Imagine for a moment the plight of a Syrian refugee who, having fled his home after a raid from the local Shabiha – a paramilitary force loyal to President Bashar al Assad – now sits freezing in the snow on the Syrian-Turkish border. His only shelter is a plastic tent he shares with the remnants of his family who made the perilous dash to freedom with him. Consider the hushed silence that ensues when they learn of the unfolding situation in Mali: the international condemnation, the airstrikes and the forces on the ground. I don’t know the Arabic expletives that fly around the camp, but I can imagine their English translations. It’s a pretty safe bet that these refugees feel a little short changed considering the world’s response to events in Syria over the previous two years.
It’s a complex scenario. The ‘Arab spring’ took Arab watchers and government intelligence agencies by surprise. Who could have imagined the self-immolation of a Tunisian fruit seller would trigger such an implausible series of events. After a little fence sitting to see which way the wind blew, the international community hopped off the fence and stood firmly behind the Tunisian and Egyptian rebellions.
Next came Libya and it wasn’t too long before French airstrikes halted the impending massacre in the eastern city of Benghazi. After a brutal ground offensive, the Libyan rebels, with great assistance from the West, triumphed over Gaddafi’s regime. The West’s airpower, the millions of dollars funneled by the CIA into training camps in the Zintan mountains and the covert Special Forces units acting as the eyes on the ground for coalition bombing runs, had the desired effect.
Of course there were vested interests, but Syrians could be forgiven for believing that the West supported the Arab spring, and by intervening in Libya, had given a symbolic thumbs up to the toppling of long-reigning dictators.
When the Syrians took to the streets the chants were for reform. There were no calls for regime change, no chants of “down with Assad”. Peaceful demonstration was the order of the day.
But, as in the case of Gaddafi, Assad’s reaction was swift and brutal. Troops opened fire and the slaughter commenced. The world’s television screens flickered to the mobile phone footage of citizens and activists caught up in the slaughter. All similarity with Libya ends there.
Syria is geographically challenged. It finds itself in the centre of a region rocked by war, instability and internal suppression for generations. Whereas Gaddafi had long since burned many of his bridges, Assad and the Syrian ruling elite still have powerful and obliging friends in Russia and Iran – Vladimir Putin and president Ahmadinejad
When I spoke with David Cameron last March on what, if anything, could be done in regards to Syria, we both concluded that Russia was the key. Putin not only supplied the Assad regime with its vast arsenals of weapons and munitions, but Syria also hosts Russia’s only naval base outside of the former Soviet Union. Russia stands to lose a lot if Syria falls. As a result, they have vetoed any attempts by the UN Security Council to pressurise or, more importantly, topple Assad.
Vladimir Putin’s greatest fear is possibly the key to his intransigence on the Syrian crisis. He understands only too well that the Arab spring could, very quickly, become a Russian spring. Russian elections must be viewed with a healthy dose of scepticism: the brutal and systematic repression of opposition parties and journalists is key to Putin’s hold on power. For Russia to back any UN sanctioned resolution that could lead to regime change in Syria, would be the equivalent to a turkey voting for Christmas. Putin has played a wise game, allowing street protests to take place only to pick off its organisers one-by- one afterwards. He has learned much from the Arab dictator’s mistakes.
Syria also had the misfortune to rebel during critical election years elsewhere in the world, most notably in America and France. Obama safely ducked out of the Libyan campaign after America’s early but short-lived commitment, handing over the reigns to European powers. It would have been electoral suicide to attempt any form of military or humanitarian intervention in Syria while he slugged it out with Romney at home. For a presidential candidate to commit to any action in Syria while trying to reassure the American populace that he was ‘bringing the boys back home’ from other parts of the world, was not an option. However, these considerations did not preclude the continued use of other modes of warfare, namely the president’s heavy reliance on drone strikes, which continued unabated during the electoral cycle. Drones are part of a perfectly ‘safe war’ when it comes to American lives and one that can be conducted out of sight of voters.
France – Syria’s former colonial master – was also struggling with election issues. Sarkozy was fighting to cling onto power and, in doing so, could not risk offering any practical, tangible assistance, which would have helped stop the slaughter in Syria.
And of course there was the Russian election. Not exactly one that caused the world to await the results with bated breath but, as mentioned earlier, one in which Russia had its own specific agenda when it came to Syria.
Assad has one last ace in his pack. The Iranians have no interest in seeing a Sunni majority seize power in such a strategically important country as Syria. Iran is in the business of building its strength and influence in the region, not watching it being nibbled away by the loss of an important ally. Consequently, Iran stepped up its efforts in Syria, both with advanced military hardware such as drones but also by placing boots on the ground. In areas in and around Homs, many eyewitnesses told me of Farsi-speaking officers dressed in Syrian uniforms, helping to conduct operations.
When it comes to intervention in foreign lands, Britain’s hands have been tied for many years, ever since Tony Blair committed to a war in Iraq and the search for the illusive weapons of mass destruction. The combined efforts of Tony Blair, John Scarlett and Alistair Campbell, resulted in the manufacture of a misleading document, which formed the basis for the war in Iraq that will taint British foreign policy for many years to come. To get involved in another foreign adventure, with a coalition government already starting to fray at the seams, makes any serious intervention in Syria out of the question.
The UN’s brainwave – to send in Kofi Annan – was as patronising to the Syrians as it was useless in its attempt to halt the bloodshed. Annan, whose reputation was already in question over corruption allegations, produced a peace plan that relied on the Syrian people laying down their weapons and trusting the very man who had ordered their slaughter in the first place. It provided cover for the international community to hide behind. “We can do nothing while Mr Annan is talking peace,” a common retort when governments were questioned on their apathetic approach to Syria. Eventually the penny dropped with poor Kofi and he was soon back home.
Nature abhors a vacuum, a scientific saying applicable to the Syrian conflict. Filling the vacuum created by worldwide inactivity, foreign fighters or jihadists soon arrived in the country. Let’s not rush to blame the Syrians here. Imagine if your hometown had been under siege for nearly two years and, despite your desperate pleas for help, no one came to your assistance. How would you then react if someone did eventually come to your aid, fought back against regime and offered you the first, viable, chance of seeing out the year alive? Personally, I think I would rather thank him than ask as to whether he was a moderate liberal, or Osama Bin Laden’s love child. If it meant the difference between life and death for my family, I would accept their contribution without question. Political and religious affiliations could be discussed at a much later date; staying alive would be my prefered option in such a scenario.
However, the arrival of foreign fighters in Syria gives rise to another excuse – we can’t arm the jihadists. But it’s now too late: they are there already, fully armed, and we are not.
Obama, meanwhile, has been busy with his crayon set, drawing red lines in the sand, rubbing them out as soon as they are crossed and then quickly redrawing another.
I spent hours at the height of the siege in Baba Amr, trying to explain to the shell-shocked residents why exactly there was no intervention on their behalf, why we did nothing whilst it was being played out in front of the world’s eyes. Maybe now it’s time someone went back and had a word with the freezing Syrian refugee in his plastic shelter and explained, exactly why we have sat on our hands and done little but talk for the last two years while the massacres continue. Oh, and while he is there, perhaps he could also explain why the Malians are doing okay thanks to an international intervention.
A word of advice to whoever goes to speak to this refugee: take a flask because it’s freezing out there and be careful not to trip over any red lines at night.