Russia is not completely wrong about Syria

Russia is not completely wrong about Syria

Russia is not completely wrong about Syria

Written by Edward Burke, 17 February 2012

Russia has been roundly criticised for vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution aimed at stopping the violence in Syria and ousting President Bashar al-Assad. Moscow is reluctant to give up on the al-Assad regime for the moment: it has a direct interest in the survival of the regime, which buys its arms and provides a naval base; it is strongly opposed to Western-led interventions, on principle; it believes that Arab revolutions are likely to lead to takeovers by Islamic fundamentalists; and it is still fuming that, after it refrained from vetoing UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya – about the protection of civilians – the West abused the resolution by using it to justify regime change.

However, Russian diplomats concede that change is inevitable if the violence in Syria is to be contained. Russia wants a managed transition that preserves its influence. The draft UNSC resolution called for the confinement of the Syrian army to barracks and endorsed the Arab League plan for al-Assad to hand over power to his vice president prior to the holding of elections. Russian diplomats are right to say that such a resolution would have been unenforceable and, if implemented, would have led to the sudden collapse of the Syrian government without a credible alternative to take its place. Anarchy could have ensued. The Kremlin may be playing realpolitik and taking pride in blocking the West, but it has a point.

Western leaders have been sincere in expressing revulsion at the continued crackdown by the Syrian military upon largely peaceful protestors. But their diplomacy has been ineffective. Preferring to issue ultimatums from afar, they have given up on dialogue with the Syrian regime when there is no other viable alternative.

A number of diplomatic rules have been ignored by Western governments in Syria. First, never rule out force publicly even if you have done so privately. The numbers killed in Syria are beginning to dwarf those murdered by the Gaddafi regime prior to the NATO intervention in Libya. The brave political decision by European leaders to come to the aid of the Libyan people should have reverberated throughout the region, sending a warning to Syria and other dictatorships in the region. The message should have been clear: nothing is off the table if you murder your own people. Instead, from almost the moment the protests in Syria began, Western leaders fell over themselves to tell Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that he had nothing to fear, since military intervention was simply unthinkable no matter what he did. Western diplomats say that this was necessary in order to secure Chinese and Russian support at the United Nations. That is correct, but such assurances could have been provided discreetly, while the regime in Damascus was left to guess about NATO's real intentions.

Second, the main function of an embassy is to act as a liaison with a host government, even one as odious as that in Damascus. The closing of Western embassies has had little effect upon regime behaviour but has blocked channels of communication. Despite ruling out military intervention or the provision of assistance to defectors from Syria's armed forces, Western diplomats have not managed to do much about Syria other than criticise the violence and call on President al-Assad to stand down.

Western leaders have painted themselves into a corner. They have misread the situation on two counts: firstly, they have assumed that the removal of al-Assad is critical towards ending the violence and issued ultimatums to that end. Secondly, they have also over-estimated the weakness of the Syrian regime and the willingness of the military to turn upon its leaders. The President of Syria is no Gaddafi – power is distributed more horizontally among the elite in Syria, and the President's control over the security services is by no means absolute. The removal of al-Assad by itself would not solve much unless accompanied by a broader commitment to reform. Syrian military leaders have now gone too far to turn back. As in Spain at the end of the Franco dictatorship, they will want assurances that a transition will not mean prison or worse for them and their supporters. Moreover, they are not being defeated – on the contrary, defections have so far been minimal and they believe that they have groups such as the Syrian Free Army on the back foot.

Third, do not encourage regime change without any concept of how, and with what means, such a revolution might come about. The West should have learned this lesson after the slaughter of Iraqi Shia rebels who rose up against Saddam Hussein in 1991 – when the insurgents received nothing more than words of support despite expectations of financial aid and military equipment. Also, if political and economic sanctions are to be the exclusive means of weakening the Syrian regime, it is essential that neighbouring countries are on-side. Here the West has put too much faith in the Arab League. The Arab League may have become more vocal, supported by countries such as Saudi Arabia that have long resented Syria's ties with Iran, but it remains incapable of enforcing its resolutions.

The Syrian government knows that Arab League resolutions are toothless, and that they have supporters in key neighbouring Arab countries, notably Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and leading figures in the Lebanese government. Economic sanctions may yet prove to be fatal, but like Chinese water torture, they will need time to take effect. Iran is increasing its support while Turkey, after a brief period of sabre-rattling, has gone cool on the idea of military intervention. Damascus also knows that calls by the Qatari government for intervention by an Arab peacekeeping force will come to nothing.

The West should try to rein in efforts by Gulf countries to arm a range of insurgent groups, many of which are deeply mistrusted by important minority groups such as Syria's Kurds and could do significant damage to the credibility of the opposition movement. Syria badly needs a credible shadow government to negotiate with external parties. Until one emerges, Western diplomats should discourage the distribution of weapons to disparate groups feuding for leadership.

Given the enduring strength and resistance of the Syrian regime, and the lack of any immediate military means to weaken it, it is disappointing that Western countries have all but cut off diplomatic contacts with Damascus. The West should re-start diplomatic dialogue with Syria without pre-conditions. In the end an unsavoury deal such as that made with President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen – granting him immunity from prosecution – may be appropriate for key members of the Syrian elite. Western leaders need to grapple with what an acceptable deal could look like. Issuing statements that condemn a regime is easy; but it is tough diplomatic negotiations with the government in Damascus that can best help the Syrian people.

However, there are limits to the role Western diplomacy can play. Although the West can embark on a supportive dialogue, it is now impossible for the West to play a leading role as an intermediary in the conflict. A trusted interlocutor is urgently required to negotiate a credible transition in Syria. Such leadership cannot come from Europe, the United States, the Arab League, or Russia – none of whom are trusted by all sides. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been content to sit on the side-lines, choosing not to deploy his 'good offices' in the manner of his more courageous predecessors. It is time to appoint a UN Special Representative to engage with the regime and opposition alike. Even if his or her proposals are ultimately rejected by Moscow or Washington, some options are better than none.

Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

Comments

Added on 01 Mar 2012 at 01:29 by Anonymous

Very interesting comment, shedding a new light on the Syria problem.

Launch of 'All alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO'

Launch of 'All alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO'

Launch of 'All alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO'

06 March 2012

With Espen Barth Eide, François Heisbourg, Wolfgang Ischinger and Kori Schake

Location info

London

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L'OTAN accélère son retrait d'Afghanistan

L'OTAN accélère son retrait d'Afghanistan

L'OTAN accélère son retrait d'Afghanistan

By Edward Burke, 04 February 2012
From Le Monde

Russia defends Syria at UN - Part of an anti-western foreign policy?

Russia defends Syria at UN - Part of an anti-western foreign policy?

Russia defends Syria at UN - Part of an anti-western foreign policy?video icon

Voice of Russia
By Edward Burke, 07 February 2012
From Voice of Russia

Link to video:
http://youtu.be/g7DmFPGdHnc

Why France is leaving Afghanistan

Why France is leaving Afghanistan

Why France is leaving Afghanistan

Written by Edward Burke, 02 February 2012

The decision by President Nicolas Sarkozy to speed up the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan has re-awakened suspicions that Paris is not to be trusted as an ally. Sarkozy responded to the deaths on January 20th of four French soldiers by ordering the return of all France’s combat troops in 2013, a year before NATO plans to end major operations in Afghanistan. Defence officials in London and Washington have privately condemned the decision as poorly-timed or, worse, a cynical political ploy ahead of France’s presidential elections in April and May 2012. This belittles genuine concerns in France about the conduct of the war. A closer analysis shows that the French government is ahead of other allies in recognising that NATO's strategy has not worked.

French officials believe that the alliance is rewarding a profoundly corrupt government in Kabul that has shirked its commitment to reform. French thinking on Afghanistan is in line with that of David Galula, a French military strategist, who wrote what the US military itself regards as the definitive treatise on counterinsurgency. The lesson of the French war in Algeria in the 1950s and 60s, Galula wrote, is that military accomplishments are meaningless unless accompanied by a process to establish legitimate and broadly accepted political order. In Algeria, the French won the tactical battle against the insurgency but failed to offer a credible government to run the country – and in the end, the French public turned against what it saw as a hopeless problem requiring an expensive military commitment. In Afghanistan, the Americans are repeating France’s mistake from Algeria: they have put too much faith in a government that is so self-serving and corrupt that it stands no chance of increasing its credibility with the Afghan people. A recently leaked NATO report buttresses French views: it suggests that many Afghan officials have been actively working with the insurgency in order to distance themselves from the Karzai government.

The French have bitter first-hand experience with corruption and double-dealing on the part of Afghan officials. When Barack Obama launched an Afghan ‘surge’ in 2009, Sarkozy raised France’s contingent to just short of 4,000, and the French assumed a lead military role in Kabul and the neighbouring Kapisa province. Despite minimal consultations from Washington, Sarkozy decided to give Obama’s strategy the benefit of the doubt and refused to rule out additional troop increases in the future. But France quickly found that one of its most dangerous enemies in Kapisa was the provincial governor himself, who extorted the local populace and tipped off insurgents about the whereabouts and plans of French troops. Eventually, following considerable French and coalition pressure, President Hamid Karzai removed the governor in 2010. But French diplomats were appalled when the deputy attorney general, Fazel Ahmed Faqiryar, who was responsible for prosecuting the former governor, was in turn removed by Karzai. The president also vetoed a number of investigations of his senior government officials. Today Faqiryar, one of Afghanistan's chief fighters against corruption, lives under virtual house arrest in Kabul and is forbidden to receive visitors.

The Afghan security forces should be the French troops' closest ally. But in 2011 the International Crisis Group cited Kapisa as “one of the best examples of the nexus between the insurgency and corrupt Afghan security forces”, a statement privately endorsed rather than refuted by French military officers. France lays the blame on the Kabul government, which, Paris says, needs to reform and reconcile with its enemies if NATO intervention is to make any difference. And unlike Washington, Paris sees no point in sending a short-term ‘surge’ of troops to provinces where the Afghan government refused to curb the activities of predatory and corrupt officials.

Paris is having little success in getting Washington to listen; the US frequently ignores French concerns about corruption and incompetence in the Afghan government. Throughout 2010 and 2011, French diplomats in Afghanistan warned that the sharp increase in US aid under the Obama administration fuels corruption and indirectly funds insurgency (because many subcontractors pay 'protection' money to the Taliban). US officials recognised that their contracting and oversight procedures were flawed, but they chose to keep faith with Karzai’s vague promises to curb corruption, even though the Afghan government had deliberately obstructed several prior anti-corruption initiatives. Successive commitments to reform made at high-level conferences were ignored. Despite mounting evidence of misuse, US aid to Afghanistan almost trebled between 2008 and 2011.

Another clash between Paris and Washington occurred in 2010, when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) suspended the negotiation of financial aid to Afghanistan upon the refusal of the Karzai government to stop and investigate the theft of millions of dollars of aid money through Kabul Bank. France was particularly adamant that the international community should stand united in supporting the IMF and not allocate further large-scale funding to the Afghan government until it reformed the Kabul Bank and prosecuted those responsible for the scandal. But US military leaders complained that the Europeans were interfering with their timetable to build up the Afghan security forces and committed to fund the Afghan Ministries of Defence and Interior regardless of the IMF’s position.

Rather than addressing the shortcomings of NATO strategy, coalition headquarters in Kabul have a dangerous tendency to publicly present an exaggerated picture of success. For example, NATO officials cite polls claiming that the Afghan National Police (ANP), which assumed control of the Surobi district of Kabul from France in 2011, enjoyed 70 to 80 per cent approval ratings among the local populace. But French officers, who have seen first-hand the predatory behaviour of the ANP in Surobi, dismiss the figure as absurd, and point out that respondents are often afraid to voice their true opinions: many Afghan agencies that conduct such polls are not trusted and often travel with loathed private security companies. NATO needs the figures to look good because it has based its departure upon the capability of the Afghan government to deliver improved security and governance. France initially went along with this approach because it promised a quick exit but it has long doubted its credibility. The reality is that many provinces have become less stable since the US-led surge of 2009, yet NATO stubbornly claims that its strategy remains on course.

This is the context in which Paris made the decision to withdraw in 2013. France has had enough: its government has concluded that another year or so of a large-scale NATO military presence will not make a difference in the long-term as long as the Afghan government is obstructing rather than helping NATO to improve the governance of Afghanistan.

On balance, Sarkozy’s announcement is to be welcomed. After years of hand-wringing, misspent lives and money, a major member of NATO has finally sent a clear political signal to Kabul. In future France may become the first country to completely link its aid in Afghanistan to real progress in governance, as opposed to questionable opinion polls or recruitment numbers of new police officers. (There is no point in continuing to train security forces if their commanders are not interested in observing the law and intimidate anti-corruption agencies.) France should try to convince other countries and the EU to limit aid until the Kabul government seriously tackles corruption. The evidence is on the side of Paris: despite billions of dollars of aid and thousands of NATO casualties, Afghans trust the international community and their own government less and less.

US leaders such as former Defence Secretary Robert Gates failed the key rule of coalition fighting: the need to listen to, and act on, the views of other allies. They dismissed dissenting European voices on Afghanistan as a sign of weakness rather than foresight. Instead of giving allies more influence over the strategy, Washington repeatedly demanded more ‘boots on the ground’ and money. David Galula could have told them that this is never enough.

Edward Burke is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

The US declares peace in Europe, prematurely

The US declares peace in Europe, prematurely

Written by Tomas Valasek, 26 January 2012

Dinner on NATO, defence austerity and the US

Dinner discussion on NATO with Ambassador Ivo Daalder

Dinner on NATO, defence austerity and the US

23 January 2012

With Ambassador Ivo Daalder, US permanent representative to NATO

Location info

London

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France threatens to remove troops in Afghanistan

France threatens to remove troops in Afghanistan

France threatens to remove troops in Afghanistan

By Edward Burke, 20 January 2012
From NPR

Link to press quote:
http://www.npr.org/2012/01/20/145532530/france-threatens-to-remove-troops-in-afghanistan

Germany's military future is vital for Europe

Germany's military future is vital for Europe

Germany's military future is vital for Europe

19 January 2012
From Defence Management Journal

External Author(s)
Tomas Valasek

Breakfast on 'Is collaboration the answer to defence austerity? Perspectives on UK, France, NATO and the EU'

Breakfast on 'Is collaboration the answer to defence austerity?

Breakfast on 'Is collaboration the answer to defence austerity? Perspectives on UK, France, NATO and the EU'

14 March 2012

With Gerald Howarth MP, minister for international security strategy

Location info

London

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