Syria and Beyond – Interview in Geopolitica, 07/02/2016

Giuliano Luongo: In your opinion, which have been the main errors made by the international community in dealing with the Syrian conflict, from its beginning to present day?

Alexandros Mallias
: The events in Syria and in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) at large, as well as the past ones in the Balkans in the 90’s, for example, are neither the outcome of fatalism nor the effects of the so called history’s cycles. Let’s be frank: they were not unavoidable. They were all predictable. For example, the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the unfolding of the potential conflicts and wars in the heart of Europe, were predicted in the last US National Intelligence Estimate on Yugoslavia, drafted in October 1990, under the title “Yugoslavia Transformed”. It was declassified in December 2006 and is now available at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Yet, our political masters applauded by their diplomats, security advisers and speech writers preferred to close their eyes and ears. They simply ignored it. Indeed all of them adopted, within the Helsinki Process, in Paris, in November 1990, the “Paris Charter for a New Europe”; declaring inter alia in an self-congratulatory manner the “end of Europe’s division and wars” as well as that “Europe was liberating itself from its past”. What happens today in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, in Libya, in Mali, as well as the messy situation in Afghanistan since the 80’s, have a human signature. It is the result of human decisions. Few were right, most of them wrong; often, they also bear the signature of decisions for no-action, called inaction. I have a strong preference for the term “inertia”, which is the lack of good timing. The lack of synchronization between or better before the outbreak of events, and the action is becoming the characteristic and basic problem in global political problems. Some scholars argue that these are the collateral damages of the end of bipolarism . The real question is not related to bipolarism, oligopolarism or multipolarism; it is mostly about the ability and the capabilities of the organized international community for prognosis, knowledge and action. The weakness of the international institutions – in particular of the United Nations Security Council – to prevent conflicts and human tragedies accurately reflects the lack of willingness of the main international powers to act in concert. The P “5” (the five Permanent Members of the Security council) have at a large degree failed their mission and their duty entrusted upon them by the UN Charter to maintain peace and security. With very few exceptions, mainly from 1989 to 1992, the UNSC was unable and in fact unwilling to manage the outbreak of conflicts and hostilities at their early stages; before they became tragedies, dramas and chaos. Who is ready or willing to take the blame? National interests are often mingled with personal sentiments alleged visions and with miscalculations; last but not least unexpected events triumph over political scenarios. In the fragmented and interest-based division of the international community – United Nations Security Council, NATO and European Union included – the ”lessons not learned” policies prevail over the ”lessons learned” ones. Let me remind to Geopolitica’s initiated readers the E.U’s and NATO’s three-way split over the ”go to war” decisions for the Libyan case and the primary role that national interests took over the long-term European Union’s stability requirements. The same division also prevailed among NATO and EU member-states in relation to Syria. Twenty four centuries earlier, in Sparta, few days before Spartans decision to enter into the war against its rival Athens; the Athenian envoys urge the Spartans not to take swift decisions to join the war using also the following arguments:

Wars and hostilities last more than planned. The longer a war lasts, the more unforeseen tragedies happened. This is neither an anathema nor a prophecy. There is always a causality effect between acts and their consequences. When planning and before deciding the course of events the right question to ask is “why” rather than the often asked “why not?”

Now, do we have a Plan? We need to apply the tactics and the methodology we use in mathematics and physics. Before responding to the problem, we need to define it. Identifying any problem requires the gathering of appropriate information, good and manageable intelligence. The “Iraqi Freedom etc..” 2003 invasion operation was inter alia lacking a sound and consolidated Reconstruction Plan. A Plan to manage Iraq once Saddam was toppled. Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others running the show in Washington from their Penn Avenue Situation Room, had little appetite for a Bosnia or Kosovo like State-building operation in Iraq. Yet, this in fact was by far the biggest problem for the Bush-Cheney Administration. The insurgency was the pick of the war in Iraq; it started after the “mission accomplished” banner was displayed. In Syria, since 2011, the target has been constantly changed. Not for all? Not by all? Yet, the division and polyphony over the ”end product” was until very recently there, notwithstanding the heinous terrorist attacks in Paris, in Beirut, as well as the criminal shooting down of the Russian aircraft over Sinai. I intentionally prefer to use a diplomatic language here as we still mourn the victims of barbarism response. My rhetoric questions are the following:

  1. Approximately Syrians killed, including 10.000 children, over 7 million refugees and internally displaced people, war crimes, destruction and inhuman treatment were not per se enough to generate an appropriate and UN sponsored international response? The answer till very recently was NO.
  2. Was the toll of hundreds of victims of the blind terrorism the price to pay in order to establish the synergy and the dialogue needed to choreograph and orchestrate a UN road map for combating ISIS and for endorsing a political plan for Syria? As this was the outcome of post Novenmber 13, engaged talks between Paris and Moscow, between Washington and Paris and between Washington and Moscow.
  3. The refugee waves’ challenges to the European Union’s coherence and credibility as well as to our shared European values and solidarity was not per se an issue enough to generate a common attitude vis a vis the Syrian tragedy? No, so far at least.

The “goal posts” and rationale of the international politico-military engagement in and around Syria are since the outbreak of the Syrian Spring on the constant move. Initially supporting the victims of Bashir el Assad’s cruelty, then regime change, then targeting the destruction of the chemical arsenal; then some deliberately ignoring ISIS, some illicitly cross-border trading ISIS oil, some financing and logistically suppporting ISIS, some intentionally cornering the Kurds, some targeting the Turkomans while they were instrumental for others, some favoring the Free Syrian Army and some disliking it, some opting for supporting Assad and so on….Any military involvement can be useful only if the political goal is clearly determined. Military operations and covert action can be successful only if the political goal is clear and consensual. What we have been witnessing in Syria since 2011 and forcefully since 2013, is a gap related to the political targets, reflecting thus fundamental and publicly stated differences and loyalties among the main international actors as well as among regional factors.

GL: Do you think that international actors are also focusing on long-term plans for Syria, regarding “what to do” on the day after the conflict will be declared finished? If not, how dangerous this will be for Syria itself and the overall stability of the area?

AM: The success of politico-military operations is contingent upon the definition and delimitation of their scope. Political planning should fix and define in advance the terms of success. Furthermore, we NATO allies and EU partners claimed that in Libya the ”mission was accomplished” and ”success” was achieved Is Libya today safe for its own citizens? Is Libya today a security provider for its neighbors and for Europe? The late reconciliation moves between the two Libyan governments (Tripoli and Tobrouk) is for sure a positive step. Now, the question is whether the reconciliation’s administrative embryon will be able to manage a totally destroyed infrastructure? Notwithstanding the increased level of threat coming from the ISIS affiliated terrorist organizations operati0n from Derna. In fact, have we properly and diligently assessed the risk of ISIS controlled refugee flow from the Libyan coasts? Is ISIS and other extremist and terrorist groups, operating in a coordinated manner, less or more powerful in Libya? Swift action has to be taken now, today, to cut them from their logistics supply routes and channels. How is it possible that in 2010 we were praising the dictator of Tripoli and bombing him few months later?
The irony is that the today’s “bad guys” were our proteges and “good guys”. So: whom are we ready or willing to blame? The division of the international community and the regional actors on Syria does not represent a novelty. Indeed, it reminds me of the traumatic experience of the 2011 Libyan case and the deep divisions on Iraq, here in Europe in 2003. On Libya the division within the European Union and NATO was public and very political. During the vote before the United Nations Security Council for the adoption of the Chapter VII Resolution 1973 (March, 17, 2011) the division was patent. France, United Kingdom, and the United States voted in favor. Federal Republic of Germany abstained along with The Russian Federation and the P.R. China. As long as the Permanent Members of the Security Council, the P ”5” prefer to act individually as this has been the case in Syria till very recently, and not in concert acting on behalf of the whole UN Membership, as they are entitled and tasked by the Charter, their legitimacy is jeopardized and their capabilities remain fragmented. The use of force is an option to consider to enforce political decisions, but it is not a solution per se. Indeed, Article 24 of the UN (San Francisco) Charter states that «…the UN Members confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts on their behalf». The responses will lack adequacy as long as the Permanent Members remain divided over the Principles and they cooperate closely only when they are targeted by terrorist attacks. The UNSC unanimous Resolution 2249, adopted in November 20, 2015, condemning ISIL terrorist attacks and determining it as an unprecedented threat to international peace and security is a good step in the right direction. The question is why not earlier ? History’s lessons are not learned.

GL: Seeing the military actions undertaken by Russia, which kind of involvement should be auspicated by other relevant actors as USA, EU and NATO?

AM: The key Article 5 of NATO’s Treaty could be a source of inspiration for the P5. A large scale terrorist attack against one should be viewed as against the 5. Indeed there are two options:

  1. The first is to remain fragmented before we are targeted by ISIS or by other threats and to become united afterwards.
  2. The second is to be united concerning principles and purposes and to «take collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace…» as Article 1 of the UN Charter spells out.

We also need to do better within NATO and the EU. The ongoing refugee drama, which is not new, has undermined E.U.’s unity, solidarity and “raison d’etre.” The novelty is that it affects dramatically the politics and the ideologies throughout Europe. Now it has become a common problem, but there are not common remedies. The lesson to be drawn is that before we adopt any decision to intervene militarily in the Middle East and in Africa it is necessary to ask: «could the use of force generate an internal displacement of population and/or an exodus of refugees». Moreover, another consequence is that any intervention for regime change in country A in Middle East or country B in Africa could ultimately result to government change in Europe and the strengthening of anti-European political ideologies and forces.

GL: How the recent crisis between Turkey and Russia can influence the course of the international cooperation in handling the Syrian crisis?

AM: I earlier underlined that, here in Europe, we are used to apply double standards and involve much hypocrisy to justify either our apathy either our pathos. Russia’s engagement in Syria is not new. I recall, that in late September – early October 2013, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – a very skillful and experienced diplomat – forwarded a set of proposals that helped Washington, Brussels and Berlin to readjust their priorities. My ex post analysis is that the recent Russian military engagement – air bombing – in Syria came at a moment when no one else was eager and willing to do the ”dirty job”. I explained at length earlier that I disagree with the ”à la carte” optional military campaigns and bombing – the Russian one included – without a green light from the United Nations Security Council. What we saw in Syria is that four out of the five Permanent Members of the Council operating on their own, pursuing mainly their own interests. Today, there is at least a kind of operational synergy. The recent UNSC Syria and ISIS related Resolutions much helped. Turkey has a pattern for military operations and invasions towards her neighbors. Turkey invaded the Republic of Cyprus in July 1974, and still occupies the 40% of the territory of this E.U. Member State. It jeopardizes E.U.’s and NATO’s credibility. It undermines our values. It also indicates that that double standards is tolerated in Europe, by Europe for Europe itself. If we want to be consistent – and ought to be – while condemning the Russian invasion and occupation – voir annexation – of Crimea, how can we tolerate the ongoing military occupation of the Republic of Cyprus by a NATO member, aspiring to become also an E.U. partner? I hope that self-control will prevail in Ankara and thence to Moscow, leading thus to a controlled restoration of predictability in the relations between Turkey and the Russian Federation. From a power policy point of view, the more tensions persist between Turkey and the Russian Federation the less space for maneuvering Turkey has in her relations with Washington. Turkey under Erdogan’s AKP rule, took often a course of action in Middle East and North Africa distancing itself – this is an understatement – from Washington and from Brussels. I guess, that in particular on energy related issues, there are some in Washington who are not unhappy with the present state of play between Ankara and Moscow.