Brian Slocock is a long-time left activist and retired political scientist.
I have reservations about the Syria Solidarity Movement’s campaign for a No-Fly Zone in two areas: first, its implications for the building of the SSM; second with respect to the concept itself. I expect that the latter will be the main topic in this discussion, but I want to briefly address the former as well.
The No Fly Zone and Building Syria Solidarity
The simple fact is that a No-Fly Zone will not happen within the next two years. The US government has recently reiterated what everyone knows to be its policy—it will not support any form of NFZ. Given the geopolitical context of the Syrian conflict—involving both a major regional power like Iran and a global power like Russia—regional states like Turkey will not act on their own.
Moreover there is nothing that the SSM can do to influence this fact. We have no prospect of mobilising a large body of popular sentiment on this issue (and anyway public opinion has little influence over security-related decisions).
Of course solidarity movements often raise demands that have little prospect of realisation (like Palestine Solidarity demands over Israel). But these are demands that find broad agreement among those who subscribe to that cause—they are unifying demands. The demand for the NFZ is not that—it is controversial and makes it more difficult to reach out to many who might sympathise with the Syrian cause. At a time when we have a lot of work to do on public education, on refugees, humanitarian aid, and building support for the civil opposition, I think we should be trying to appeal to the broadest range of people possible.
To take this aspect of the discussion further, we need to have a clear statement from the proponents of the NFZ campaign as to what precisely they are hoping to achieve.
The NFZ as a solution to the agony of the Syrian people
Security policy is a complex and shifting area, so while it is unlikely that there will be much change even once a new US administration has settled into office, anything is possible.
So what stance should we take towards some future military intervention in Syria? For me, it’s not possible to answer that question without knowing the details and context—who will be involved? what form will it take? what do we reckon it is seeking to achieve? It’s all very well for the Syria Solidarity Movement to propose a model NFZ that ticks all the humanitarian boxes but it won’t be us in the driving seat—we will be reacting to what someone else will be planning and orchestrating.
States make decisions on crucial issues like security and foreign policy primarily on the basis of their perceived interests and priorities. I accept that the policy process in a democratic state is complex one, and that other factors, like democratic politics, bureaucratic dynamics, and the ideological need for a state to appear to be acting in accordance with core values, can play a role. But 95% of the time their influence is small. And foreign policy making with respect to Syria is firmly within that “95% zone”.
“a No-Fly Zone will not happen within the next two years”
We know what US aims in Syria are: they want a stable government that will cooperate with US policy for the region, particularly the “war on terror”. The Geneva Communique makes it clear how they will try to secure that: through a government that includes both opposition and Baathist representatives, and with the disarming and demobilisation of the armed opposition, while the Syrian Arab Army and the mukhabarat security apparatuses are kept intact. We have also seen from the recent experience of US actions in Syria what its immediate priorities are, so we can expect any future intervention to include splitting the armed opposition and attacking groups who don’t earn its seal of approval.
Similar points can be made for Turkey: they want an end to the refugee problem and to see the back of Asad; but they are also concerned with containing the PKK in Rojava; and with securing a political settlement in which Syrian factions close to their own political views are represented.
Real-world politics is about compromise and the situation of the Syrian people is a desperate one, so maybe it will be necessary to support some future proposal for intervention to stop Asad’s killing. But any such proposal will need careful scrutiny to weigh up what it can deliver and what the price will be. That is something we can’t do with a purely hypothetical proposition.
To deal with all the possible futures the solidarity movement needs to be first and foremost independent of all the foreign forces who are swirling around the Syrian revolution. My concern is that a focus on an NFZ in the abstract will lead us in directions that are not consistent with that imperative.