‘Talk is cheap’ goes the saying. Not in the case of Syria. It’s actually proving rather expensive, the cost of words rather than deeds measured in the untold numbers of people – a mix of the good, the bad, and the merely unlucky – who have paid with their lives. The atrocities go on day after day and week and after week and so do the utterances of outrage from all and sundry. The plea is that something must be done and yet nothing is.
The rhetoric is bold and the action weak.
I do not for a moment underestimate the challenges and complexity that surround any sort of intervention. Yet if we aren’t going to make some sort of stand, take some sort of positive steps, then why are we offering the people of Syria any hope?
Not for the first time, the impotence of the United Nations is on display, the fractures in the Security Council of canyon-sized proportions, the attitudes of Western nations at odds with those of Russia and China who find conscionable reasons to stand up for, rather than against, the Assad regime. Once again the UN is the dog that barks wildly but has no teeth.
In the same moment he likens Syria to another Bosnia, the foreign secretary William Hague will be remembering how ineffective the UN was in preventing the terrible tragedies that took place therein the 90’s. The Srebrenica massacre the most infamous failing – and one which has been brought back into the spotlight recently by events at the Hague – but not the only example of the UN’s incapacity to sanction and make swift and decisive intervention not just in that protracted, murderous conflict but also beyond (Rwanda was not a great success either).
In theory there are others who can lead the way into Syria. NATO perhaps, a bespoke alliance of nations very much in the same way as unfolded in Libya or the Arab League of 22 countries which could seemingly legitimately police a problem which is fairly and squarely on its own doorstep, indeed Syria was a member of the League before being suspended in November 2011.
Yet none is likely to move without UN authority and that we have yet to get.
Increasingly it looks like we are going to crack this nut by the back door.
Something is needed to destabilise the Assad regime then, as his downfall becomes a one-way bet, the protestations of pro-Assad supporters such as China and Russia will fade: their understandable concerns that there is a huge difference between intervening in a country to protect civilians and intervening with the intention of regime change valid but of little purpose post the fact. Despite their objections, they understand better than most how politics works in the real world and once the point is made which superpower is really going to back a crumbling leadership in a sideshow country? Ultimately everyone likes a winner.
Arming the rebels goes some way to making them a credible force, but they would be more credible still if the hardware of war was supplemented with the essential knowledge of war. The role of providing command and control could well fall to Private Military Companies (PMCs) bankrolled by governments sympathetic to the rebel cause. The stronger the rebels are, the more cohesive their political and military structures become, the more legitimacy they acquire and the more likely they are to be able to ask and then receive international community support in the form of safe havens or the no fly zones we saw in Libya.
Momentum is the key.
But what of life after Assad? The sad truth is that the end of the dictator could just be the start of the country’s troubles. For all the talk of a united opposition, it is in fact factionalised and when Assad is gone the men with guns won’t go home. They will fight each other to establish their own powerbases, struggling to fill the void left by the temporarily unifying figure of hate. You only have to look at Libya to see how things might end up, with the threat of civil war a major concern. One strong man could very easily end up replacing another. So we – the West – have to decide what we want to do.
There is another saying ‘Lead, follow or get out of the way’. It’s about time we did one thing or another.