Troubled Waters Without Bridges

A number of thoughts arise from the recent terrorist attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi.  The first amongst these is the unrivalled destructive power of small arms.  The death toll from those attacks has reached.  Previous terrorist mass shootings in Norway and Mumbai produced death tolls unmatched by all but the most powerful of explosives based attacks, and that’s not to mention the psychological impact.  Images of families forced to play dead to survive made me sick to my stomach.  This will not be unnoticed by prospective terrorists and international gun control must be a key priority for security.

There are other lessons from this attack.  The attack apparently arose in retaliation for the Kenyan role in the international intervention in Somalia.  So-called “regional” interventions by surrounding, typically non-western, developing, countries have come to be seen as the more palatable post-colonial face of international intervention, perhaps understandably, as the sight of an unaccountable global hegemon selectively and self-interestedly throwing its weight around, as we’ve seen the US do in the region, just this week is hardly appealing.   Nevertheless, the Kenyan attacks expose at least one major flaw in this approach.  Regardless of the language of “peace-keeping” any kind of military intervention is by definition a belligerent act, and will be viewed as such by players on the ground.  Al-shabaab do not like this regardless of whether it’s Kenyan armed forces or US marines and developing countries are much more vulnerable to reprisals due to weaker security apparatus, border and arms controls.

This has implications for other conflicts, not least for Syria, where various regional players are playing an actively malign role, each one grappling for a piece of Syria and strategic advantage within the region.  Global actors have watched on impotently.  Recent American sabre-rattling has produced marginal victories in terms of chemical disarmourment and the bodies overseeing this have been awarded a Nobel Peace Prize (is there a more debased honour?).  Nevertheless the death toll, already above 100, 000 continues to climb, despite the back patting, comprising multitudes of individual tragedies and atrocities.  Domestic sceptics on both sides of the Atlantic put the brakes on an all out attack and rightly so.  It was notable watching David Cameron in the House of Commons, that, even appreciating that he didn’t have a crystal ball, he couldn’t provide satisfactory answers to basic questions about what a satisfactory end game would even look like.

Ironically, a “Kosovo style” intervention of the type proposed, with the aim of forcing Bashar al Assad and other “guilty men” off the stage and more palatable actors to the negotiating table, might have been the only thing that could have stopped the carnage from developing, as it has, and preserved a peaceful and unified Syria, <i>had it been carried out two years ago</i>.  Now, with whole sections of cities razed to the ground, massacres of thousands of men, women and children, sectarianism, heart eating rebels (Paul Wood, of the BBC, has an excellent interview that illustrates the point) and religious extremists piling in for a piece of the new Syria, it’s hard to see any way back from that psychologically as a unified nation.   So what else is left?  Partition?  Superficially this seems like the only realistic option close to a “happy” ending, with a self-determining Sunni majority rump, an autonomous Alawite enclave along the coast, with Christian minorities likely throwing their lot in with them, and a self-Governing Kurdistan, possibly encompassing Kurdish areas in neighbouring states.  Among many of the problems with this: the new Sunni rump state would be vulnerable to capture by extremists, likely backed by Saudi Arabia and/or Al Qaeda; the Alawite enclave, encompassing most or all of Syria’s coastline, would likely require external guarantees of its security, and ethnic cleansing and dispossession would be the inevitable short and medium term outcome.

The £1 Million question is how and by whom any conclusion is going to be orchestrated.  Left to its fate, Syria is going to face one of three outcomes: continued bloodletting or one side crushing the other by force.  What we see now is the combination of the three.  Outside actors are unwilling or unable to act except in their own self-interest.   The only realistic outcome can be a dirty deal between the various great powers, which is unlikely to befit the aspirations that gave birth to the uprising.

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