A massacre is imminent in Syria. What are we going to do about it?

I can’t bring myself to blog about the law today. The situation in Syria is so dire that it seems almost frivolous to write about anything else.

Tens of thousands civilians face imminent massacre. In fact, imminent is probably not the right word: they are being massacred as you read this.

Meanwhile the stand-off between Presidents Erdogan and Putin has led us into perhaps the most dangerous international crisis since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The West has made a series of disastrous decisions and it will require inspirational leadership or good luck to avoid a regional disaster turning into a global catastrophe.

Unfortunately, in recent years Western leadership has been dismal and most of the luck has been bad.

President Obama – to whom, as American President, much of the rest of the world looks for leadership, has been a terrible disappointment. How excited we were to see such a civilised man in the White House; he promised so much. It seemed a little premature when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few months after assuming office, but one understood that the Nobel Committee was reflecting the excitement of the time.

Yet decent men can sometimes make bad decisions and with hindsight Obama’s 2013 decision not to punish President Assad for using nerve gas to kill at least 500 people, many of them children, has had terrible consequences. Not only did it allow Assad to survive in power, it also signalled to the world that you could not rely upon America’s promises, and indicated to Russia that it would henceforth have a free hand in Syria.

Of British politicians, strangely enough it is not so much Mr Cameron as Ed Miliband who must shoulder much of the responsibility for getting our response to Syrian events so badly wrong. In 2013 Mr Cameron proposed military action against Assad. Mr Miliband opposed his plans, and his arguments carried the day.

Although it was never easy to credit Ed Miliband with statesmanlike qualities, like Obama he is a decent man. He clearly agonised before reaching the decision not to support the Government. I can’t pretend that I was particularly clear sighted about it at the time, so it would be hypocritical to castigate Mr Miliband for failing to foresee the future.

But he still got it wrong.

Others got it right.

Here was Tony Blair in 2013. Remember that shortly before he wrote these words President Obama had said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” which would have momentous consequences if crossed.

… contemplate the future consequence of inaction and shudder: Syria mired in carnage between the brutality of Assad and various affiliates of al-Qaeda, a breeding ground of extremism infinitely more dangerous than Afghanistan in the 1990s ….

In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.”

Yes, I know the regard in which Mr Blair is generally held now, but was a single word of that wrong?

And here was Sir Malcolm Rifkind in the House of Commons on 29th August 2013:

A failure to act …. has profound other consequences, not just the ones I have mentioned, and most profound for the United Nations itself. The League of Nations effectively collapsed in the 1930s when Germany and Italy effectively prevented any sanctions or other action being taken against Italy for the invasion of Abyssinia. That, together with other similar acts of aggression which the League could not handle because of the absence of unanimity, created a chaos which led to the second world war ….”
In the end, after the House of Commons failed to back Mr Cameron’s request for authority to attack Assad, President Obama decided that his red line was actually just a murky grey, or perhaps not even a line at all. He might have done so anyway but without British support he did back down. A Russian-brokered compromise was put in place which supposedly required President Assad to give up his chemical weapons. Again there were those who saw it for what it for the Assad-saving propaganda coup that it was. Andrew Lee Butters wrote:

Assad may have more to gain than Russian goodwill by embracing the chemical-weapons compromise. Now that the general boundaries of a defensible mini-state has emerged on the battlefield, roughly from Damascus to the Mediterranean, time increasingly appears to be on Assad’s side. Chemical-weapons experts predict that securing and dismantling Syria’s arsenal will be an epic project lasting several years, and would require the deployment of thousands of foreign troops on the ground — some of whom would almost certainly find themselves caught in the crossfire of a civil war. Cooperation with the Chemical Weapons Convention, in fact, may present Assad with ample opportunities to drag out a process that makes the regime a key partner in an internationally approved disarmament process. By cooperating but drawing out the process, the regime potentially buys time to carry on its sectarian cleansing campaign.

Assad’s “defensible mini-state” is now expanding, with Russian and Iranian help. Its “sectarian cleansing campaign” is bearing bitter fruit.

Some chemical weapons were surrendered it is true, but chlorine – the grandfather of all poison gas – appears to have been used by the regime “repeatedly and systematically” since 2013, with no response from America beyond a few token protests. Obama’s empty “red line” threat has meant that other players, far more malignant than the United States, are now dictating events.

Meanwhile America has lifted sanctions against Iran, despite the fact that Iran has been, at least until Russia joined the war, Assad’s most important ally.

Apart from some bombing of ISIS, the West has largely avoided Syrian intervention. But, just as Mr Blair predicted, others have not been so reticent. Recently the Turks have started to fight inside Syria itself, raising the real prospect of a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey, which is of course a member of NATO.

Obama’s policy, whatever it was, lies in ruins. His Nobel Peace Prize hangs around his neck like a cruel joke.

The West is now faced with a refugee crisis, the like of which has not been seen in Europe since 1945, and its preferred policy of bottling up millions of refugees in Turkey will not succeed in doing anything except further destabilising both Turkey and Syria’s Arab neighbours. The policy is failing even on its own terms, as refugees who continue to cross the Aegean into Europe in their thousands. The European Union, already weakened by the Euro project may well collapse under the strain.

Most seriously of all, NATO faces the real possibility that within days it could face the dilemma either of going to war with Russia in support of Turkey, or of demonstrating that NATO is an empty and broken alliance.

The latest agreement for a “nationwide end to hostilities” in Syria will do nothing to to end the Syrian war, and it is unravelling before it was even due to come into force, as almost everyone predicted it would.

There are lots of reasons, which people far more knowledgeable than me have elucidated, but here are some of them:

First, it is not an agreement between the actual warring parties. It is made between members of the International Syria Support Group, which consists of:

The Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.

Notable by their absence are the Syrian government, or any of the opposition groups fighting that government.

Second, expressly excluded from the agreement are hostilities against:

Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, or other groups designated as terrorist organisations by the United Nations Security Council.”

Since much of the fighting involves such organisations, it is hard to see what hostilities are actually covered by the deal. The Free Syrian Army, one of the few relatively secular groups fighting Assad, is not designated as a terrorist organisation but it seems to be a partly demoralised force. There are others: The Levant Front, for example, members of which at first protested peacefully against Assad, which first alerted the world to the dangers of ISIS, and which now continues to fight both Assad and ISIS. But it too is being bombed as a “terrorist organisation” by the Russians.

Third, the decisive player in the civil war is now Russia, and it is Russia that will determine who is a terrorist and thus a “legitimate” target. No-one can hold it to account. Russian propaganda has been trumpeting air-strikes on ISIS, whilst Russian bombing has been concentrated in parts of the country where ISIS has no significant presence. What is left of the Free Syrian Army may not be designated as a terrorist group by the UN, but that will not stop the Russians bombing it.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Russia under President Putin has shamelessly broken treaties whenever it thinks it can get away with it, which in fact it almost always can. Consider at the various Minsk agreements to end the fighting in Ukraine, all of which were broken within days of being signed. Or look at Russia’s annexation of Crimea in the light of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which it had promised “to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine.” There is no reason to suppose that it will abide by this treaty any more than by any other.

Russian strategy in both Ukraine and Syria was brilliantly summed up by the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl:

Putin’s Ukraine-Syria model: 1) gain a winning military hand 2) offer a bad political deal for a ceasefire 3) ignore the ceasefire.”

Nobody even bothers to pretend that Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies will end the siege of Aleppo because of this phoney peace agreement.

Children still go to school in Aleppo
Children still go to school in Aleppo

The Russian objective is clear, and was most lucidly spelt out recently by Natalie Nougyrede. It is to destroy all opposition to Assad other than IS, forcing the West to choose between Assad, the monster who has been responsible for the vast majority of deaths in the war so far, and ISIS.

President Assad now has a far more effective means of killing people than barrel bombs or even chemical weapons. He can wait for the Russians to treat Aleppo like Grozny, perhaps using the fuel-air bombs that were so effective against the Chechens in 1999 and 2000. They have an effect that is sometimes compared to a tactical nuclear explosion::

Fuel-air weapons work by initially detonating a scattering charge within a bomb, rocket or grenade warhead. The warhead contents, which are composed of either volatile gases, liquids or finely powdered explosives, form an aerosol cloud. This cloud is then ignited and the subsequent fireball sears the surrounding area while consuming the oxygen in this area. The lack of oxygen creates an enormous overpressure. This overpressure, or blast wave, is the primary casualty-producing force. In several dozen microseconds, the pressure at the center of the explosion can reach 30 kilograms per square centimeter (427 pounds per square inch) – normal atmospheric pressure at sea level is 14.7 pounds per square inch with a temperature between 2,500-3,000 degrees Centigrade [4,532-5,432 degrees Fahrenheit]. This is 1.5 to 2 times greater than the overpressure caused by conventional explosives. Personnel under the cloud are literally crushed to death. Outside the cloud area, the blast wave travels at some 3,000 meters per second [9843 feet per second]. The resultant vacuum pulls in loose objects to fill the void.”

This sort of thing led to Grozny being described by the UN as “the most destroyed city on earth” in the aftermath of the Russian invasion. Estimates of civilian deaths vary, and there are probably no reliable figures, but there were certainly many thousands. In the second Chechen war as a whole hundreds of thousands of civilians may have been killed.

No wonder that a considerable proportion of what remains of the city’s civilian population – which has lived for years at risk from Assad’s barrel bombs – is now fleeing in terror. The bombing of 3 hospitals yesterday may or may not have been an accident (and it seems hard to imagine that even so amoral a character as President Putin would deliberately attack hospitals), but no doubt it will be hugely exceeded by future enormities.

Aleppo may be reduced to rubble: photo ICRC
Aleppo may be reduced to rubble: photo ICRC

As the Russians and Iranians settle down to destroy Aleppo, Turkey has closed its border, trapping the wretched people – perhaps as many as 100,000 – who are trying to get away inside Syria. The lucky ones are living in tents, the less fortunate sleeping out of doors. What is threatened has all the appearance of a war crime on a huge scale, with the West unable to do more than watch, or more likely to turn away, in horror. President Obama’s reported phone call to President Putin, in which he pleaded with the Russian leader to stop bombing the “moderate” Syrian opposition merely served to highlight his complete inability to influence events.

With Turkey now fighting inside Syria itself, the very real possibility exists of a direct confrontation between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member. Should that happen, NATO will have to choose between supporting Turkey and starting what could become a Third World War; or not doing so, and demonstrating NATO’s impotence.

What on earth is to be done?

First and most importantly, President Obama must impress upon Russia that should Turkey come under attack it will be defended by NATO. True, Turkey is a far from ideal ally. President Erdogan’s decision last year to restart the war on the PKK was unwise, to put it mildly, and much of his macho posturing is absurd. But President Putin is an even more dangerous posturer than Erdogan, and with his stock of nuclear weapons and his ever more adventurous foreign policy he has turned Russia back into a far more alarming enemy even than IS. Success in Syria may embolden him still further in the Middle East, and in Eastern Europe as well.

Putin may assume that having ignored both Assad’s use of chemical weapons and his own outrageous behaviour in Ukraine and Georgia, the West will again shrug its collective shoulders and leave Turkey to its fate. The only way of countering that is for every member of NATO to make clear that Turkey is very much part of NATO and that if attacked it will not have to fight alone.

Secondly, something must be done for the refugees fleeing Aleppo. The Turkish government is hesitating to admit them, and given the vast numbers of Syrians now living in Turkey, whilst that may not be commendable, it is understandable. But 100,000 displaced citizens of Aleppo cannot be allowed to remain in a dangerous limbo for long.

Syrian refugees

Angela Merkel is right. The EU must continue to admit refugees. We can leave on one side any arguments based on our moral duty to help blameless people driven out of their homes by war. It must do so in its own self interest. Even if it were possible to build a Donald Trump-like wall around every Greek island (which it is not), it is simply impossible to keep refugees out. Despite winter weather and rough seas an average of 3,000 a day arrived in Greece during January alone. The current chaotic system in which some countries – like Germany and Sweden – have taken far more than their fair share, while others have tried to keep them out altogether, has been a disaster for the EU, for the individual countries of the EU and for many of the refugees themselves.

And it is not only the EU that should play its part: America also needs to take its share of refugees, as indeed should many other countries, including Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

In the past, terrible problems have required bold and imaginative solutions. The Marshall Plan at a stroke undermined Communist influence, and ensured that Western Europe could recover after the devastation of World War II. The refugee crisis is not yet on that scale, but the the dangers are as great as any faced by the world in 1948.

Sadly one looks in vain for anyone with the vision of Marshall, or the stature to come up with a solution that matches the scale of the problem. With the possible exception of Angela Merkel, world leaders are parochially concerned only with the largely futile task of keeping refugees out, instead of finding a manageable way of letting them in. Just as erecting trade barriers is domestically popular in the short term but economically suicidal, so trying to build impermeable barriers to refugees may be popular in the short term but it will prove self-defeating in the long term.

If Lebanon and Jordan, and most of all Turkey, join Syria in flames the problems we face now will seem trivial by comparison. Memories of Lebanon’s appalling civil war are still fresh, and yesterday’s explosion in Ankara is another reminder that Turkey too has been close to civil war well within living memory. Nothing could be more calculated to increase the chances of conflict in Turkey than a relentlessly growing and steadily more embittered Arabic speaking minority. If Turkey falls apart like Syria, millions of Turks will flee to Europe.

According to the UNHCR around 4,700,000 Syrians have registered as refugees in countries neighbouring Syria.

The arithmetic does not add up terribly well, that is because we are dealing with a constantly increasing flow of people.

Turkey has admitted something like 2,300,000. Around 3% of its population now consists of Syrian refugees. (There are also many refugees of other nationalities).

Jordan’s 1,000,000 Syrian refugees now constitute 20% of the country’s entire population.

Lebanon meanwhile, has an astonishing 1.8M refugees, out of a population of about 4.5M.

If one million Syrian refugees in the 28 countries of the European Union (population over 500 million) cause problems – and of course they do – then nearly 5 million in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan (total population less than 90 million) are likely to cause much greater problems. It is true that Lebanon and Jordan are, like Syria, Arabic countries, but anyone tempted to assume that for this reason the refugees will be assimilated without problems need only consider the fate of Palestinian refugees in Arab countries since 1948. And of course Turkey, though overwhelmingly Muslim, is not even an Arab country.

The Syrian civil war has already spread into Iraq; and parts of South-East Turkey for months now have seen a virtual civil war with the Kurdish PKK, a conflict that has now itself spread into Syria.

Everyone wants the Syrian war to end. But it is not about to do so, and even if it did the refugee crisis would not end immediately. Indeed, when civil wars do end it is often in an orgy of killing and ethnic cleansing.

In the meantime, the rest of the world must show humanity and generosity to the suffering people of Syria. That is not just because that is the morally right thing to do. It is also because inhumanity will surely lead to an even greater catastrophe, and one that will not be confined to the Middle-East.

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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

10 thoughts on “A massacre is imminent in Syria. What are we going to do about it?”

  1. I agree with the original UN Charter – Non-intervention in domestic affairs of a Sovereign Nation State by the United Nations, or any other Country.

  2. Matthew – this stands among the best commentary I’ve read on Syria Well done.

    I think you are right – history will unfortunately show that intervention should have happened earlier.

    1. I don’t think that is true. However there are not enough houses for the people living in the UK at the moment. The number of people sleeping on the streets has doubled in the last few years. Where is everyone going to live, not to mention healthcare, hospitals are now full to capacity, schools running short of places all over the Country. The UK needs to start building millions of houses, which will create employment, and allow us to house more refugess as well?

      1. You are right about housing, schools and hospitals and clearly we cannot take all refugees. As to the other point, I can only reflect on what a number of people have tweeted/commented to me personally: “Not my problem”.

      2. This is a strange argument I disagree with. The solution is to keep refugees in safe zones within their own country.
        That’s because if you build permanent facilities in the UK for incorporating (potential very) large numbers of refugees, what you have done is basically asset-stripped the country of it’s productive workforce. And therefore our foreign policy misadventures would not just ruin countries like Syria in the short and medium term, but in the long term too.
        When there are large incentives to leave for elsewhere the demographic changes can be ruinous. Any solution therefore in my view has to involve helping people in situ via safe zones.

        And by the way, this concept also applies more generally when people migrate not away from something terrible (e.g. war) but towards something better (e.g. economic migrants within EU). For an example of the latter check out the population changes going on in Lithuania and Latvia … one man’s mass movement of productive labour is another man’s demographic disaster. This is called asset stripping in other industries.

        Sadly, as is pointed out in the article, we have terribly weak and short sighted leadership in the West making arbitrary foreign policy decisions that are ruinous for just about everyone.
        Poor old Dave can’t even decide on an airport runway.

  3. I value your opinions on the law more than your military expertise. Yes we need to take in more refugees, no, it would have been suicidal to have challenged the Syrian Army or the Assad Regime directly – a re-run of Iraq.

  4. The biggest mistake was encouraging the idea that Assad could be easily got rid of and democracy installed. After the fall of Saddam it didn’t take a great and insightful mind to see what would happen. Obama and the West were mad to run along with the happyclappy enthusiasm of the ‘Arab Spring’. They may not have actually invaded Syria as Bush and Blair did with Iraq but the results have been equally catastrophic.

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