Syria Agonistes

There was, from the outset, a predictability about how the Syrian crisis would come to this, a global strategist’s calculation versus the terrible suffering happening on the ground.

At present there are over 1.8 million refugees from Syria registered with UNHCR, with another 186,000 awaiting registration. In total, then, approximately 2 million Syrians have left the country, about 8.7% of the total population. In addition, at least 4 million people are listed as displaced within the country (17.4% of the population) with perhaps another 2 million needing assistance.     In total, then, perhaps 35% of the population is directly and deeply damaged by the conflict, to say nothing of the more than 100, 000 thought to have died. That is a massive dislocation by any measure.

When this began little more than two years ago, the popular press version was of Syria as just another brick in the Arab Spring wall. It was very far from that, of course as informed commentators like Joshua Landis tried to point out.    While all the individual country stories caught up in the regional realignments were unique, Syria was arguably the most complicated by virtue of geographic location, international reputation (for good or worse), regional relationships and domestic history. Not the least in all this was the complexity of Baath Party rule and the reign of Bashar al Assad who took over from father Hafez. The rebels were never going to roll easily through Syria as they had done, relatively speaking in, say, Tunisia and Libya.

The international context of this – or, more specifically, the Anglo/American dimension – was that of the Axis of Evil, so that by definition the Assad regime was the “bad” guy as the current terminology would have it. Regime change was the solution, and Syria would heads towards democracy as was then thought to be the case in, say, Iraq, Egypt and Libya. It goes without saying, clearly, that the versions of democracy emerging in those locations turned out to be very different from the ones envisaged.

As the Syrian conflict deepened, the struggle for interpretation (as in most such confusing circumstances) lay between the deeply informed perspectives of agencies like the International Crisis Group, and the mass international media’s conglomerate need for thirty second sound bites. The Syria story has almost been a model for that struggle, with inference and guilt by association replacing hard evidence. A further sophistication has been the rise of the social media as a source of information and propaganda to add even more complication.

At the centre of all this, for example, lies the nature of the “opposition” in Syria. In the beginning the popular version was simple: the “bad guy” regime was up against the “good guy” freedom fighters in the form of the Free Syrian Army, even though for most informed commentators the FSA was never a homogenous group, let alone the oppositional political platforms that lay in the background.  As time has passed, of course, the idea of a homogenous FSA has disappeared amidst reports like those produced by Aron Lund,, say, of FSA elements fighting each other for control of border posts in the north, and most supremely with the arrival of Jabhat al-Nusra, the hard line Al-Qaida unit along with other strongly Islamist brigades.    The arrival in Syria of thousands of foreign fighters simply added to the difficulties of identifying an “enemy”.

The debate about chemical weapons was a constant backdrop, a motif for the waywardness of the regime and the Syrian version of the WMD panic attached to the Iraq story earlier. As usual, there is a deeper pitch to all this. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) lists seven “state parties” that admit to holding chemical weapons and suggests that 81% of world holdings have been destroyed (meaning that 19% have not). With Syria now on the way to joining the Chemical Weapons Convention that would make eight parties among whom are, of course, the United States and Russia along with India, Albania, Iraq, Libya and an unnamed state thought to be South Korea.

When over 1,100 died in what appeared to be a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus late in August 2013, the debate over Syria ratcheted up several levels. The immediate assumption was that the regime had carried out the attack, even though earlier episodes elsewhere in the country might well have been essayed by opposition forces. Immediately the USA, itself a holder of chemical weapons if now signed up to a destruction program, declared that a “red line” had been crossed with President Obama reserving the right to conduct a “strike”. It is always tempting though futile, as with the global nuclear weapons debate, to speculate about how some states are assumed (or assume themselves) to be “responsible” while others are not. Israel, for example, signed up to the Convention in 1993 but has never ratified it, so has never had its holdings assessed. The Israelis are now concerned that events in Syria will result in the spotlight now being turned on them. . Those considerations notwithstanding, the call for a strike raised some interesting issues.

From what was known, for example, a large number of the approximately 50 chemical weapons sites in Syria are located in areas to the south, west and north where the regime has little or no control.



What would a strike there actually mean? Then, the main research site is effectively in Damascus where a strike would hold high risk of collateral damage. And what would be the civilian effect of hitting a production or even a storage facility? How would the impact be contained? Those and other much deeper questions would be asked inside American intelligence circles, obviously, but little of that nuance appeared in public.

What did appear was an immediate urge for the need to intervene, even though the clear and unequivocal evidence that the regime carried out the attack, at a time when weapons inspectors were actually in Damascus, had not been determined. Even the official UN document establishing that sarin gas was the cause of the deaths deliberately withheld comment on the likely deliverer, but the immediate media assumption was the regime.    That may well be so, of course, but as the Iraq case showed only too sadly, assumptions do sometimes turn out to be false.

The odd circumstances in which the USA and Russia came to broker Syria’s joining the Chemical Weapons Convention are well enough known, but the result has been what one acquaintance labels as the “World Bully” (John Kerry) shuttling around the world threatening action if Syria does not meet its obligations. This has struck a very strong chord in some quarters. One extraordinary intervention came from Christiane Amanpour, the British-Iranian CNN correspondent married to James Rubin who was a State department spokesman during the Clinton administration. On a panel, she made an impassioned plea for direct intervention by the USA in Syria on the grounds, among other things, that the USA was the most “moral” country in the world.  That was the extreme emotional end of the Right To Protect (R2P) doctrine, and also demonstrated the powerful hold established by the demonising of the Syrian regime.

That last comment should not in any way be read as an unmitigated defence of the Assad regime – what has happened to in some respects destroy Syria in the past two years is appalling and for which the regime must take much responsibility. The transformation is almost unimaginable from the place I knew in 2010.

The point, though, is that any intervention or absence of it will be determined largely by geopolitical need rather than by concern for what is happening to Syrians. Israel sees the opportunity to further threaten Iran. President Obama might declare that this is “not the Cold War” but all the skirmishing over the treatment of Syria has been in many respects about the perceived apparent global significance of the USA and Russia. Meanwhile Turkey continues to pursue its own interests as a result of the conflict, and Arab states unhappy with Syria and Iran see further opportunity.

Much of the debate now is about that. In a recent interview on Australia’s ABC Radio National Kurt Campbell, a senior American diplomatic figure, gave a stirring version of the American mission in Syria which prompted some online criticism for its apparent lack of balance.  Inside America, the issue of intervention has almost become a proxy for the strength of the Obama Presidency where the man really cannot win: if he pauses for reflection the Right sees him as weak, if he opts for intervention the liberal side sees him as intemperate.

Just a few weeks ago, in the latest of its excellent analyses of the conflict, the International Crisis Group argued that a negotiated political settlement was really the only option.  In the present state, that seems even more to be the case. If Russia and the USA can now broker an agreement around chemical weapons, the next push might be to negotiate an extended ceasefire to allow aid and support to reach all those displaced and damaged victims of this terrible imbroglio. Or perhaps it might mean an agreement to focus on Jabhat al-Nusra if, as it seems to appear, all major players see that extreme Islamist push as a bigger national and regional threat than Assad.

That might all seem a tall order, but it also seems more focused than the current stalemate on the ground and the hawk/liberal tone of the discussion elsewhere. Those people on the ground deserve more than they are currently getting.

















Photo Credit: Alexa Stankovic/AFP/Getty Images

4 Responses to “Syria Agonistes”
  1. Geraldine Doogue says:

    Brian, have messaged Sandi but haven’t heard back. I’ll be in Melb on grand final weekend. Would LOVE it to be for the Swans, but if they get there, it will be all guts-and-bravery. Gawd, are they suffering. However I am coming for my cousins’s 60th birthday dinner and thought that maybe we could catch up. Depending on whether the football is a goer, I could maybe come down to you in Kyneton though wld have to be back for dinner….so don’t know if that IS do-able. Don’t suppose you’re coming to the city at all, are you? I’d love to see you, maybe Sat arvo. I leave Sun around midday or 1pm I think. So I could do something on Sun morning too. Anyway, let me know if anything’s possible. Gee some of the reporting on Syrian doctors today in The AUstralian was hard to read….again! Bests Geraldinex Date: Tue, 17 Sep 2013 01:50:10 +0000 To:

  2. David crawford says:

    Hi Brian,

    Thanks for that and I believe we have come to the same, rather unhappy, conclusion.

    “Better the devil you know..”

    But in the meantime 1m + homeless refugees in camps awaiting another bitterly cold winter without proper shelter, food, fuel, or clothing. It does not bear thinking about. At least w should be able to help them with humanitarian supplies?

    Hope all is well with you and yours.

    Yours sincerely,


    P S And yes, John Kerry does resemble a latter day Henry Kissinger and is proving about as effective.

    • Hi David – the news definitely just gets worse and as some commentators are now saying, the focus on CW while understandable is also distracting from the central issue, the plight of ordinary people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: