Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Seven reasons Stop the War are wrong about Syria

Back in September, I started a series of posts entitled "Six things your government can do about Syria". I argued then for a No Fly Zone. Shortly after I wrote it, the situation on the ground changed in Syria with massive scale Russian intervention; this, along with lack of time, means I haven't managed to write parts 2-6 of the series.

The Russian intervention killed 254 civilians from 30 September to 26 October, and since then, MSF have reported, there have been several deadly strikes on civilian targets including hospitals and markets.

However, I still believe the principle of a No Fly Zone (or, better put perhaps: a No Bomb Zone) remains correct, and remains mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2139, which demands immediate cessation of violence – even if the practicalities around achieving it have changed. It also remains a key demand of Syrian civil society and the Syrian diaspora. Sensible voices within the political establishment – notably Labour MP Jo Cox – have attempted to put a No Bomb Zone on the UK policy table, despite the resistance of the Kissinger-style "realist" Tories who dominate the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and despite Cameron's overwhelming lack of interest in addressing the too-difficult Syrian crisis.

The Stop the War Coalition (StWC) supporters generally attempt to portray all forms of intervention as "bombing Syria", which misses the point that Syria is already being bombed, mainly by the Assad regime and now its ally Russia. The logical response is that what we need is not to "bomb Syria" but to stop the bombs, and it might require intervention for that to happen.

StWC consistently hold their meetings and rallies about Syria in a way that excludes Syrian speakers -  even going to far as to veto Syrian refugee speakers at Refugees Welcome marches. This is because they know that most Syrians know that a simple rhetorical commitment to non-intervention will not "stop the war". A war is going on in Syria, and something concrete is needed to stop it, not empty words. StWC's approach to stopping the war is in reality continuing the war, just without our direct involvement.

StWC - increasingly influential, it seems, in the UK Labour Party - have now responded at more length to calls for a No Fly Zone, in a briefing entitled "Syria: Safe Havens and No-Fly Zones". On social media, they link to it as "Seven reasons why Stop the War opposes UK military intervention in Syria". Here are their seven reasons, and why each one is wrong.

1. "The creation of safe havens or no-fly zones requires the ability to engage in military operations and to take out the enemy’s air defence systems."
This point is true. But it is not even vaguely an argument against safe havens or no-fly zones. A No Bomb Zone would of course require military operations - but it would also prevent other, more deadly, military operations from occurring. 

2. "Military intervention would risk a military clash with Russia."
Clearly this is a risk. However, that does not mean that we should therefore simply accede to Russia's right to military intervention and take civilian protection off the table. Instead, the West should show it is serious about civilian protection, and take that seriousness to the negotiation table in order to pressure Russia against forms of military intervention which endanger civilians on a large scale. 

3. "Islamic State would not be threatened by a no-fly zone since it lacks an air force. The Assad government and those supporting it can be the only target of such military operations: the goal is regime change."
Coalition aerial support has helped Syrian Kurdish fighters establish relatively safe havens in northern Syria, repulsing Islamic State. In contrast, Russian strikes have targeted Syrian rebel anti-IS fighters, allowing Islamic state to advance into rebel held territories. So, even with IS, control of the air makes a difference between civilian life and death. But it is true that a No Fly Zone would not primarily target Islamic State. Rather, it would properly target the far greater killer, the Assad regime. 
Deaths in Syria October 2015 by perpetrator. Source: Syrian Network for Human Rights
Does this mean the goal is "regime change"? No, the goal is simple: civilian protection. But actually why would socialists, internationalists, humanitarians and democrats oppose "regime change" in the context of a totalitarian regime that kills civilians on such a large scale? In the long-term, if civilian protection could be established, wouldn't a free and democratic Syria be a desirable end game? However, that's for the Syrian people to decide - but there is no meaningful self-determination when bombs rain down on liberated areas. 

4. "Previous no-fly zones did not prevent attacks on minorities and endangered populations (e.g. the Iraq government’s attack on the southern March [sic] Arabs) but escalated the levels of violence."
It is again true that some previous No Fly Zones and Safe Zones have had extremely negative un-intended consequences – most often because they were proclaimed without being (adequately) enforced, as in Yugoslavia. I think the example of Southern Iraq, however, is a poor one for StWC to use. The Shia Marsh (not March) Arabs had already been victims of genocide under Saddam Hussein, who drained the marshes in the decades before the Gulf War in order to destroy their homeland. After the war, the Marsh Arabs engaged in a popular uprising against Saddam, with no ground support from the Coalition; massive aerial bombardment was Saddam's reprisal for this. The No Fly Zone curtailed death from above, but Saddam's switched to artillery attacks - that is, it didn't escalate violence but changed the form it took. In contrast, the No Fly Zone in Iraq Kurdistan created the possibility for the emergence of an autonomous region there, now a haven of relative stability and freedom in a grim region. (Admittedly, a consistent Coalition policy which went beyond a No Fly Zone and actually removed the Saddam regime in 1991 – "regime change" – would have avoided the whole nightmare of Gulf War II, but I doubt Stop the War would have supported that.)

5. "The 2011 no-fly zone in Libya helped to create a full-blown war, tens of thousands of casualties, regime change and a collapsed state."
It is true that Libya is not a good example of successful Western intervention, although there are arguments that it was still the right call: "Faced with a popular revolution, Qaddafi had used fighter jets within a fortnight and promised a ‘house by house’ massacre of Benghazi." How the full-blown war that happened without aerial bombardment would have been worse than a full-blown war with regime aerial bombardment is hard to imagine. And, quite simply, Syria is not Libya. In Syria, we've already had full-blown war, hundreds of thousands of casualties and a collapsed state – all without a No Fly Zone. 

6. "The war in Syria includes a complex combination of actors: the Assad government and Russia, IS, the US and its international and regional allies (including Saudi Arabia, the Free Syrian Army and the local al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front), as well as Kurdish groups (some of which are being attacked by Turkey)."
Again, this is factually true - but not even vaguely an argument against a No Fly Zone or safe havens. It is simply a description of a complicated situation. Clearing the skies and stopping civilian death shifts the relationships between them. 

7. "Instead of getting involved militarily in this dangerous quagmire, Britain can provide much greater help to the people of Syria by seriously focusing on humanitarian aid and on helping to facilitate peace talks."

This is also an absurd argument. It is true Britain could provide humanitarian aid and facilitate peace talks. But - as the Crisis Group outlined in their call for a reboot of Syria policy towards civilian protection - delivering humanitarian aid is practically impossible under current conditions, and in particular in a context of aerial bombardment. Similarly with peace talks: there have been negotiations as long as there has been fighting in Syria, and the bombs keep falling. Civilian protection - a No Bomb Zone - is not an alternative to peace talks, but a short-term necessity. 


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