The dangers of sabre-rattling in Syria

The spread of the Syrian war to Turkey shows how lethal the internationalisation of conflicts can be.

Patrick Hayes

Topics World

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Last week, the Syrian conflict entered a worrying new phase. Turkey engaged in cross-border fire with Syrian forces in retaliation for what appeared to be wayward Syrian army shells which killed five in the Turkish border town of Akcakale. This means an actual NATO member, and the nation with the most military clout in the region, is now being drawn into an increasingly messy civil war in Syria.

The UN Security Council president, Gert Rosenthal, ‘condemned in the strongest terms’ Syria’s shelling of Akcakale, and the ruling Assad regime in Syria has since apologised, stating it will not happen again. Even the head of the military council of the rebel forces in Syria, the Free Syrian Army, has not tried to exploit the situation, merely claiming that the shelling was likely a ‘grave mistake’. ‘It wasn’t intentional’, he was reported as saying, ‘[the Assad regime] didn’t want this’.

Yet last Thursday, Turkey’s parliament authorised further cross-border military action against Syria. Turkey has now exchanged fire for five consecutive days. Many on the international stage were similarly angry at the actions of Syrian forces. Rosenthal went as far as to demand, on behalf of the UN Security Council, that the ‘Syrian government… fully respect[s] the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours’. This was a claim echoed in a statement by US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Syria should indeed respect other countries’ sovereignty – and the death of a woman and her three children in Akcakale was tragic. However, it’s a bit rich for the UN, and the US in particular, to hector Syria about respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries. Leaving aside the West’s long history of disrespecting the sovereignty of states, from Kosovo to Libya, it has been intervening in Syria itself since the start of the current conflict.

This is evident even in the reactions to the shelling of Akcakale from Western officials, who were keen to seize the opportunity to heap pressure and moral condemnation upon the Assad regime. A US spokesperson for the Pentagon declared: ‘This is yet another example of the depraved behaviour of the Syrian regime, and why it must go.’ US National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said: ‘All responsible nations must make clear that it is long past time for Assad to step aside, declare a ceasefire and begin the long-overdue political transition process.’

But Western intervention in Syria has gone beyond moral grandstanding and wars of words. Since the beginning of the conflict, the West has burdened Syria with crippling economic sanctions, bringing its economy to a near standstill. Despite no one really believing Syria is developing nuclear weapons, bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have been demanding access to Syria to nose around, alongside UN ‘monitors’ who have been keeping an eye on Assad’s military operations. Western leaders have also been threatening to take Assad to the International Criminal Court, and have used the Arab League to monitor and impose sanctions on Syria.

Furthermore, there has been a concerted effort in the West to create an official opposition – the Syrian National Council – out of the rag-bag of disparate rebel groups in Syria, which include radical Islamist factions. In August this year, CNN reported that US president Barack Obama had signed a covert directive which authorised the US to give financial support – alongside other forms of unspecified assistance – to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), despite the US state’s admission that it knows little about the make-up of the rebel groups. While not necessarily directly providing arms to the FSA, the US is providing intelligence, and is ‘cooperating with countries that are arming the rebels, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to help find groups worthy of aid’. The New York Times has reported that CIA officers based in southern Turkey are working with other Assad-opposing countries in the region to provide rebels with ‘automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some anti-tank weapons’.

The level of hypocrisy from Western states is striking. On the one hand, they are preaching that Syria must ‘fully respect’ the sovereignty of other countries. On the other, they are doing everything possible, other than using military force, to undermine Syrian sovereignty and bring about regime change.

Given that the UN Security Council, containing both China and Russia, would be certain to veto any proposed UN intervention, there is speculation that Western countries may use the putative threat Syria poses to Turkey as a pretext for NATO intervention. Indeed, the Turkish prime minister has threatened to use charter five of the NATO treaty – what’s dubbed the ‘one-for-all and all-for-one’ article – which would mean NATO members would be obliged to intervene in Syria on Turkey’s behalf.

Western powers may have little appetite to intervene militarily in Syria, as they did in Libya last year. But recent developments in Turkey show just how volatile the situation is and how rapidly the instability in Syria could spread to a large section of the Middle East. Despite their public disavowals, NATO countries could well find themselves on a slippery slope towards ever-more direct intervention.

Western countries are quick to blame the embattled Assad regime for the internationalisation of the conflict. Yet they are seemingly oblivious to where the blame truly lies. What was a localised if brutal conflict between the Assad regime and disparate rebel forces has been intensified and internationalised by Western grandstanding, meddling and taking sides. There’s no easy solution to the Syrian crisis. But one thing is for sure: the increasing internationalisation of the conflict caused by Western forces looks set to destabilise things further, making a bleak situation even worse.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

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Topics World


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