Syrian Civil War a Proxy Conflict between Superpowers

05 December 2017

*Embargoed until 9pm, December 5th, 2017

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD

Labour Party Leader and Spokesman on Foreign Affairs

Syrian Civil War a Proxy Conflict between Superpowers

Dáil Éireann, Motion re. Syrian Sanctions (Independents4Change)

Thursday 5th December 2017


The conflict in Syria is the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Some 10 million people have been displaced, inside Syria and beyond its borders. More than half a million people are believed to have been killed since 2011, the vast majority by the Assad government and allies.

The regime has also used chemical weapons against civilians and it has prevented aid from reaching those affected on the ground.

Syria has become a free-for-all. The belligerents have received political, military and operational support from Russia, Iran, North Korea, Algeria, Iraq, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and others.

And just last week it was reported that China will deploy troops to aid President al-Assad.

We saw the Syrian administration’s barbaric treatment of its own population. We saw large-scale breaches of international humanitarian and human rights law. In particular, we saw civilian populations exposed to indiscriminate attack, loss of life and the destruction of essential infrastructure services and basic medical care.

 And we saw the great powers’ return to Cold War-style fuelling of proxy wars in third countries.

 Proxy wars were a defining aspect of global conflict during the Cold War. In the Middle East, proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran and between Israel and Palestine have devastated the region.

 These conflicts have resulted in, or contributed to the Syrian Civil War, the rise of ISIL, the civil war in Yemen and the re-emergence of the Taliban.

 The lengths, intensities and scales of armed conflicts are greatly increased when belligerents’ capabilities are augmented by external sponsors. The belligerents are also less likely to engage in diplomatic negotiations and peace talks are less likely to bear fruit.

 Tensions between the US and Russia have helped stymie UN and other efforts to broker a ceasefire.

 Both countries should have a vital role in resolving the Syrian conflict. But they are at odds in their analysis and they profoundly mistrust each other’s motives and intentions.

 There can be no dialogue between them without some basic level of trust and understanding.

The dispute between them predates the Syrian Civil War. Russia believes that it has been treated unfairly since the 1990s. That, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it alone was not welcomed into the new community of nations but remained instead the focus of Western distrust.

Russia still claims that Washington betrayed a promise, when German unity was being negotiated, that NATO would not take advantage of this opportunity and expand eastwards.

Whatever about who promised what, the facts are that NATO has added 12 eastern European countries since then, in three rounds of enlargement.

In 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined, against strong Russian opposition. Then came Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. The three new Baltic states had formerly been part of the USSR itself.

And most recently Albania and Croatia signed up to NATO membership.

NATO has also officially recognised four aspiring members: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia, and Montenegro.

This incorporation into NATO of countries formerly in the Eastern Bloc has been a major cause of increased tension between East and West – as we knew it would be back in 1990.

Arguably, subsequent Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine – and then Syria – was fuelled at least in part by ongoing resentment about this continuing NATO expansion, to the very borders of Russia.

Although Russia was left on the periphery of a post–Cold War Europe, they have, literally, fought their way back. For a time they retreated from the world stage, but now they are back with a vengeance, and eager to restore a global role.

On the other hand, the West prefers to focus on current Russian “revanchism”, on the stance of Vladimir Putin, who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

The “End of History” brigade, on both sides of the US Congressional aisle, trumpeted the victory of Western ideology and economics – indeed they seem incapable of distinguishing between the two.

And the simplistic notion that all the West had to do was as guide the aims and goals of the Arab Spring, directing it towards an inevitable western-style liberal democracy, has proved to be disastrous. Look at Syria. And look at Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The Arab Spring was a revolutionary wave of violent and non-violent demonstrations, protests, riots, coups and civil wars in North Africa and the Middle East that began in December 2010 in Tunisia.

Early hopes were that these popular movements would end corruption, increase political participation and bring about greater economic equity.

But only the uprising in Tunisia has resulted in a transition to constitutional democratic governance.

Various commentators anticipated a major Arab movement towards democratisation. The talk was of the “Arab Street”, of a young generation peacefully rising up against oppressive authoritarianism to secure a more democratic political system and a brighter economic future.

And in particular the talk was of a new, Western way of organising protest. Attention was focussed on the role of social media and digital technologies in allowing citizens a means for collective activism, to circumvent state-operated media channels.

This “digital democracy” was meant to provide new sources of information that regimes could not easily control and to shape how citizens made individual decisions about participating in protests, the logistics of protest and the likelihood of success.

But the real world is not that simple. One the one hand, the Arab Spring caused the biggest transformation of the Middle East since the old colonial powers drew up the map for that region. By the end of February 2012, rulers had been forced from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

On the other hand, by the 12th June of that year, the UN peacekeeping chief in Syria had declared that Syria had entered a period of civil war.

In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, there was a wave of violence and instability that became known as the Arab Winter. It has been characterised by extensive civil wars, general regional instability, the economic and demographic decline of the Arab League and increased sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

In Syria and Libya, the result of Arab Spring protests has been a complete societal collapse.

Islamists have sought to fill the void of “state failure” with “state-building”, most prominently in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. They have secured external funding, weaponry and fighters, many of whom have come from abroad and have rallied around a pan-Islamic identity.

Islamists are fighting Islamists across sectarian lines in Lebanon, Yemen and in Iraq. Fighters are proxies primarily for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states and for Iran.

And Russia and the United States insist on taking sides.

In a world where onlookers are again being herded into also taking sides, in what has become a proxy conflict between superpowers, and where many in the EU are again stressing their connections to NATO, our function is to remain non-aligned.

And to insist that the EU’s foreign and security policy must be framed and acted on in a genuinely independent way, highlighting the shared values of European countries and rejecting any siren call to become involved in struggles for global dominance.

We must use all our available diplomatic means and forums to raise this issue.

We must cooperate with likeminded states in the EU and the UN.

We must work towards a genuine cessation of violence and humanitarian aid access throughout the country.

And for the withdrawal of personnel, support and other interference by states that have no legitimate interest in this conflict.

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