A War for all Seasons

France, until recently a fervent guardian of international law and legitimacy, seems to be more and more eager to lead the West’s punitive wars, even without token UN votes, writes Le Monde Diplomatique‘s Philippe Leymarie.

Describing their supposed ‘war aims’ in Syria over the past few days, Messrs. Obama, Cameron and Hollande have repeatedly said they wish to ‘punish’ those who gassed innocent civilians; words that might have come right out of the mouth of George W. Bush. Are they channeling Bush because they see no chance of scrounging some international legitimacy via a vote on the UN Security Council? Morality set against the rule of law: former [French] foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and celebrity Bernard Henri Levy must be walking on air; the hell with the consequences.

Translated into the language of the military, ‘punishment’quickly becomes a slippery slope. Washington can keep on saying that it is not trying to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – an obvious attempt to reassure those who are skeptical following its rather broad interpretation of the Security Council’s 2011 Libya mandate-but the military options that are being considered all point toward regime change:

First, a campaign of cruise missile strikes, presented as brisk and brief (just a few days), which could be carried out by the US naval units already in the Mediterranean, by British forces from Cyprus, or by French fighter planes.

Second, infiltrations via Jordan and Turkey of Syrian commandos trained in both countries by the Americans.

Finally, as announced by Paris, an increase in military aid to the rebels, providing them with more and bigger weapons.

In the Aug. 27 edition of the Russian daily Kommersant, an article quoting experts suggests that certain European allies, as well as Turkey and Gulf monarchies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are pushing Washington toward a second scenario involving a longer air war, and much more extensive bombardment. Such a scenario would resemble the 2011 campaign in Libya, in which NATO air forces supported the rebels opposed to Muammar Qaddafi. The final objective of this operaton would of course be the overthrow of al-Assad’s regime, like that of Qaddafi in Libya.

Kommersant suggests that there is an additional, intermediate possible scenario as well. For some period, the US and its European allies would bombard Syria to weaken its military strength, then step back into the background, only furnishing auxiliary assistance to the rebels. Nearby countries which are seeking Assad’s overthrow, headed by regional power Turkey, would take up the slack. The Turkish air force would provide air support to the Syrian opposition in important front-line areas from its bases in Incirlik, Konya, Malatya and Diyarbakir. Turkish infantry units might also participate in certain operations. And to a smaller extent, the Arab countries of the anti-Assad coalition, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, might deploy their own special forces units as well.

The ‘punishment’ theme is strongly reminiscent of the 1986 bombing of Qaddafi’s palace and other targets in Tripoli, Libya, likewise by the American military. Or of certain raids on Syria by Israel. However, the range of planned targets this time is much broader: anti-aircraft batteries, airports, warehouses, command centers, barracks. The only items that would be missing would be the presidential palace, the important ministries, power stations and seaports: then the mopping-up would be complete. Conclusion, uncertain. Costs, however, rather clear:

– A more or less uncontrollable general conflagration in the Middle East

– A massive militarization of the Mediterranean sea.

– Increased risks for Israel (where there has already been a new run on gas masks)

– Threats to the interests and citizens of the countries most involved in a Syrian adventure (France, the UK, the US)

– The predictable economic bill to be paid, especially in higher petroleum prices.

– And uncertainty about the character of a future Syrian regime, including its attitude toward minorities, etc.

The war aims are therefore generally hazy, the more so in the UK and France, countries which want to be out front in the campaign of punishment. But both countries are in fact militarily dependent on the US and must therefore content themselves with waiting for the starting gun from Washington, hoping to be allowed a big and public role. All of this is convenient for President Obama, a great fan of ‘leading from behind,’ as his administration did in the Libya campaign [allowing the French and British to bear much of the responsibility for the war], and who must take into account a general feeling of fatigue about the country’s military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, in both public opinion and among politicians.

But this haziness also must limit the ambitions of the European allies: in two days of air attacks, we certainly could do some punishing, but ‘solving the problem,’ overthrowing Assad, which seems to be what the French and British leaders have been hoping to do for months now, would require a weeks-long military offensive.

Then there is the strange paradox of France- so opposed to the 2003 Iraq war- now seeking to head up a Syrian offensive in 2013. This despite the fact that the punitive attack by the West (that is how it will inevitably be seen) lacks the traditional benediction of the UN Security Council, a benediction France has always seen as an important token of legitimacy, and despite the fact that France always likes to wrap itself in a cloak of international law, and present itself as the watchdog of international legitimacy. In spite of all of this, today it is France which wants to lead an attack on Syria, in the mold of the Kosovo conflict.

In March 1999, following large scale massacres (Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995) the West invoked urgent humanitarian reasons to justify a NATO bombing campaign against Serbian forces in Kosovo. Then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright defended what she called an ‘illegal, but legitimate’ intervention in a ‘unique situation.’ A unique situation that we now see repeated: one might well ask how we will with a straight face give future lessons about international legality to the regimes in Russia, China and elsewhere.

And yet no deployment of military forces means anything unless it has as its goal some political project. The painful recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya should have warned us: these are today bloody and burned countries, engulfed in violence, extremism and disorder.

Ignoring these adventures, in which not all of the ‘lessons learned’ (retex, in French military lingo) have been fully understood, means launching off blindly into yet another military offensive, whose goals and consequences are obscure to say the least.

It is striking that France has tended in recent years, to jump into one war after another: Chad in 2008, Afghanistan in 2009, Cote d’Ivoire in 2010, Libya in 2011, Mali in 2012… and now Syria. As if the French political system, but also its army, its defense industry, even perhaps its public opinion, required an annual war to stay properly lubricated.

Finally we should note that John Kerry, the American secretary of State, could with a straight face denounce ‘those who have used the most monstrous weapon in the world against the most vulnerable population,’ forgetting perhaps that it was his own country that did this in 1945 against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And meanwhile his boss, Barack Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, prepares to launch a war on the day after Washington DC celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘dream.’ And so it goes…

Philippe Leymarie