts on the ground and so presages the informal partitioning of the country? Some diplomatic onions are just too big to be digestible.