x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Solution to Syrian conflict must come from the air

Syria is not merely on fire; it is being burned to the ground. The solution is not a full-scale military intervention but US and Arab planes in the sky

The skies above Syria still regularly boom with the sound of military aircraft. The cities below still crackle with the sound of gunfire.

In the outside world, politicians still bicker about what policy might work best. But inside the country, the concerns of ordinary people are more dramatic: sudden death, queues for food and fuel, the threat of rape, torture and murder. Two long years into a conflict few imagined could consume Syria, there is still no end in sight.

As the war has dragged on, arguments about the origin, scope and nature of outside involvement have evolved. Many of those who used to call for direct foreign military intervention - boots on the ground - have appeared to get cold feet.

And western enforcement of no-fly zones across parts of the country, once seen as an option that would allow the rebels to regroup and would create safe havens for civilians, has also fallen out of favour, for lack of political cover from the UN Security Council.

The 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the US and its allies has provided much fodder for shoddy comparisons of what might go wrong in Syria if there were Nato boots on the ground and US tanks in the streets, even though few of those who have called for careful intervention have advocated such a full-scale military invasion.

In its place has emerged a different argument, positing military intervention, of whatever stripe, as something on the far end of the spectrum of possible actions. Even arming the rebels, runs this argument, would simply prolong the conflict, without guaranteeing the creation of a shining secular state at the end of it.

If the US provided the rebels with modern small arms, such as shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons, they might one day be used against the Americans themselves. And if the initial arms flow didn't end the conflict decisively, the US might be drawn further into a conflict in an already terribly conflicted region. And there's always the possibility that, at the end of it all, Syria could become a failed state, like Afghanistan.

The difficulty with all these arguments is that they apply to the conflict as it was 12 to 18 months ago, or don't apply at all.

The Syrian conflict is already awash with weapons and the fragmentation of Syria into enclaves, driven by a raw need to survive and defend small geographical areas, has already occurred.

It is certainly true that US involvement in the conflict, through a flow of arms, would not guarantee America a seat at the table when a new Syria is shaped, nor the unconditional love of all the Syrian people. But the probable lack of gratitude is not an argument against trying to halt the slaughter that is now occurring.

Intervention by the West in Libya did not guarantee a pro-western government. It did, however, probably prevent widespread fighting and killing. And the idea that Syria, a sophisticated society with institutions, infrastructure and an educated population, is anything like Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation is patently ridiculous.

Another proposal, recently suggested by Carne Ross, a former diplomat who usually displays a subtle grasp of the possible, is for outside powers to use an "arsenal" of non-violent means to target the regime of Bashar Al Assad. Sanctions and the use of electronic attacks are suggested as a way of bridging the gap between doing nothing and full-scale military intervention.

While this could have been effective two years ago, today it is merely a way of ignoring the central question, of avoiding the difficult work of finding a way to end the conflict.

Inaction is itself action. To stand by and watch as the regime slaughters its people, as Syria fragments into regions and sects, as hundreds of thousands and then millions flee the cities and the country, is not to be impartial to their suffering, but to be actively complicit in it. The international community cannot escape its obligations.

There is a missing component to all the talk of arming the rebels, and it is air power.

While the Russians and the Iranians are supplying and resupplying the Assad regime, the US and Nato's options are not limited to merely supplying small arms. Taking out the regime's air defences and enforcing a no-fly zone over even part of the country is a real option, one that would be affordable in financial and political terms.

That remains the real middle way between full-scale intervention and doing nothing: arming the moderate rebels more fully and providing them with air cover. Talk about non-violent tactics is two years out of date. Fears about unintended consequences from supplying arms is now mere avoidance.

The response to Mr Al Assad's crimes must be weapons, not words. Anything else is an abdication of responsibility. Syria is not merely on fire; it is being burnt to the ground by the Assad regime. Fires of this size can be extinguished only from the air.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai