ROSS BURNS. Looking for an end-game in Syria.

Aug 31, 2016


Newspaper commentary on the Syria conflict has long struggled to provide new insights into the conflict. However, in an analysis published over the weekend in the New York Times, Max Fisher, adopted the novel approach of asking academic experts to comment on how other civil wars came to an end to see if any served as a precedent for Syria.

In commending Fisher’s article as rare good sense on this subject, I must admit my views are coloured not just by the current conflict and its many complexities but also by experience during three relevant postings in the Australian foreign service—Nigeria in the 1960s, Bangladesh in the 1970s, Lebanon in the 1980s. An assignment as Ambassador to Damascus in the eighties and numerous subsequent visits have also kept me alive to the issues as they present themselves in this tragic conflict.

The picture Fisher’s experts present is very much one of a conflict which no side can win on its own strength and none feels it can afford to lose as either the group itself (or the section of the community it claims to be protecting) feels the loser will be wiped out. Whenever the stalemate starts to wobble, outside power comes in to ‘rebalance’ the picture and so it goes on. But so far in Syria, even determined outside interventions have failed to produce a decisive outcome since outsiders such as the Russians, the Saudis, the Turks, the Iranians or the Americans (to name a few!) lack either the means or the resolve to tip the balance in favour of their ‘proxy’. In fact, the proxies are not really interested in some cases in sustaining the effort to achieve a decisive win; they just want to make sure no one else among the outsiders gain at their expense!

This perfect formula for perpetual conflict has marked the course of the Syrian war for over five years. Is the conflict doomed to reinvent itself continually this way? Here I could draw on my own civil war record to complement the NYT’s comparisons. In cases where wars seem destined to drag on endlessly, something usually turns up—a factor X. That’s often because people get tired of fighting. Nigeria ended because the Biafrans at last realised that their comic opera leader, Ojukwu, had no answer and that it was better to get back to being the clever contributors to a federated Nigeria than remain an African micro-state.

In Bangladesh, war-gaming a conclusion was easy. West Pakistan was six hours flight from the front (India quickly denied overflight rights) and its Pathan forces were of little use in the marshes and paddy fields of East Pakistan. In between was India and no one in Pakistan wanted a showdown with India.

Lebanon was the most interesting case for present purposes. After fifteen years, the war just fizzled out. Lebanese had long tired of it. No one was winning; no one in the end had further external resources to draw on (except Hezbollah in the south); the Syrians got weary of umpiring the conflict; and the Saudis had the money to bring back the novel idea of a government under a capable Sunni leader in a country which had struggled without for 15 years.

All of these cases bear out a few principles which are relevant in Syria. Outside help can adjust (though not usually rebalance) the equations but more often (Bangladesh being the exception) could not produce a realistic outcome. Outsiders usually made things worse because they don’t understand the dynamics and think just a bit of tinkering will tilt the direction of the conflict or at least stop their ‘proxies’ from losing. The classic case of outside forces needlessly prolonging conflict was Biafra. Ojukwu was so puffed up by the churches and the flattering coverage in the Western media that he was stranded in a parallel universe. The classic example of applying massive conventional firepower that only succeeded in bringing a conflict to a new phase of intensity and suffering was Lebanon with the Israeli (and to a more limited extent, US and French) interventions.

Syria has a range of external backers supporting local factions and some are capable of playing a sustained supportive role. Russia has been the most clever and (I believe, somewhat heretically to most people) that the Russian role has not been entirely negative or risky. By stepping in since 2014 to rescue Bashar’s regime, it prevented Syria from becoming another Libya overnight. That would have brought not only sectarian massacres on a huge scale (Islamists vs minorities) but would have invited regional chaos. In Russia’s game, a judicious bit of rebalancing was well timed, highly effective in staving off the threat to the coastal enclave and thus largely positive in terms of saving some semblance of Syria and its 30 percent minorities.

Other external players, though, appear to be just testing ideas without any thought for the consequences. The Americans’ efforts to buy into a ‘solution’ by backing a group of local secularist forces just adds a new element which cannot make a difference. Worse still, many of the ‘secularist’ forces’ ranks (with their firepower) have simply passed over to the Islamists. Elements in the Gulf states have provided ad hoc backing for various Islamist factions whose agendas they cannot (and probably make no attempt to) control.

Turkey sees the situation in terms of its obsession with the Kurds. Ankara saw until recently a useful role in tacitly letting ISIS have its way, streaming across the Iraqi and Syrian borders and receiving resupply and funds across what was once one of the most tightly controlled perimeters in the Middle East.

The NYT interviewees all put emphasis on how the situation, given all this fiddling, could go on endlessly with neither the Syrian regime nor the opposition able to sustain a decisive challenge. It has also reached a level of horror where no new resort to atrocities or mindless bombardment could any longer achieve a ‘shock and awe’ impact. After over five years of horror, the senses are numbed.

The situation has become so bad that it would be nice to dream of a Factor X to bring the conflict to a grinding standstill, like Lebanon and Biafra. The trouble in relying on ‘war weariness’, which usually draws on local sentiment as a decisive factor, just doesn’t look decisive enough for the moment, particularly when those most committed to the war tend to be outsiders once removed from its consequences.

After saying for five years that this conflict could last for at least 5-10 years, I still have a little bit of hope that a dose of sobering reality is overdue. First Assad is gradually getting some sort of consistent performance out of his forces (largely conscripts with a stiffening of Alawis). Iran is helping him and of course the Russian air force has achieved some momentum. Other efforts to degrade ISIS through bombing helped too. ISIS is reaching burn out and everyone can start to agree that getting rid of it is the first step to any recovery.

But the next step requires a more decisive deus ex machina. In this context, Erdogan’s response to the armed forces’ recent stifled coup may be interesting. The failed putsch may have brought him to re-evaluate his risk-taking in Syria. The situation in Syria is now so dangerous for its neighbours that it can’t just be addressed by a bit of creative rebalancing to head off aspirations for Kurdistan. For Turkey, the Islamist blowback factor of allowing ISIS free reign in Syria and Iraq is now all too evident. ISIS is the agreed enemy no. 1. Erdogan cannot either overlook its barbaric perversion of Islam or continue to throw petrol on it to see what happens. That risk of blowback is another reason why Russia is taking Syria more seriously (think Chechnya), and the Gulf states might finally be recalibrating their efforts to back Islamist forces in Syria which have a conspicuous record of being swallowed by or playing into ISIS’s hands.

All of this means that more of the external players might begin to appreciate that what Syria needs is a government; some form of authority that prevents this central piece of Mid East real estate lapsing into endless anarchy. Even a government that might involve a transitional role for the leader of the ruling family that created the scenario for this tragedy in the first place?

What can we (Australia) do? First of all, not try to get ourselves involved even at the level of rhetoric. This certainly means stop talking about the breaking up of Syria. That would be the formula for disaster at the top of the scale. The only way to keep the cork in the keg is to favour Syria remaining a secular-based state, however idealistic that may seem now. We should also not see every move by Russia or Iran as necessarily mischievous. Syria with a central government that entirely collapsed is a scenario that would invite not another five but fifty more years of war. And finally we should try to persuade the Turks, the Americans and the Gulf states that the time for throwing more petrol has passed. We just have to encourage whatever flow might take Syria towards a suppression of the level of violence, get the refugees home again, hobble the Islamists and preserve a future for all the minorities.

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