Thursday, January 19, 2012

History of Arab interventions argues against role in Syria

Last Saturday, in an interview on US television, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, threw a rock in the very still pond of Arab bewilderment over Syria. He recommended that Arab troops be sent to the country "to stop the killing". If previous Arab military interventions in fellow Arab countries are anything to go by, the bewilderment will not soon dissipate.

It's still unclear what Sheikh Hamad had in mind. His statement could have been a tactical manoeuvre, to place the onus for the carnage in Syria on other Arab countries, at a time when Qatar finds itself virtually alone in aggressively opposing the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Or the emir could have been thinking of something more specific, namely Arab military protection of so-called humanitarian corridors, to safeguard Syrian civilians.

The idea may not be as far-fetched as it appears, even though Damascus has rejected any kind of foreign military involvement in its affairs. The French government has supported establishing humanitarian corridors, which presumably would be sustained from Turkish territory. The Turkish leadership, itself at a loss over quite what to do in Syria, may welcome such a scheme if it enjoys Arab approval, and if the boots on the ground are Arab.

Moreover, humanitarian corridors defended by Arabs, rather than by Turks, would be a way to avoid alarming Syria's Kurds. It is difficult to see how Russia and China, let alone the United States or the United Kingdom, could actively oppose an Arab consensus on an initiative that circumvents the United Nations Security Council.

At this stage, we can only speculate over what Sheikh Hamad meant by his cryptic comments. Yet those Arab governments reluctant to go along with his project, and they doubtless are many, can point to the dubious record of Arab military operations during the past half-century to chill any ambient enthusiasm.

In the most relevant case, in 1976 the Arab League deployed what was known as the Arab Deterrent Force to Lebanon, to end the civil war in the country. When formed, the force included soldiers from a variety of Arab nations, although the vast majority were Syrian.

Creation of the force effectively legitimised the prior Syrian military presence in Lebanon, and ultimately Syrian domination, even if Arab states initially sought to contain Syria within an Arab framework. The other Arab contingents did not remain beyond 1979, leaving the Syrians in control on the ground. This lasted until April 2005, when Damascus withdrew its army after it was accused of being behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister.

The Syrians were rarely unchallenged. In the months before the ADF was formally set up, their soldiers had entered Lebanon to fight an alliance of Palestinians and leftists, in collaboration with Christian militias. Subsequently, they would engage in a series of vicious armed confrontations with the Christians, exacting a very high civilian death toll in the subsequent decade and a half.

The Syrian entry into Lebanon was a relatively uncommon occurrence. Only the debilitating Egyptian campaign in Yemen between 1962 and 1968 or the Moroccan takeover of Western Sahara in 1979 were on a comparable scale, and they did not aim to end a domestic conflict. The entry of Gulf troops into Bahrain last year proved decisive in bolstering the monarchy against those favouring reform, but was of a much smaller magnitude.

Syria did dispatch military units to Jordan in September 1970, to defend Palestinian organisations then fighting the regime of King Hussein. However, the Syrians were beaten back amid splits in their leadership. The head of the air force (and later president of Syria), Hafez Al Assad, did not make use of his aircraft, handing the Jordanians a decisive advantage.

More recently, Arab states participated in two other major military interventions in Arab countries. However, in the war over Kuwait in 1991 and again last year in Libya, Arab governments were enlisted in initiatives led by the United States or by France and the United Kingdom. While these operations were relatively successful, the Arab participants went along because they assumed the western governments were pursuing limited objectives.

What are the messages for Syria today? The first is that Mr Al Assad will depict any Arab military role in Syria as part of a hegemonic foreign conspiracy. His speech last week, in which he declared that Syria was the victim of a plot, set the stage for this. How ironic for a regime that maintained an army in Lebanon for three decades. But the reality is that the Arab world has no successful, entirely Arab military accomplishment to look back upon as a model for Syria.

A second message is that where there is no Arab consensus, military interventions tend mainly to exacerbate inter-Arab discord. Brute force alone allowed Syria to impose its will in Lebanon for so long, over opposition from certain Arab countries. Egypt's war in Yemen was in large part a consequence of its bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The Western Sahara remains a source of profound tension between Morocco and Algeria. And so on. As desirable as Arab harmony over Syria would be, it is unlikely to be forthcoming.

On Sunday, the Arab League is scheduled to discuss Sheikh Hamad's suggestion. Mr Al Assad will play on Arab differences to keep a military option at bay. He may succeed. However, Arab states may have to reinvent themselves militarily in Syria, for it is principally they who would bear the brunt of a Syrian civil war, if one begins.

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