Last week the British Defence think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), published a ‘Syria Crisis Briefing’ for its members and policy-makers. The report contained several surprises and valuable insights into the way the Western security establishment perceives a post-Arab Spring Middle East.
All the specialists who contributed to the report agree that the window of opportunity for a diplomatic solution in Syria has closed and that the crisis now is no longer about Assad, and the way in which he will fall, but the regional implications of the sectarian civil war which has been ignited and is now blazing across the country.
Events in Syria have already affected the stability of Lebanon where Hezbollah is armed and supported by Assad; Lebanon-based supporters and opponents of the Assad regime have been involved in several fierce gun battles in recent months.
The RUSI report considers all the possibilities for interventions by the West. An all-out invasion remains highly unlikely although it is, apparently, being prepared for ‘in several Western capitals’. Unlikely, not only because Russia and China would certainly veto such a move, but because the opposition groups are too fragmented to form a stable, alternative regime, with the likelihood that occupation forces would face another long-term insurgency (as in Iraq and Afghanistan). In addition, the prohibitive cost and the geo-political implications would be unpopular with Western voters.
However, Syria’s estimated stockpile of 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, along with the possibility that it could be appropriated by international terror groups, remains on the table as a potential justification for military intervention, should one be needed.
With a British naval taskforce already deployed in the eastern Mediterranean, a maritime blockade is possible although the report notes that Russian and Iranian ships are also at sea, delivering arms to the regime as well as helping it circumvent sanctions. A blockade might result in an undesirable naval stand-off with major powers, risking international escalation.
A ‘Protected Zone’ in Idlib, near the Turkish border, where opposition forces could muster and be trained, is also mooted; a measure which, the report admits, is ‘very clearly crossing the line into military enforcement’.
Whilst it may look as though the West has been doing nothing but debate what to do, we learn that British, French and US Special Forces have, in fact, been operating inside Syria for several months; not only to gather intelligence about the various opposition groups, their make-up and their ideology, but in more pro-active ways.
‘Under-the-radar’ operations include arming and advising the opposition, financial support (Saudi Arabia is to pay the rebel fighters) and a variety of other clandestine operations including providing the opposition with intelligence, sabotage, fomenting a coup d’etat and encouraging defections. In addition, CIA officers on the ground in Southern Turkey are actively intervening to ensure that Saudi and Qatari weapons are getting into the hands of the right kind of rebels and not the international Jihadis who have already made substantial inroads into Syria’s chaos.
There are also plans for cyber-warfare against the regime using destructive viruses such as the CIA-Israeli developed ‘Flame’ which took down computer systems crucial for Iran’s nuclear research programme earlier this year.
Meanwhile the region is experiencing wide-spread disintegration which some commentators suggest might benefit the West. Strong governments likely to impede Western requirements for strategic access and oil are not desirable. Iran falls into this category, like Colonel Gadaffi’s Libya and Assad’s Syria.
Under French mandate (1921 – 1936), Syria was divided into five states along ethnic and sectarian lines. The principle of divide and rule in the colonial era is well understood but it is also key to the so-called ‘Bernard Lewis Plan’ which was mooted by the legendary Middle-East expert and historian in response to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Faced with the loss of the Shah – a key ally in the region – Lewis proposed a clandestine US foreign policy which would actively encourage rebellions for national autonomy by minority groups in order to break up the Middle East into small, warring mini-states.
When the French mandate ended, the Syrian people rejected the idea of federalization and opted instead for one pluralistic, secular state which guaranteed the rights of all its constituent minorities. Now they face renewed fragmentation.
The Kurds in the North of Syria have profited from the current unrest to seize control of five provinces and now wish to establish an autonomous region, as their Iraqi brethren have done.
At the same time there is talk of a breakaway Alawite state – the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Homs and Alepppo are seen as part of this process - and three Sunni provinces are also calling for independence.
This is part of a regional trend. Iraq has already undergone a de facto partitioning – with a (booming) Kurdish state in the North, the Shi’a in the south and the Sunnis in the West and Northwest of the country. In Libya too, the Eastern part of the country has announced its autonomy.
With Assad’s security and military services deployed in dealing with the uprising, and a general climate of sectarianism, mistrust and fear, organizations and militias are springing up based on narrow, local agendas. The Lebanese civil war that erupted under just such circumstances lasted fifteen years. The Lebanese population is only five million, whereas Syria’s is 23 million, there is the potential then for a nightmare lasting decades.
Similar tensions between Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and other minorities exist in Turkey and Iran. So whilst there is a real and present danger of the internationalisation of the Syrian crisis as a result of confrontation by proxy (Iran, Hezbollah and Iraq with the Assad regime; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Sunni states with the rebels) there is an increasing fear that civil sectarian conflict might be exported too.
I am not suggesting that the West is deliberately fomenting the current drive for fragmentation in Libya and Syria, nor the tensions that prompt it. Sadly, the region’s people are doing that for themselves.