Protection Racket

October 11, 2015

Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox argue in the Observer for the creation of “safe havens” within Syria, where civilians can be protected against the depredations of both the Assad government and ISIS militants. These safe havens would be a complement to efforts to bring Assad to the negotiating table, and humanitarian efforts to assist refugees.

Some obvious questions arise. Firstly, where would the safe havens actually “be”? Mitchell and Cox stress that the “international community” should “provide” these havens, but they will at some stage have to transmute from words into actual geographical locations. If they are on Syrian territory, that won’t play well with Assad or his Iranian and Russian backers. How would we ensure that Putin and the Iranians support the safe haven concept?

Secondly, and related to the first question, will Assad return to the negotiating table with rebel groups (and ISIS?) if portions of Syrian have been wrested away by the international community as safe havens? He may not see them as politically neutral spaces that exist purely to safeguard innocent civilians.

It is likely that any safe havens would be created within rebel held territory. In that case, why would the Assad government and its paymasters believe that these havens were not simply a refuge for their military opponents? It stretches credulity to believe that the enforcers of the safe havens would be able to prevent FSA/al-Nusra/etc.. fighters from organizing within the boundaries of these areas.

If that is the case, and Assad sees the safe havens as a tool for those who seek his ouster, then why would he return to the negotiating table?

A related concern. If civilians are moved into safe havens, and bombing of ISIS is stepped up, is it not possible that ISIS militants will target these civilian populations asymmetrically? That is, via suicide bombings in areas where civilians are concentrated. Its not inconceivable. Look at what they seem to have done in Turkey.

Another strategic concern. If the safe haven concept is applied effectively, then does it not amount to “draining the swamp” of civilian support for guerrilla rebels? This may compromise the ability of anti-Assad forces to operate, laying them open to attacks and weakening the anti-government cause. Is that desirable?

I mention this because the safe havens concept is being brandished as a tool to mobilize political support for military action. Labour MPs are said to be ready to “defy” the party leadership over the issue, and scepticism about the whole venture is in short supply.

Yet the article by Mitchell and Cox is alarmingly vague over how their strategy to protect civilians would well, protect civilians by resolving the Syrian conflict. As they accept, “Of course, a military approach by itself won’t work, nor will any of the other components. Only through an integrated strategy with the protection of civilians at its core can we rescue something from this crisis.”

I think that we would be somewhat naïve to believe that the diplomatic, political and humanitarian components of their plan would enjoy parity with the military side, given the propensity of governments to use military ventures to boost their position. After all, the “international community” doesn’t have a great track record in integrating the arts of peace and war.

Mitchell and Cox also stress that their concerns are not based around western strategic imperatives or neo-colonial impulses. They state that “In our view, it is time get back to basics, to see the crisis in Syria as (radical though it may sound) primarily about Syria and Syrians”. Yet their article does not mention any Syrians aside from Assad, nor does it get to grips with the rebel groups of Syrians who must participate in any political solution.

I think that they are right to seek to foreground the desires and needs of Syrians, but that their plan will not do so. Western bombs are not the way to resolve intricate political conflicts, just as Russian bombs and the jackboots of Iranian Revolutionary Guards or the Youtube channels of British jihadis are not. Until a way is found to mobilize the moral force and political resources of Syrians – whether refugees, exiles, fighters or civilians – a lasting Syrian solution cannot be conceived. Yet so few Syrian voices are ever heard. Before any bombs are dropped, it’s time to listen to them first.

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