Syria: Bombing, Peace, and Then What?


Stabilisation is out of fashion: burned by our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan there seems precious little appetite for engagement any time soon in complex nation-building tasks. Instead, the new ‘concept du jour is ‘Building Stability Overseas,’ a term that encompasses stabilisation, but also a whole range of other more discrete and less complex activities ranging from regional training teams to multi-lateral military exercises.

But, if genuinely we are serious in our commitment to political solutions to the crisis in Syria, it will be difficult to avoid confronting once again the problems of stabilisation experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amidst the controversies surrounding Britain’s debate about extending bombing into Syria, one recurring feature was the rhetorical devotion to the primacy of political solutions and follow-on stabilisation activities. Indeed, the motion passed by Britain’s parliament giving agreement to air attacks in Syria also identified explicitly that military action was ‘only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria’ and that this was a commitment that ‘underlines the importance of planning for post-conflict stabilisation and reconstruction’. Moreover, as the consequences of our intervention in Libya have demonstrated, attempts at forms of a ‘light footprint’ approach to post-conflict operations may mitigate some of the risks to us but may result in the medium to long-term in outcomes just as problematic as more sustained interventions.

In theory, of course, our experiences over the last decade and a half should have produced a body of lessons that ensure that any future operation in Syria will go much more smoothly. Actually, though, we can’t assume that this is the case.

Thinking on how militaries might approach stability operations in the future reflects predominantly what has been called a ‘Planning School’ approach to such operations: consciously or unconsciously, this approach assumes that re-building the capacity of weak or failed states is a matter of preparation and technique – it is about such themes as planning, inter-agency co-operation, and a ‘whole-of-government’ approach; it assumes that success is a matter of the right doctrine and the right techniques; it reflects a rationalist, problem-solving approach. This approach is reflected in the actual development of military doctrine in such publications as the US Field Manual 3-07, Stability Operations, and the United Kingdom’s Joint Warfare Publication 3-40, The Military Contribution to Stabilisation. In performing complex state-building tasks effectively, contemporary military doctrine highlights the importance of such ideas as host nation ownership; legitimacy; integration between different government agencies; effective multi-national coordination; understanding the human terrain; and flexibility and adaptability in approach. As General Sir David Richards, Britain’s then Chief of the Defence Staff, commented in 2009 about Afghanistan: ‘It is doable if we get the formula right and it is properly managed.’ But there is no consensus that this actually is this case.

For some, the difficulties derive from fundamental uncertainties about whether such operations can be done at all. For example, as Ann Hironaka discusses in her book Neverending Wars, the problem might be that since the end of the Second World War we have become slaves to the idea that states cannot be allowed to fail. As a result, we have been trying to sustain through intervention polities that do not any longer deserve to exist: ‘zombie states’. Historically, states have risen and fallen; often the former has been tied to the processes of the latter. Interventions fail, then, because they provide life-support for political entities that actually are dead in their current form. Future attempts at post-conflict stabilisation in Syria may founder, then, on the simple basis that ‘Syria’ no longer constitutes a political entity that can be resuscitated in any meaningful shape. Or it may be that the stabilisation operations that we envisage entail too many internal contradictions. How does one reconcile, for example, the need for peace with the need for justice and reconciliation? Reaching a political settlement may require cooperation with individuals and groups that have been, or are perceived to have been, complicit in serious human rights violations. Is it possible to construct an inclusive, peaceful political structure in Syria whilst at the same time excluding such figures as Bassar al-Assad or the leaders of other key warring factions? But can a solution that includes these figures produce a just and legitimate political order that will last?

For others, stabilisation might be possible, but only if we adopt radically different approaches from those that we espouse today. Roland Paris, for example, has been critical of the emphasis in stabilisation on democracy and markets, and advocates instead, a focus first on establishing strong central government. This ‘institutionalisation before liberalisation’ perspective notes that democracy and free markets are adversarial and even conflictual forces. Processes of political and economic liberalisation exacerbate social tensions and undermine stability in the short and medium terms. Weak democracies find it difficult to manage the cut-and-thrust of market liberalism. For example, in Iraq democratisation seems to have reinforced sectarian identities. In order to overcome this problem, Paris argues that in future liberal interventions need to ensure that elections take second place to building the strength of the host government institutions: the judiciary, police, legislative and executive frameworks. Only when a state has the means to manage through peaceful means the conflicts caused by democracy should we then pursue political liberalisation. But such an approach in a future Syria seems fraught with difficulties, not least because it risks creating an authoritarian government that would have no interest in introducing political pluralism and which might simply replicate the problems that have led to the collapse of the Syrian state in the first place.

The problem for us is, therefore, that in the furore surrounding whether or not to bomb Syria, the debate focused on the significance of a follow-on political process and subsequent reconstruction effort, but not whether the latter actually can be made to work. Too much of the debate on Syria has focused on the problems of obtaining a peace settlement. Actually, as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have shown, the real problem might be what comes after.

Image: Type 45 destroyer HMS Defender escorts the aircraft carrier USS George HW Bush in the Middle East. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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