Much of the debate surrounding the western approach to supporting the Syrian rebels has centred around the apparent conflict between intervention for humanitarian purposes and serving national interest. A key illustration of this has been the presence of fundamentalist islamist terrorism in the Syrian rebels. The argument usually given being that the presence of takfiri or salafist islamists fighting on the rebel side presents clear dangers to western interests if they succeed in gaining western-supplied arms, and particularly if they were to succeed. To me, this seems to involve a series of mistaken premises taken from a selective view of prior historical experience which can be reduced to two key issues. Firstly, an unarticulated but nonetheless perceptible linkage with the ‘blowback’ thesis in Afghanistan concerning the supply of arms, and secondly, a post-Iraq fear that western military intervention will only serve to risk western lives, resources and reputation to develop a quagmire where western forces cannot achieve western objectives such as the creation of a unitary, secular and democratic Syria and which instead will only secure an islamist state.
Taking the first point first, the problem with the ‘blowback’ thesis is that it is largely untrue. While the CIA supplied various factions in the Afghan mujahadeen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1979-89, the CIA did not supply al-Queda as popular belief sometimes holds. The reality is that Pakistani agency, firstly in the form of General Zia’s military government in the seventies and then the ISI in the eighties played a far more significant role in developing and supporting islamist terrorism first in Kashmir and then subsequently by backing the Taliban in Afghanistan (with disastrous results for Pakistan, it has to be said). In any case, the key period for Afghanistan’s development into a safe haven for al Queda took place after 1989, when the Taliban fought and won a civil war against other elements in the mujahadeen to take control of the Afghan state after the fall of the Soviet-backed Najibullah regime. That took place in a decade where the west washed its hands of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal. That outcome in turn emphasises how western inaction can produce a result clearly inimical to western interests. It would be true to say that there is no guarantee that any form of western intervention in Afghanistan in the 1990s would have produced a better result, but the point here is that inaction driven by understandable caution and a reasonable unwillingness to take the risks associated with intervention can have a detrimental outcome for western security interests.
The second point can be broken down into two parts; the apparent conflict between humanitarian intervention and national interest, and the practical problems of successfully backing local forces involved in a civil war to achieve a pro-western outcome. Taking the larger point first, this conflict between the ethical imperatives for intervention and the ‘realist’ concern with national interest is contingent upon the determination of national interest. As Blair pointed out in his 1999 Chicago speech which is often taken as the definition of a doctrine of humanitarian intervention, humanitarian intervention serves a broad definition of national interest. In Blair’s case, and despite the contemporary hyperbole and hysteria, the outcome of British interventions in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have served British national interest in terms of replacing regimes hostile to Britain or British interests with regimes which are more amenable to British interest. A government which respects democracy and human rights (no matter how imperfectly) is a better prospect for achieving British objectives (both strategic and economic) than one which does not.
Furthermore, as the division of the world during the Cold War indicates, governments which believe western and British interests to be hostile to themselves will often seek powerful external allies for their own security, thus making a hostile local regime a regional or even international threat. They may also attempt to challenge western interests by low-intensity or asymmetric military confrontation. The examples of the North Korean dependence upon China springs to mind, as does the alliance between the B’aathist regime in Syria and Russia on the first count, while the history of Syrian support for anti-western terrorism provides significant evidence on the second. And before the ‘realists’ go into a frenzy over the apparently endless commitment to regime change this indicates, the Chicago doctrine takes account of external reality; as Blair has repeatedly observed, neither he nor anybody else argued for intervention in places like Zimbabwe because it was clearly politically and therefore militarily impractical.
Ultimately replacing these regimes with less hostile ones is an outcome of clear relevance to western security and economic interests. At a basic level the ethical and the strategic arguments are in fact interdependent rather than necessarily conflicting. This is something statesmen have perceived ever since Chamberlain made the security guarantee to Poland in 1939. The outcome of that can (and often is) derided by realists, or people pretending to adopt a realist argument to camouflage their distinct political objections, when they bemoan the loss of British imperial power and the Stalinist domination of eastern Europe which followed the Second World War. In fact curbing Nazi expansionist aggression, defending British independence against a genocidal fascist regime and then removing that Nazi regime by force were all clearly in vital British interest and – in contrast to Cold War fantasies of ‘rolling back’ the iron curtain in distinction to the collective defence of western Europe – were achievable by British agency in concert with allies.
So much for the conflict between humanitarian intervention and national interest. Next for the factional argument. It’s certainly true that islamist terrorists are present amongst the Syrian rebels, but while some involvement for Sunni extremists fighting against a secular Alawite-dominated regime was inevitable on an opportunist level, the extent to which those groupings represent the broader mass of Syrian rebels and the extent to which they will succeed in imposing their ideology on the rest are, in part, contingent upon western intervention. As the deposition of the Morsi government in Egypt by a military coup with popular support indicates, islamist groupings cannot take majority popular support for granted.
Their success in Syria is contingent upon western inactivity, as similar reluctance to intervene in Bosnia in the nineties has often been cited by islamists as an example of western indifference or hostility towards a Muslim population under threat from a Christian Serbian regime. Of course that assumption involves the distortion typical of an extremist grouping viewing the world through their particular ideological prism, but the enduring nature of the canard indicates that it clearly retains some traction. A Syrian parallel will prove even more substantial and more problematic.
Backing the right horse in Syria is going to be difficult, or perhaps impossible given the factionalism and infighting prevalent amongst the rebel groupings. However, the absence of a guaranteed optimal outcome is insufficient to justify inaction. Action can be taken to improve the prospects of a less detrimental outcome by taking account of the competitive context of rebel politics and actively shaping them into a more cohesive pro-western position by selective intervention.
The refusal to intervene on the account of rebel factionalism does not mean other agencies will likewise refrain from intervention. As the participation of Hezbollah and islamist terrorists indicates, those agencies will intervene, and certainly not to seek a pro-western outcome. Meanwhile western intervention cedes the local initiative and the influence which will flow from that to them. As any realist should acknowledge, whatever the political and ideological issues originally motivating the Syrian rebels, a refusal to supply arms in western interests means that the polarisation driven by the Hobbesian dynamics of naked military power and survival involved in a civil war will still take place. Only not to western benefit. The absence of credible western military support will drive any potential pro-western constituency such as secular democrats into either the arms of islamist terrorists (to help defend them against the Syrian government) or the Syrian government (to defend themselves against islamist terrorists). The presence of such support will make many individuals and factions find secular democracy suddenly a lot more relevant and even attractive.
If we want a third option in this struggle for power, we have to provide it, no matter what the difficulties. Otherwise we are faced with the stark reality that any likely outcome will be inimical to western interests. If the Assad regime wins, it is unlikely to rethink its hostile attitude towards the west, and the pre-rebellion policies of facilitating Hezbollah and other terrorist groupings are likely to be intensified, with significant regional repercussions. If the Assad regime loses, the eventual victors are unlikely to feel any gratitude towards a west which refused to help them regardless of the moral pleading used to justify that inaction. In the worst case scenarios, either a pro-islamist government takes power or the country dissolves into anarchy, with seriously detrimental outcomes for regional stability and western security. Those negative outcomes will not be ameliorated by repeated declarations of the intent behind the policies of non-intervention justified by specious claims to serve western security. Such assertions will have just been falsified.
There is no guarantee that western intervention in the form of substantive arms supply will secure a peaceful, secular and democratic Syria, but it would at least serve to help prevent worse outcomes. Western intervention in other forms increases the cost involved, both in real terms and in terms of political capital, but it also increases the prospects for a less dire outcome for western interests. There may be no domestic appetite for substantial western military intervention, and indeed in terms of large numbers of conventional troops on the ground this would probably be counter-productive by triggering a larger anti-western defensive response inside and outside Syria. If the western public is suspicious of the costs and outcomes of intervention, this is entirely reasonable, but it remains a suspicion unchallenged by any analysis of the rationale for intervening, and the likely prospects of not doing so.
A more limited intervention is nonetheless both politically possible and practically significant. It has the potential to help shape the politics of the Syrian rebels in a manner which an outright refusal to engage simply abnegates. The deployment of western special forces with extensive air support (from NATO bases in Turkey and US naval forces in the Mediterranean) could serve a multitude of functions; simply supplying and monitoring the use of weapons as well as training and directing rebel forces could prove decisive in both strengthening the position of the selected rebel groupings politically and by military success on the ground by countering the Syrian regime’s heavy weapons, air power and armour.
This is where the example of Iraqi Kurdistan provides a useful basic parallel. To be certain, there are substantive differences between Kurdistan and Syria, notably the ethnic consistency and the prior degree of political autonomy achieved there before 1991. But the creation of a Kurdish statelet after the 1991 Gulf War, de facto independent of Iraq, was contingent upon western military intervention both in terms of air power deployed to enforce the northern ‘no fly zone’ and an initial western military deployment (by the US and Britain) on the ground to protect Kurdish ‘safe havens’ in 1991. Furthermore, the reality of Kurdish politics both before and after 1991 was one fraught with incipient and outright civil war between different factions, notably the PUK and KDP. Both of those parties either were, or contained, significant Marxist-Leninist constituencies and received support from the Soviet Union. Any Cold War reading of their ideology would have identified them as inimical to western interests. Yet by the 1990s, the US was dealing with them as allies and providing them with security guarantees against Iraqi attack. The ultimate outcome of a policy which, at least in 1991, was ostensibly purely humanitarian, and which remained dogged by political, ethnic, tribal, personal and ideological factionalism was to achieve a pro-western enclave in Iraq which was strategically-significant for western military operations in 2003 and which remains, despite the lingering intensity of those tensions, a favourable contrast to much of surrounding states in the region.
Obviously, there are clear difficulties with adoption of this parallel in Syria, and not least in the whole issue of ethnic and regional separatism. This would be particularly significant if it involved the Kurdish minority in Syria given the importance of Turkish cooperation with any western intervention in Syria, and the lasting Turkish suspicions of Kurdish separatism within their own national borders. Nonetheless, Iraqi Kurdistan gives a useful example of how ethnic and political tensions can be managed to allow humanitarian intervention to service ethical and, eventually, realist strategic goals. It even provides a useful example of how the local salafist terrorist grouping, Ansar al-Islam, can be marginalised by western forces acting with the support of a local pro-western regime.
The outcome in Kurdistan absent western intervention was unlikely to have been this useful to western interests. There is no prospect of an easily-secured similar beneficial outcome in Syria. But that outcome still matters to western security interests, and the west should act accordingly.
Inaction will ensure that whatever outcome does eventually arrive, it will be achieved by agencies hostile to those interests with serious regional and international implications. Ultimately, there always has been a realist argument for humanitarian intervention. This was explicitly acknowledged in the most influential statement of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, even if it has been repeatedly ignored by many of those making ostensibly ‘realist’ critiques of the doctrine ever since. This is a problem people making facile reference to realist arguments against humanitarian intervention need to acknowledge. Otherwise they should have the honesty to admit that their arguments are not, in fact, realist at all and instead serve a rather different political purpose.