Intervention in Syria

There can be little doubt, as the civil war in Syria has continued and virtually stalemated, and as the Alawite-led government of President Assad has seemed to hold a slight upper hand, that sentiment among Western governments has been gradually shifting towards some form of military intervention. Recommendation of a policy of humanitarian intervention has become the order of the day.

In some European countries, and particularly the Nato-member governments of Britain and France, there has been an increasing feeling that a Libyan intervention-type operation could succeed, an eventuality that could strengthen Nato’s hand generally in the various areas of disorder and rebellion in the Middle East. And has been generally observed, Britain and France have taken the opportunity of the alleged use of chemical warfare by the Assad regime, to initiate action in that direction.

For a short time it seemed, especially to the British government, that the allegations of chemical warfare were beginning to induce popular support for some form of intervention, and that particularly in the United States, a President Obama, victorious in his first election on an anti-war and anti-interventionist ticket could be made to respond positively to that orientation.

Unfortunately, a collective Nato strategy in that direction, and therefore the pursuit of a war strategy against what is thought to be a weak (in the face of major powers intervention) Syrian government, has been, at least temporarily, stymied by the United States’ key diplomatic ally, Britain. A combination of a forceful expression of public opinion and overconfident and therefore careless parliamentary management by Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron, has lost the United States its major supporter, with the result that consequent British diplomacy towards an allied intervention has collapsed.

But in France, President Hollande’s government, already unpopular, in public opinion polls, in terms of its domestic policy, has responded by more loudly shouting its support for intervention. But we suspect that President Obama can hardly believe that a country, France, where the polls are already showing that the electorate does not support intervention, can substitute for its major traditional ally.

The parliamentary vote in Britain has already induced President Obama to virtually predicate his government’s intervention in Syria on the support of the United States Congress. In turn, the hawks in that arena will be hoping that forcing the President to pursue a strategy of intervention will rid him of his traditional position, stemming from his opposition to President George Bush’s 2003 intervention in Iraq, against the use of American troops in countries destabilised by ethnic or religious differences among the major constituent groups of their populations.

Up to a few weeks ago, the President’s attitude to recent events in the Middle East has been to tread warily, as indicated particularly in his government’s approach to events especially in Egypt. There the lesson that he has seemed to draw, is that differences within a population, reflected in diverse religious persuasions of Islam, and supported by surrounding countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Iran, should be allowed to play themselves out, with only indirect (that is non-military) influence exerted by the United States and the Western powers.

In some respects, this was the strategy played by the US in respect of the Libyan civil war, where the President preferred to let the direct military intervention be handled by the European members of Nato. And the President, taking into account what is deemed to be Egypt’s strategic role, over many years, as a bastion of Western influence in the Middle East, has preferred to allow infractions of democratic behaviour to go relatively unpunished, rather than upset that status quo, as long as it remains favourable to Western interests.

The President’s new recourse to direct intervention in Syria, is therefore partly premised on a strategizing that suggests that given that the ruling Alawite group is a relatively small minority vis-à-vis the Sunni and Shia pluralities, supported mainly by Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, it will hardly be able to resist a determined, direct, Western intervention. He has not yet spoken of any possibility that a post-intervention conflict for commanding positions by the two major groups could precipitate another civil war in Syria (as appears to be gradually emerging in Iraq, in its post-George W Bush phase of American intervention).

Interestingly, in this apparently pre-intervention phase of diplomatic and war strategizing about Syria, the President seems comfortable in ignoring the entreaties of President Putin of Russia, that no Western military intervention should be undertaken, and that the “responsibility to protect” provisions legitimizing external intervention, should only be undertaken under the approval of the United Nations Security Council.

Putin, whose countries – the Soviet Union and now Russia – have been amalgams of often tension-ridden ethinic and religious groupings (including Islamic groupings) has claimed to have a certain experience of handling the types of religious-ethnicity conflicts now openly prevalent throughout the Middle East and North Africa. But the US, increasingly dissatisfied with various international positions taken by Russia, as well as by positions taken within Russia, which Americans brand as reflecting a form of autocratic rule,  seems to feel less and less willing to be constrained by Russian opinions on events, or by Russia’s claimed interests, in the Middle East.

President Obama, having now placed his decision-making into the hands of the Congress, would have calculated that this gives him a certain flexibility as to whether, in the last resort, he should resort to direct intervention. On the other hand, he can feel that he can use the Congress’ approval as a stick to induce Syrian government, influenced by Russia, to begin to come to some kind of accommodation. But counteracting this latter strategy is a degree of unwillingness, particularly in the Congress, to see Russia play a larger, and what might be deemed by others, to be a legitimate, role in the Middle East.

We can now only wait for the Congress vote, and its aftermath.

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