In Syria, it’s a case of all or nothing

Patrick Cockburn asks: What can be done to end the appalling and ever-growing miseries of the 23 million Syrian people? The answer is to make either war or peace effectively. Limited missile strikes on Syrian military bases are not going to compel President Assad to negotiate his own departure from power. The only military action that might do this is a full-scale assault including a no-fly zone and a no-drive zone. This means giving the rebels an air umbrella, as was done for the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan in 2001, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq in 2003 and the anti-Gaddafi militiamen in Libya in 2011. And thus fighting a full-scale war with the likelihood that Russia, Iran and Hezbollah will increase their support for Assad. Anything less than this full-scale military commitment simply stokes the war and increases the violence. It gives the opposition hope (particularly since so many of its official leaders reside safely abroad) that one day there will be a Libyan-type intervention by Nato on their behalf.

Limited intervention means that the stalemate will continue. One of the best chances for peace – the day of mutual exhaustion and realisation that nobody is going to win on the battlefield – is postponed. The analogy with Kosovo in 1999 is shallow and misleading since defeat was only admitted by an isolated Serbia after a 78-day air bombardment and the threat of a Nato land invasion.

If all-out war is not feasible, could peace come by negotiation? Here America and Britain’s stance has been hypocritical, publicly supporting peace talks while offering only surrender terms to the Assad government at a time when it controls most of Syria. This was largely the result of a miscalculation by world leaders in 2011-12 whereby they underestimated the staying power of the Assad government. Its collapse was gleefully predicted, a role for Assad in Syria’s political transition ruled out, while Iran, an important player, was to be excluded. A peace conference so out of keeping with the real balance of power is not going to stop any wars. But bringing Iran in would undermine the US, European and Israeli effort to isolate it over its development of nuclear power. The US would effectively have to recognise Tehran as a regional power, which would infuriate the Israelis and the Gulf monarchies.

Even then, peace would not come easily, if at all. The best interim solution could be a UN-monitored ceasefire as briefly occurred under the Kofi Annan plan in 2012. All sides are dependent on outside backers, and even those who most want to fight need weapons, ammunition and money. Heavy pressure could be put on them to agree to a peace conference and a temporary ceasefire.

This would be a Lebanese-style truce – unsatisfactory but better than full-scale war. A peace conference on this basis could be the political and diplomatic counterpart to the limited US military strike President Obama is contemplating. In practice there has been a stalemate in most of Syria for the last year. If the Syrian army did use poison gas, it shows it does not have the strength to retake even the inner rebel-held suburbs of Damascus. It is better therefore for the battle lines to be frozen under some form of UN supervision. Long-term solutions will only begin to be feasible when Syrians are no longer at the mercy of what Northern Ireland politicians used to call “the politics of the last atrocity”.

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