Behind the scenes at Newsnight, John Baron MP said to me, “If you put your emotions aside, for the sake of containment, wouldn’t it be better if Assad won?” I wrote him the following response. As he hasn’t responded, I’m making it public. (To John Baron’s credit, he was one of the few Tories to oppose the invasion of Iraq and the occupation of Afghanistan).
We met at the BBC Newsnight debate on Syria. I think you gave me a card, which I promptly lost. I hope you find this message.
I’m taking the liberty of sending you my latest article concerning sectarian readings of the Syrian situation (my other stuff is on the same blog) as well as something by the secular intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh which presents a case better than I could.
As for your question, wouldn’t it be better for containment if Assad were to win? here’s a slightly fuller answer.
Assad can’t win completely, even with continuing solid support from Russia, Iran and Iran’s Iraqi and Lebanese clients, because the opposition has numbers on its side (and secondarily because Saudi weapons will continue to come in). If things go on as they are, a much more likely medium term result is the splintering of the country into zones of destabilisation:
1. a regime/Alawi zone between Damascus and the coast bridged by Homs, which will involve a massive ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from the Homs area (the regime has already burnt the land registry) and probably from the coastal cities too. The blowback from this probable future may well catalyse the sectarian mass slaughter of civilians which hasn’t yet happened from the opposition’s side. As I said in the green room, Assad’s rump state would be in effect Iran’s state (as opposed to Iran’s ally, which Syria was before 2011), beholden to Iran, because it’s Iran and its clients who are directing the regime fightback now. The risk is high that Iran will use Syria as a proxy front for its war with Israel in the same way that Syria once used Lebanon. And while Iran already ‘has’ Lebanon, Hizbullah is forced to deal with other groups in Lebanese politics. Control of a straightforward military/sectarian dictatorship, and a bigger country, is much more of a prize for Iran. I’m no friend of Israel, but America and Britain generally are, so it’s surprising to see all concerned ignoring the emergence of a greater strategic threat to the status quo than Iran’s nuclear programme (if they actually believe their rhetoric of Iran posing a threat to Israel).
2. A Kurdish zone fought over by PKK-linked Kurds and more moderate groups. The Turks likely to stage interventions here, imperilling their deal with the Turkish PKK.
3. Arab-majority liberated zones, still shelled and depopulated, unable to restart the economy, fought over by Salafist and moderate militias, sometimes (especially to the east) falling to Salafist militias, eventually leading to Western intervention anyway, probably in the form of drone strikes targetting terrorists but as usual hitting wedding parties and creating more terrorists.
In the splitting scenario significant numbers of refugees would become semi-permanent in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, potentially causing as much destabilisation as Palestinian refugees did in the seventies.
The problem isn’t going away. Ramifications for Britain and Europe include all those pertaining to a zone of economic collapse and trauma on the eastern Mediterranean, all the unforeseeable knock-on effects, including at very least a new illegal migration issue and a pool of new recruits for violent political/religious organisations.
On the point of principle, this is very unlike Iraq and Afghanistan. Nobody is asking for invasion or occupation, not for a single dead British soldier. Neither of those two occupations came at a time of mass popular revolution. Moderate Syrians are asking for the means to bring this to a conclusion themselves, to stop a genocide, a mass torture campaign, a mass rape campaign. Nobody is pretending at this late stage that the next day will be easy.
If you managed this far, thanks very much for listening. It was a great pleasure to meet you at the BBC.
Very best wishes