David Rubens – Syria and Western Intervention: No Easy Choices

David Rubens, Managing Director of David Rubens Associates
David Rubens, Managing Director of David Rubens Associates

In David Rubens fourteenth exclusive article for Infologue.com, he discusses Syria. David writes: “The recent news that opposition factions in Syria have decided to align themselves with Islamist Al Qaeda groups rather than the western-backed National Security Coalition (NSC), has once again brought home the point that there are no simple solutions to the problems posed by Syria, if in fact there are any solutions at all.

“The rhetoric surrounding the defeat of the government’s plan to support the US with military resources in a response to the Assad regime’s ‘red line’ use of chemical weapons (a claim that was rejected by both Syria and its main backer, Russia, but was seen as a self-evident truth by most of the rest of the world), suggests that governments have still not learned the lessons of similar major decisions concerning perceived ‘national security’. The two most notable precedents were the declaration of the Global War on Terror in the period immediately following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and the response to the defeat in 2005 of the Blair government’s proposal to introduce 90-day detention without arrest as a part of that war on terror. Both of those policies were introduced on the basis that there was no alternative, that the threat that was posed was so serious that normal political, legal and social considerations would need to be set aside, and, most importantly, that anyone arguing against those policies was, by default, to be considered as ‘supporting terror’.

“The most recent suggestions set out by the Cameron government concerning intervention in Syria were notable for their simplistic analysis of the situation in that conflict, and in the Middle East in general; for a lack of clear objectives as to what the purpose of any multi-national military action would be, and a complete lack of understanding as to how the possible consequences of those actions might play out. The general tone and level of intellectual debate was probably best personified by Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt, who denied that there was any chance that weaponry supplied by the UK government could fall into the hands of the SNC’s Islamist factions.  ‘The Syrian National Coalition declared its commitment to democracy, ethnic and religious pluralism, and the rule of law, and it rejected discrimination and extremism’. Besides, that, there was another reason that we need not worry, as the Opposition movement had promised to give any guns back after the civil war is over. As Mister Burt went on to explain,‘It also declared that it would guard against the proliferation of any supplied lethal equipment, and would return such equipment at the end of the conflict’.

“For those who believe that the process of deciding who ‘the good guys’ are is probably based on short-term political imperatives (and a large dollop of wishful thinking) rather than facts on the ground,  the arguments put forward by Cameron and others in this case invoke memories of the arguments used as justification for supporting the Taliban as an anti-Soviet force; then the northern warlords as an anti-Taliban force, and finally the Kharzai government as an anti-northern warlords force. However, the list of examples of western governments misreading local political balances of power is not new. In the early 1950’s, there was a genuine fear in both Washington and London that Russian forces could take over the Middle East in much the same way that they had done in eastern Europe. As a bulwark against this, in 1953 the US government paid $3 million to Gamal Abdal Nasser, the Egyptian President and one of the leading Arab rulers of that time, in the belief that he would reject Russian military aid. It was to their utmost surprise then, that Nasser almost immediately turned against the western coalition, and invited Russia into Egypt to act as its ‘advisers’.  When asked why he had favoured the feared communists (the one true enemy as far as the US was concerned, at the height of the Cold War), Nasser responded by saying ‘Why should I worry about someone with a knife a thousand miles away [ie Russia], when I have a killer next door r with a gun [ie Zionist Israel]’. It was not the first time that western powers had chosen an ‘ally’ who did not share their long term – or even short-term – aims, and the situation in Syria will undoubtedly not be the last.

“However, if there was one thing that was truly frightening in both the rhetoric and political posturing used by the government, it was the idea that military intervention is both simple to get into, and simple to get out of, and that there is a clearly defined and controllable process by which the UK could, once again, play a major role in ‘teaching the natives’ a short, sharp lesson.  I have my doubts as to whether government ministers have a deep understanding of the works of Sun Tzu, or even Clausewitz, but there is one war strategist they might have heard of, and whose words they should probably take into account.”

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events”.     Winston Churchill

This article is based on a presentation given at the ASIS London Chapter Conference, 11th September, 2013

David Rubens has been involved in UK security consultancy for twenty years. He holds an MSc in Security and Risk Management (Leicester University), and is a Visiting Lecturer and Dissertation Supervisor on their Security, Terrorism and Policing MSc programme. He was a Visiting Lecturer on the Strategic Leadership Programme at the Security and Resilience Department, Cranfield University, UK Defence Academy (2009-’10), focusing on terrorism & public policy and the management of large-scale, multi-agency operations. He has written specialist reports for government agencies in Japan, Russia, Dubai, Nigeria, Liberia and the Caribbean, and is highly-regarded as a speaker on the international security circuit. He is currently on the Professional Doctorate programme at Portsmouth University Department of Criminology & Justice, where his research is concerned with the strategic management of security operations at the extremes of organisational complexity. He can be contacted at david@davidrubens-associates.com/www.davidrubens-associates.com.

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