By Richard Bingley, Director CSARN and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Security and Resilience, Buckinghamshire New University and author of ‘Terrorism: Just the Facts’ and 'Arms Trade: Just the Facts'.
Beirut, June 16 2013 – America claims to own conclusive proof that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against her own people. President Assad’s armed forces, very publicly and materially backed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, have crossed US President Obama’s ‘red line’. Nevertheless, Russia’s senior foreign policy adviser said that the US evidence “does not look convincing.”
As I write, after a week of visits and interviews in Lebanon, observations that I’m about to make will no doubt be discarded by armchair decision-makers more than two thousand miles away in London, or five thousand miles away in DC; two of my favourite capitals.
The problem for both the US and UK is that they are both, since 9/11, to some extent, still under the influence of siege-mentality decision-makers. These anachronistic types see through the lens of world order frameworks (the Cold War, 9/11, etc.) and, to them, international relations becomes an
Today I’m in West Beirut. I’m finishing off a Starbucks Latte. I am watching Jaguars, Nissans, Hyundai’s and Saab’s pulling into the seaside parking lot, and just a few shiny yachts bob adjacent to the blue ribbon of Mediterranean coastline. (Some of these British and American exports are hugely popular and plugging Profit and Loss gaps, and brittle factory lines, back home.) I’m also observing hundreds of American University of Beirut students recover from their graduation ceremony hangovers.
Omnipotent Wifi coverage here beats London. The fashion scene leans more towards prestige brand t-shirts and shorts. The World Bank (disappointingly) predicts 2-3.5% growth for Lebanon in the next couple of years.
Being pithy, one could argue, that despite Israel defence force bombings destroying urban districts and infrastructure in 2006, that little Lebanon, neighbours to Syria, is fast becoming precisely the type of Middle Eastern state that Washington and London can only hope for in their most optimistic ‘blue skies thinking’.
So, how is it, that these same decision-makers in the UK and US so blindly risk jeopardy by providing more arms here?
The answer is simple and was articulated last week in Lebanon’s Daily Star by former US National Intelligence Council Chairman, Joseph Nye, as the deficit in "contextual intelligence".
Washington and London, are indeed it appears to many suffering from a crisis in strategic intelligence gathering. This information deficit is feeding an on-going void of uncertainty in interpreting their respective roles in the world. Decision-making is thus random, highly political, knee-jerk and tactical (to put it politely).
Russia, China and India (themselves no apprentices to political power games) are shaking their heads over Washington and London’s policies on Syria. This is not because they innately dislike Britain or America. It is also not entirely because they stand to lose lots of trade with Assad’s government. It is principally about fast-declining respect for our problem solving skills.
They simply cannot understand how, with such recent histories of alienating vast demographics of people, and clumsily fuelling extreme Islamist radicalisation, decision-makers in the UK and US can actually be so masochistic as to wilfully repeat recent Middle-East-related economic and moral traumas. This is foreign policy cooked up in poorly briefed kitchen cabinets with individuals who both lack muscle memory but have a curious predilection for treading down the rungs of an operational hamster wheel.
The view from the multi-faith streets of Beirut goes something like this...
Why is it that the UK and US’s dominant international engagements in this region always seems to be about providing military hardware (not actually correct, but we’re dealing with perception).
Or why do we blindingly taking sides with one group of sectarian warlords (who we didn’t care enough about to get to know before) against another? (Again, slightly unfair, but in Starbucks speaking with students I did feel slightly at a loss as to how to respond positively.)
In questioning American intelligence that Assad-backed forces certainly and systematically used chemical weapons, the Russians are actually doing Washington and London a huge favour.
The production of ‘intelligence’ itself should be an objective tradecraft to achieve insightful information that enables the client to make timely, accurate and relevant decisions and responses. There is a widely accepted process, known in the intelligence community as the ‘intelligence cycle’, that should underpin such complex and high-risk international decision-making which usually involves the component stages: direction, collection, production (evaluation) and dissemination.
Nowadays, it appears, the intelligence cycle is routinely turned on its head, or sidestepped entirely, by Cabinet and cabinet committees in the UK and US. Directions are issued by Ministers to confirm findings that back up pre-decided – and hence, ill-informed - policy.
This lack of open-minded gathering of contextual information, or intelligence, is why on so many fronts of the international stage, both the US and UK risk creating generational and structural fault-lines with many emerging economies.
Let’s not kid ourselves here. The reputational ratings of both countries in public opinion surveys across the Middle East, particularly the US’s scorecard, has been in virtual meltdown during the past decade. This cannot continue without severe, long-term impacts upon our trading and export leverage. And indeed practical implications for employers, such as requiring huge budgets for security, insurance and resilience measures in many overseas markets.
Yes... human rights and saving human life should really be the only objective of all policy-makers. But perhaps UK audiences and Parliamentarians should at least be exposed to the inconvenient truths here; and frankly, at the moment, in my opinion, they are being far better articulated by Syria's own neighbours, and also Russia and Germany at a strategic global level.
The cultural ethos of a lot of political and military planning is also influential in decision-making. ‘Can do’ personalities will often fair better in Washington DC and London. The miserable feeling of inertia one can feel within Government, by seemingly doing nothing in response to relentless (but ultimately biased) images of cruelty, can also wear down the hardiest of liberals. Perhaps, Russian officials feel the same as they watch repeated images of so-called 'Free Syrian' rebels carrying out suicide bombings and sadistic kidnappings upon innocent civilians too?
For a lesson in crisis leadership in relation to Syria, I turn to Assad's nervous neighbour: Lebanon.
I’ve spent the last week less than fifty miles from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley where some 500,000 refugees from Syria have entered. Half are children. Last week Lebanese helicopters scrambled to defend border areas but there is little they can do. Syrian government forces have reportedly launched shelling and airstrikes into this tiny sovereign country of four million civilians to quell rebel supporters. Lebanon’s president is about to protest formally to the United Nations.
For those that do want to get involved, and this is a tiny minority, Lebanon’s people have split loyalties.
Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Armed Islamic Resistance Group, also the largest political party in the south of the country, arms and funds Assad’s troops from within Shia sanctuaries in Lebanon. Hezbollah also fights alongside the Syrian army inside Syria itself. It is recruiting fighters mainly outside of Beirut, by citing, and showing, images of gross human rights violations by anti-Assad 'Free Syria' forces. Last week Sunni-dominated ‘rebel’ forces reportedly carried out yet another suicide bombing in the heart of Syria’s capital, Damascus, killing more than a dozen civilians.
On the other side, neighbouring Sunni communities in Lebanon have offered sanctuary and logistics conduits for ‘rebel’ forces. These are the targets of Syria’s bombing campaign in Lebanon’s wafer-thin border areas. There is barely a buffer between the provincial fringes and the glorious Mediterranean sprawl of Beirut, already hosting hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps on its outskirts.
In Lebanon, evidence suggests sectarian killings between Shia and Sunni may have increased due to split loyalties and tensions, but so far the country is relatively clear of terrorism. Similar anecdotes emerge from Iraq.
Clear political leadership from previously fractious groups (except Hezbollah) have come together and dampened sectarian tension. (Similar, to the cross-community condemnation of recent political violence in Northern Ireland, UK.)
Lebanon’s multi-faith political leadership and media organisations, except Hezbollah’s own, have roundly and vehemently savaged Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria and accuse their leader, Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, of seeking to destroy the country’s future by dragging its people into a wider war.
If this happens, the fear is that civilians, including the families I am sitting alongside with in Starbucks on Beirut's fashionable cornice, could become possible targets and collateral damage from Syrian force reprisals, or an upswing in domestic sectarian terrorism, or even Israeli or American coalition intervention. This is the 'ground truth'.
But will these impassioned pleas be absorbed, or even reported, thousands of miles away in London or Washington?
Moreover, when Sunni jihadist insurgents in Homs, Syria, brazenly tells Reuters last week that “we consider America an enemy,” and described themselves as “mujahideen”, can decision-makers in London and Washington not begin to open their minds to a practical, critical examination about providing arms and military intervention into a cascading and seemingly never-ending sectarian split?
After all, not many people in the UK and Ireland thanked Muammar Gaddafi in Libya for 'intervening' in our domestic affairs by equipping the self-defined 'armed resistance' of the Provisional IRA. Communities and thousands of families paid a heavy price. Moreover, we still don't know where - three to four decades on - many of those weapons ended up.
No matter how noble their intention, if UK and US military intervention does occur, by way of taking sides and arming so-called Free Syrian ‘rebels’, what then are the longer-term prospects then for future UK and American exporters and investors?
What will be the slow-burning impact for our future students or humanitarian workers, or our ambitious and outward-looking Generation Y-ers?
What hope will realistically exist for any of the above to seek profitability and peace either at home on the multicultural streets of British cities, or overseas in Middle Eastern economies, where they will be potentially haunted, and forced into vicarious apologies, for short-sighted decision-making, taken in their name, but beyond their control?
So far, none of this has been either thought through, sufficiently discussed by elected representatives, or answered.
Surely, if Lebanon the neighbour - who has been more violated by the Assad dynasty in the past than any other state - can insist on remaining outside the conflict, and its leaders effectively say "jaw jaw is better than war war", then so perhaps should Washington and London.
Einstein defined insanity as “repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” I offer no extension to this comment.