The mess that is Syria

In my futuristic SF ebooks, I have one extremely advanced alien race, and they have a very specific policy regarding communication with less advanced races: they do not intervene in that society’s development unless they are prepared to take full responsibility for what follows, and that what follows must be demonstrably better for all concerned than what the situation was at the intervention. The net result of this is they basically refuse to intervene, no matter what they see because there is too much danger that all they can do is make things worse. In short, “Do no harm!”

It is with this in mind that I cannot resist thinking about the Western interventions in what is referred to as the Middle East. As far as I am aware, Tunisia probably just happened, but since then there has been an “Arab Spring” contagion spread across the region, and many Western nations have acted to accelerate and fan the flames of whatever develops, seemingly with the view that they know best how the others should live. Then, before that, there was Iraq. In my view, just about everything the West has done in that region has turned to custard, but what has been learned from the experience? Bearing in mind what we see now, in my opinion, not much, because the same old mistakes keep turning up.

Just to be clear, people like Gadhafi, Hussein, Assad, and others were definitely not saints. However, they did manage some basic functions of governance, such as maintaining order within their boundaries, and as long as their people were not politically active, their lives were basically safe and as prosperous as they were likely to be in that region. And above all else, they enforced religious tolerance. What they knew, and what the West seems to have forgotten, is that when one religious group refuses to tolerate another, there is widespread bloodshed and persecution. These “strongmen” may not have been very bright with their public relations with the West, but they knew they had to keep the lid on a box of some very dangerous problems. All the West has done has been to ignore Pandora, and tear off that lid.

The Western policy in Syria, if there is one, seems to be to replace Assad with someone more moderate in which case (more in hope than based on any trace of evidence) everyone will live happily ever after. Obviously, no lesson learned from Iraq. As for logic, how can any moderate person contain the current religious hatred?

In my opinion, the only reason to intervene against the government in another country having a revolt is that there is a clearly superior replacement in line, should you succeed. There was no such person in Iraq, and instead in flew a number of Iraqis who had been living in the West, who had cultivated support, and who could not wait to get their hands on the treasury and oil money of Iraq. Then there arose a Shi’ite dominated government that was determined to put the boot into the Sunnis. Then there were all the unemployed soldiers and officials from Hussein’s time. By firing the civil service, there was no chance of reasonable governance, and those soldiers were a natural source of fighters for the newly emerged ISIS. What a great strategy that turned out to be.

So, what we have now is the US bombing ISIS and, along with the Saudis, funding “moderate” opposition to Assad. Then, into the mix we have the Russians bombing opposition to Assad, which may include but is not exclusive to ISIS. The “moderate” opposition includes a number of Sunni soldiers from what was the Syrian army, Ahrar al-Sham, which has strong al Qaeda connections, and the Nusra Front, which is the more official Syrian branch of al Qaeda. Thus we have the somewhat ironical outcome that the US is so keen to get rid of Assad that it is busy helping and funding al Qaeda. And just suppose Assad goes; who would you bet on to replace him?

From a military point of view, who, if anyone, is likely to beat ISIS? My guess is the best bet is the Iranians, including their Quds special force. The reason is you cannot win a war without imposing your will through ground troops. If the US really wants to get rid of ISIS, it should support the Iranians, but then again, the US is fixated on opposing Iran on its nuclear ambitions, and has indicated a willingness to bomb Iran. How about that for prioritizing? To add to the complexity, it is unclear whether Iran is really interested. Meanwhile, the Russians have a chance to flex some muscle and demonstrate to Europe that getting involved in the Ukraine might come at a price. And, of course, Iran has an incentive to learn from the Russians how to work advanced anti-aircraft defences in case the US or Israel decides to bomb it. I wonder if any Western politicians are wondering whether it might have been better to leave that area alone? A clear strategy does not guarantee winning, but in this case a virtual absence of clear strategy is a fairly good indication that, in the long term, loss is inevitable.


One of the themes of my trilogy First Contact was that advanced aliens with a sense of morality would not wish to contact us. Yes, I know, there was some law to that effect in Star Trek, but in First Contact it is not so much that they are forbidden per se from becoming involved, but rather, if they do, they must take full responsibility for the outcome. Accordingly, they prefer not to get involved. This raises the question, should leaders of powerful nations adopt a similar philosophy? While no action can be guaranteed to succeed, should such leaders at least enunciate their end goal and a plan on how they will get there before intervening? At least give everyone an indication that they have a planned end position, and it is worth the risk.

This is where my views on Syria are probably different from many of the Western leaders. Let us consider the logic of the situation. Suppose we assert

The use of chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians is a crime.

I think we could all agree on that. Now, how about

Any act that leads to the killing of innocent civilians is a crime.

Agree? If not, why not? If so, why? These are not so simple questions, because the politician will assert that the cruise missile is a “surgical” instrument, and any deaths are unfortunate collateral damage. Perhaps, but what do you think the relations of the dead think?

What is going on in Syria is a continuation of what was effectively started in Iraq, although the seeds were sown when the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The resultant carve-up into countries based on someone using a pen and ruler on a map was not one of the Western leaders’ better moments. However, whatever you will say, the countries of the mid-east were fairly stable and relatively pleasant to live in until Saddam Hussein elected to go to war with Iran. We do not know the cause of this, but we do know the western nations did not exactly over-exert themselves to stop it, until it became obvious that it was not going anywhere. Nevertheless, leaving aside this war, Iraq was a tolerable place for Iraqis to live in, provided you were not considered to be a dissident. Now, the western leaders and our press did not like Saddam Hussein’s way of dealing with dissidents, nor for that matter, others’, nevertheless provided you were not a dissident, life was reasonably good in similar countries. Yes, some people who were favoured got richer than others, but name a country where this does not happen to some extent?

Eventually, the West decided to invade Iraq and get rid of Saddam, nominally to get rid of weapons of mass destruction. You may recall the assertions that such weapons were there: there was “undeniable evidence”, even though UN weapons inspectors could not find any. This hardly provides confidence in the current assertions regarding Syria. Of course, once the invasion was completed, there were no such weapons. Also, tens of thousands of otherwise innocent Iraqis were killed. So, what happened next? The army of occupation was too small, and the occupiers for some reason seemed to think that the Iraqis would be so pleased to have foreigners tramping all over their territory, but unfortunately they were not. Even worse, the US disbanded the Iraqi security police, and in the resultant chaos, there was unprecedented sectarian violence. Even now we still have dozens of innocents being killed per month. The West intervened, it had no idea what to do, and it walked away, taking no responsibility for the mess it made.

Having learned nothing, the West then bombed Libya. How many people really think that Libya is a success? Yes, Gaddafi has gone, but are the Libyan people better off? Now, there is the urge to bomb Syria. Exactly what will that achieve? If a quick burst would really prevent further uses of chemical weapons, then perhaps that is an achievement. Whatever else, however, it is fairly clear that it will not stop the overall killing. Worse, this sectarian violence is really simply yet another consequence of the Iraqi intervention, and once again, everyone will walk away if and when the dust settles. What is the West’s long-term goal in Syria? Getting rid of Assad may seem an achievement, but what will replace him? The most likely are the fundamentalist jihadis, or what we could loosely term Al Qaeda. Now, that would be an achievement for the West.

One last question. If you lived there, and had to give up one of the following, which would you give up? The right to elect your leader, or the right to always end up alive after walking down the street? What moral right do outsiders have to intervene if what follows is worse than what is there now?