From the beginning it should have been clear that Syria was never an all or nothing situation. There has always been room for compromise. One clear sign has been Moscow’s position. Its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has experience and common sense — more so perhaps than his U.S. opposite number. His frequent calls for moderation should have been taken more seriously.
But that has not been the only reason for reining in our “bomb Damascus” hawks. From the beginning there should also have been doubts about whether Damascus even caused the sarin gas attack. Why would it want to use chemical weapons if this could invite U.S. intervention, and when it already had the full air control needed to attack enemies when and where it wanted? And why should we ignore the very real possibility that other parties to the Syrian conflict were responsible, hoping to produce just the reaction from the United States that we saw?
Examples of “false flag” attacks being planned or used to justify outside, mainly U.S., military interventions have a long history — all the way from Operation Mongoose plans to destroy an allegedly passenger-filled aircraft and so justify an attack Cuba in 1962, fictitious Tonkin Gulf attacks to justify escalation of U.S. intervention in the Vietnam civil war, alleged atrocities in Kosovo, perhaps even the 9/11 events (we still do not have explanations for many mysterious aspects, including the seemingly controlled demolition collapse of World Trade Center Building Number 6).
Nor should we have been swayed by simplistic, morality-play illusions of good battling evil in Syria. Originally there was a moral component — the need to prevent brutal attempts by Damascus to crush popular resistance to its corrupt and oppressive rule. But as the extent of Saudi and Qatari involvement in providing arms and support to the insurgents became known increasingly we had to see the civil war there as a battle for Sunni domination over other Muslim factions. And already in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq we have seen the unpleasant details of what that entails.
The case for intervention in Syria lay elsewhere, and continues to lie elsewhere. If a civil war is fought out fairly — if neither side enjoys an overwhelming superiority in weapons or outside support — then we can accept the victory of one side or the other as a crude indication of national will. But in Syria the war is not being fought out fairly.
Long before those gas attack allegations, the sight of Damascus using overwhelming air and artillery power to pound guerrilla-controlled areas was sickening — almost as sickening as the U.S. abuse of air power to bomb and napalm much of Vietnam. If moral issues are important, then the West long ago should have intervened to impose the same no-fly zones and arms embargoes as imposed on Hussein’s Iraq, and which did so much to rescue the Shiite majority there from the brutality of Hussein’s Sunni-based regime.
Aerial bombings on defenseless civilian targets can be just as evil and deadly as chemical gas attacks. And they are continuous. Yet somehow over Syria such bombings are seen as less reprehensible than a one-off gas attack which, given the strength of the U.S. response, is unlikely to be repeated — assuming of course that the Syrian government was responsible in the first place.
Outside intervention should go even further and seek to separate the warring factions; if a civil war is allowed to continue indefinitely extremists on both sides gain influence, and we know that the winning side will almost certainly inflict dreadful punishment on the losers.
The creation of the Kurdish dominated area in Iraq is a very successful example of how separation intervention can work, even if it was an unintended result of U.S. action in Iraq (unfortunately nothing was done to separate the rival Sunni and Shiite factions, with the ugly results we see today).
In Libya the solution from the beginning should have been to draw a line in the sand between the rival groupings in Tripoli and Benghazi and enforce a truce. In the former Yugoslavia much more should have been done to force ethnic separation once it was clear that past hatreds meant the ethnic groups could not coexist. Fortunately in Bosnia the local Serbs were able over time to create their own self-governing area separate from the Muslim majority, putting an end to years of mutual brutality.
The best example of successful separation after extended civil war has been Taiwan. True, that separation owed much to island isolation plus a belated U.S. promise of intervention (today few seem to remember that the U.S. initially took a hands-off attitude). And Beijing’s angst over Taiwan’s claims and animosities did much to distort later developments in China; the U.S. could have done much more to encourage dialogue. But today, when Taiwan and Beijing are finally talking to each other, and when Taiwan serves as democratic model and investment source to China, many would agree that the enforced separation of Taiwan has helped both sides.
At an early stage of the Vietnam War, some of us in Canberra tried hard to push the creation of a “Taiwan-style” enclave there as a condition for supporting the U.S. intervention if it was clear that Saigon could not defend itself against its enemies. We even managed to persuade the then progressively-minded Rupert Murdoch to give us a page of his flagship newspaper to float the idea publicly.
True, our idea got nowhere: Most were convinced the U.S. was going to win the war anyway. And as with Syria today, many were hung up on the idea of the inviolable and unitary nation-state. But if the alternative is to allow the civil war to continue with both sides trying to claw each other to destruction, as we have seen so dreadfully in Somalia, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, and so on? Syria should be spared that fate.
Gregory Clark, a longtime resident of Japan, is a former Australian diplomat with Soviet and Chinese experience. A Japanese translation of this article will appear on www.gregoryclark.net.