Syria: How do you see this one turning out?

….asks a friend, in response to my tweeting the Guardian’s latest story, which is headlined that Saudi Arabia is poised to start bankrolling the Syrian insurgency. The more significant aspect to the story is the degree to which it is apparent that Turkey & the Saudis are throwing their lot in with the Free Syrian Army.

The story mentions a command centre in Istanbul, opened with Ankara’s blessing, a well organised system of cross-border arms shipments and the plan to put the FSA on the Saudi payroll (particularly significant in that wages would be in dollars or euros, rather than the beleaguered Syrian pound – giving a clear financial incentive for Syrian army personnel to defect). It also makes it clear that Turkey wouldn’t sign up to any of this without US blessing, and that the CIA is very busy on the ground making sure that the recipients of this largesse meet with their approval.

As it’s a rainy day, and I have tea & cake, it seemed like a good time to dust off my inexpert opinions and gaze into my crystal ball. So let’s take stock:

Firstly, if Turkey, Saudi Arabia have gone this far, they are not going to rest until Assad is gone and Syria is stable. As the US has clearly signed up for this too, the same goes for them. Their bottom line will be a reversal of the current trend of an escalating, increasingly ethnically charged conflict which could spill over into Syria’s neighbours, and to a lesser extent an end to harrowing news stories about massacres.

Assad has been busy burning bridges for the last 18 months and shows every sign of being a man who will keep doubling down until the casino collapses around him. It shouldn’t need repeating that this mess is entirely of his own making – he turned a series of peaceful protests into an armed uprising by brutally suppressing it, and has consistently upped the ante with military responses, inflammatory rhetoric about foreign interference and by staging terrorist bombings to justify his warped narrative. He has eschewed the various opportunities he has been given to extricate himself from the disaster he has brought upon himself and his country, and it is safe to assume he will continue to do so.

As he won’t help himself, it looks like the best outcome for Assad is that he is ousted in a coup by people around him who see the writing on the wall but are not sufficiently vindictive to offer him up for trial as a sacrificial victim. Whether that will come about as a direct result of the removal of Russian patronage remains to be seen.

Assad clearly cannot militarily suppress the uprising – he’s been unable to manage it the past 18 months when his neighbours were not assisting the FSA, and the brutality of his response thus far has cemented resistance to him within the country. If having the slightest connection to the uprising means that you and your family are marked out for wholesale slaughter and mutilation, then you have a strong incentive to support it, no matter how hopeless the cause may seem.

With an ongoing stream of weapons and money for the uprising coming from Turkey, which is presumably also being used as a safe haven by the FSA, Assad’s forces will require serious discipline not to create some kind of border incident with Turkey in the not-too-distant future. As he is already relying on irregular militias who have been carrying out massacres when he was supposed to be implementing a peace plan, and the conduct of Syrian forces so far has followed a clear trend of unnecessary escalation, the logic of events tends towards a direct confrontation between Turkey and Syria.

Intriguingly, the other big news is that Syria has shot down a Turkish F-4 jet, which is exactly the kind of thing which could lead to Turkey becoming directly involved in the conflict. I would be surprised if it came to that, and the immediate Turkish response to the attack on the jet seems to be playing for time, rather than gunning for war. However as things drag on, particularly if there are several ‘provocations’ from Syria, this may change.

My guess is that it would take the intervention of a neighbour to militarily remove Assad – however successful the FSA are, however well armed and funded, they aren’t in a position to take on full army with heavy vehicles and artillery. As such, the immediate prognosis is for ongoing asymmetric civil war, with the Army following something like a scorched earth strategy in any areas thought to have rebel sympathies and the FSA retaliating but largely avoiding direct confrontations.

This is basically a recipe for a long and ugly stalemate. The things which could change that are some sort of incident which draws Turkey in, a significant increase in defections from the Syrian Army, a serious step up in the outside aid given to the FSA (this seems unlikely at present, but as various countries are now committed to the fall of Assad, they will probably up the ante if the FSA does not seem to be prevailing), or a change in the position of Russia.

My friend wondered whether ‘The West’ was likely to be drawn in, and I guess that’s a question of definitions. If you are wondering whether the US or an ad hoc European coalition will intervene militarily in Syria, my considered opinion is that they wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole.

There isn’t a clearly defined area under rebel control like Benghazi and Misrata were, meaning any intervention would be militarily messy and less likely to be effective. Public opinion shows very little enthusiasm for intervention, and there certainly aren’t the politicians chomping at the bit in Europe like there were over Libya – Sarkosy is long gone, and Cameron has enough on his plate, as does Europe in general, for that matter. Obama is already struggling to prevent himself from being dragged into the war with Iran that Netanyahu keeps threatening to launch, and won’t do anything that doesn’t convey to a direct electoral gain for the next four months. Blundering into another Middle Eastern military commitment is right up there with ‘flooding a major US city’ and ‘performing the Hajj’ in Obama’s list of things he will not be doing between now and November.

Of course, if by Western involvement you include encouraging your regional allies to arm the FSA while you pretend not to get involved, and flooding the place with spooks to make sure the money and arms are flooding to ‘our sort of people’, then that’s already happening, and no doubt we are expected not to worry our pretty heads about it.

The meta-concern for the US, and the reason I’m sure they won’t get involved, is the position of Russia. Russia has strategic interests in Syria, which don’t necessarily require Assad to remain in power, but so far Russia seems to have calculated that their best chance of protecting their interests is to protect him from censure in the security council.

Russia’s wider concern is also more about national pride and respect – a sense that in the past the US regarded Russia as a dispensable player in international affairs, and a determination to be seen as an essential international stakeholder whose position and interests should always be taken into account. While the wording of Security Council resolution 1973 made it clear (by the standards of euphemistic diplomat-speak) that it was authorisation for something more assertive than the enforcement of a no-fly zone, there is a perception that this was not done in the case of Libya.

The US needs Russian cooperation in other matters – particularly Iran, and the US supply lines to Afghanistan – so any international action on Syria is going to go at Moscow’s pace for the time being. No doubt Obama will face calls for unilateral intervention with each grisly news story that comes out of Syria. Romney, ever the opportunist, has picked up on this issue, and we can also expect to hear plenty more from rent-a-quote war addicts John McCain & Joe Lieberman. Obama’s opponents will try and paint his attempts to accommodate Russia as weakness, but this is nonsense: another indication that the foreign policy debate in the US is basically an argument between those who wish to continue with its long and inglorious tradition of realpolitik and those who prefer to retreat into fantasies of omnipotence.

If Russia really decided to throw its weight behind Assad, it has more tools at its disposal that a security council veto. As far as I can tell,* they haven’t approved new shipments of heavy weapons since the crisis began, though I seem to remember credible reports of a transfer of machine guns and suchlike last year some time. Although Russia are repairing previously sold weapons, they are stating publicly that they will not deliver arms that can be used against peaceful protesters. This gives them some leeway for arms sales for use against an armed uprising, of course, but let’s take it as read that Russia currently recognises some obligation not to be seen to obviously assist the wholesale massacre of civilians, but is perfectly capable of flooding Syria with weapons if it wants to, as this debacle with the shipment of repaired helicopters is proving.

As such, Obama is right to ignore the domestic voices calling for intervention, and unless public opinion in the US changes radically he can afford to. A change in public opinion can’t be ruled out, and Obama will want to show he has control over events, however limited his actual policy options, but my sense is that the US feels a bit too fragile and uncertain to muster up the enthusiasm for a war right now. Any propaganda effort in that direction will be saved for Iran, in case that is deemed necessary.

If I’m right, the key question is how long the conflict will remain limited to Syria without drawing in Turkey or other neighbouring countries. Lebanon would seem to be at risk, especially with the increasingly ethnic dimension to the Syrian conflict. Personally I don’t buy the possibility that Syria could strike at Israel through Hamas or Hezbollah. It was always an oversimplification to regard either group as just proxies of anyone, but certainly now neither will be taking orders from Damascus. Shooting civilians is just not a good look for a national liberation movement.

Iran has an alliance with Syria, and has already been providing advice on how to crush the populace, but as the two countries share no land borders, their ability to give direct assistance is limited. Their only route would be through Iraq, and the billions the US is still providing Iraq in aid will ensure that door remains closed.

Assad will have to do without military assistance then, though I expect he isn’t going to run out of ammunition any time soon, and he isn’t currently under threat, unless or until he gives Turkey a reason to get seriously involved. However, if a serious enough reason was to emerge, I suspect that Russia might shift its position. It is one thing to protect a client state which is massacring civilians, but protecting one which starts a fight with its neighbours is another matter entirely.

There is also the small point that Turkey is a NATO member – were Syria to infringe Turkish sovereignty in some way, technically the US and most of Europe are supposed to join in the retaliation. Moscow would struggle to defend an ally which managed to fuck things up so royally. China, which has supported Russia in the security council over Syria, might also waver if it was no longer a matter of their treasured doctrine of ‘non-interference’ in domestic affairs and things started to escalate to the status of a regional conflict.

So it would appear that all solutions to the crisis lead through Russia, which is far from an optimistic prospect. What will it take before Russia abandons its ally to his fate, or will something else give first? The shooting down of the plane probably isn’t enough to change the game, unless the circumstances which emerge turn out to show Syria in a particularly bad light, but if several other incidents of this type were to occur, that would probably be sufficient. If the US et al are taking a highly Machiavellian approach, they will probably be looking to engineer these events. But for the time being, the outlook is for an increasingly ugly conflict and more suffering for the people of Syria.

*This article in Foreign Policy establishes firmly that Syria is using Russian arms to crush the uprising, which we knew already, but fails to establish that any of them were transferred more recently than 2011, despite the sensationalist headline, so the story here is FP getting up to its old trick of giving warmongering the veneer of academic respectability.

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