Although the immediate reaction of the British, French and American governments was strong, with all three making plans for punitive strikes against the government of Bashar Al-Assad, the wind was gradually taken out of their sails. Beginning with the British Parliament’s decision not to participate in a proposed US-led military strike on Syria and culminating this week in a US–Russian deal to disarm Assad’s chemical arsenal, people in the West watched as their governments contemplated a scenario described variously as reminiscent of the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
All this is to say nothing of the general reluctance exhibited by leaders like President Obama prior to August’s gas attack when faced with the complexities and ambiguities of the conflict tearing Syria apart.
This lack of trust, war-weariness and caution about armed intervention has an obvious cause: the disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, which was also justified by appeals to the necessity of removing “weapons of mass destruction” from the hands of a ruthless dictator. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to two men uniquely placed as eyewitnesses to the impact of the Iraq War on Western foreign and military policy towards the Syrian crisis, two men who both served in Iraq and rose to the highest ranks within the British Army’s officer corps.
For recently retired Major-Generals Roddy Porter and Tim Cross of the British Army, this hesitation and delay is entirely inevitable, given the military operations “over the last decade or two,” and the subsequent affect they have had on British and American foreign policy. Essentially, as Maj. Gen. Tim Cross surmised, “If Iraq had gone well, Syria would be a different kettle of fish all together. A lot of people are being hurt and dying because we just don’t feel that we can do this again.”
The picture painted by the two generals, who spoke at length during an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, is one of a deeply uncertain international community led by an American administration that is bound only by their regretted rhetoric of a ‘red line.’
“The trouble is,” Porter explained, addressing the then-recent reports about chemical weapons being used in Ghouta, Damascus, “red lines have been drawn in Syria already, and that’s the trouble with a red line and statements about ‘mission accomplished,’ etc. They can be too definitive. People were very quick to say that chemical weapons or weapons of mass destruction are a red line, without knowing what on earth they’d do about it if red lines were crossed.”
“Those lines have been crossed,” he affirms, “but I don’t think the Americans have any desire whatsoever for any kind of intervention—certainly not unilaterally. I just can’t conceive of how they would go about it.”
This need for an international coalition and the ‘legitimacy’ of the global community was repeatedly asserted in the build-up to an anticipated military strike; now, threats of force appear to have given way to diplomacy.
However, testifying at the Iraq Inquiry in 2009, Tim Cross described preparations for post-Saddam Iraq—which had been planned for months and years—as “woefully thin.” Plans for strikes against the Syrian government appear to have been drawn up in days.
[inset_right]”I watched [Iraq] go pear-shaped . . . there wasn’t any Plan B.” –General Tim Cross.[/inset_right]
“I think one could be quite critical, generally speaking, about the lack of strategic patience to see something through to a position where it has a genuine chance of succeeding,” Major General Roddy Porter said.
The collective military experience of the two retired major-generals—which saw them both rise to the third-highest rank in the army—spans well over half a century. They have accumulated a wealth of knowledge from involvements throughout the world, including both Iraq wars and operations in Libya, the former Yugoslavia, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
Drawing on this experience, they met to discuss the political upheaval throughout the Middle East—especially Syria—that has taken place over the last two and a half years. In the context of contemporary US and UK strategy, they explained to Asharq Al-Awsat why the West is desperate to avoid any deep entanglement in Syria.
This is despite the recent use chemical weapons usage in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus that prompted wide international condemnation and killed as many as 1,400 people, according to the US government.
Tim Cross, who retired in 2007, graduated from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in 1971 alongside the former ruler of Qatar, Sheikh Hamid bin Khalifa Al Thani. He gained the attention of his superiors in Kosovo, where he dealt with a large-scale humanitarian crisis and found himself “building and running refugee camps for Kosovar Albanian Muslims who were escaping from the Orthodox Christians and Serbs.”
Iraq in 2003
Of particular interest was the role that General Cross played in the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, which offers valuable lessons for a much-anticipated post-conflict Syria.
Speaking at his home, where his mugs are plastered with Union Flags and even his dog, Micky, worked in the army as a bomb detector, General Cross highlighted his role in post-war Iraq: “I worked with the post-war planning in Washington, which became ORHA (the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance). This then morphed into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). I went to Baghdad in April, very quickly after the invasion was over, and was involved in the immediate post-war business with Jay Garner.”
“I watched the whole thing go pear-shaped,” he says, airing his frustration over the fact that “there wasn’t any Plan B” for post-Saddam Iraq. Following Jay Garner’s removal from the CPA—a decision that Cross finds “disgraceful”—the US administration sent Paul Bremer, a US diplomat, to Baghdad. There, General Cross alleges, he became the “viceroy,” reneging on the work that he and Jay Garner had been doing to incorporate the new-but-inexperienced political leadership into the running of Iraq.
[inset_left]”One can’t say that [sentiments from Bosnia] spread into the Middle East, but I think there were tremors.” –General Roddy Porter.[/inset_left]
With Bremer came “the de-Ba’athification process, which I don’t think he made up on the spot—this is something he brought with him from Washington,” says General Cross. This was made law within CPA Order Number One, which attempted to address “the threat posed by the continuation of Ba’ath Party networks and personnel in the administration of Iraq,” according to the document itself.
However, signed into force by Bremer on May 16, 2003, the directive meant that the entire structure of the former Iraqi military would be dissolved, and its members—with working a working knowledge of military supplies and weapons caches—were removed from their positions and cut off from their pensions.
“Sending the military home . . . was an extraordinarily naïve situation,” Cross recounted. “Literally, people rang up their regimental mates and said: ‘Right, where are the Kalashnikovs? We’ve got to get out and start earning our keep because there’s no other way of surviving.’”
“The third thing Bremmer did was that he got the political leadership together that Garner had spent a long time talking to—and I’d been a part of that process—and he said to them: ‘We’re not handing over sovereignty to you, I am going to run this country for the next year, I am going to be the viceroy of Iraq, and you are not going to end up looking after this country.’”
“That was a real slap in the face in terms of their political aspirations,” he continued. “Bremmer, having said that, was then not in a position to run the place. So he basically created the insurgency and he took the legs [out from] underneath any sort of internal emergence of a democracy—however fragile that might have been. So I was very critical of him at the time, and I remain so. But, in a way, going back to my earlier point, there wasn’t a Plan B. People were trying to make this up on the go. It was just a pretty unhelpful way of doing things.”
Generals Porter and Cross both assert that it was these decisions that enabled the creation of numerous militias and the beginning of a vast insurgency—a problem that haunts Iraq to this day.
They imply that the main lesson for countries going through a transitional phase—Egypt, Libya, Yemen and possibly Syria—is to incorporate all aspects of society. No matter how hard it may be, this includes “former regime elements.” General Porter explained how in 2008 former Iraqi military officials “could have been really well used.”
Major General Roddy Porter tells of how in 2008, during the peak of such violence, he “worked for the commanding general and the American ambassador—general, Ray Odierno, and Amabassador Ryan Crocker—in running a small American–British civil-military cell, which was actively seeking reconciliation between Shi’a and Sunni militias.”
He explains the personal difficulties for those involved with national reconciliation in any conflict, citing his own experience with the Good Friday Agreement, a political framework for achieving peace in Northern Ireland. “We were going to encourage, into a share of power, people who we knew had killed our friends and our soldiers. At that stage, I couldn’t stomach it—personally and privately—as an initiative that made any sense to me. By the time I came back as a brigade commander in 2003, I’d been able to move on personally, and saw that process as the only way to move the problem on.”
Five years later, he would have to try to mediate between sectarian militias. Forgiveness and reconciliation, it transpires, are the most powerful assets for achieving the security, stability and governance that enable nation-building. But they are the toughest to realize.
Porter tells of how he had to travel all over the world “to see what role some of the former regime elements . . . might be able to play in the new Iraq. They were people who were very well educated, hugely capable, had a whole career behind them in the military.”
At that time, “what Iraq needed very quickly . . . was stability. It didn’t need experiments of trying to impose liberal democracy and a market economy.” Thus, these former regime elements “could have been really well used, if not commanding the new Iraqi army—because that might have been beyond the pale for the Shi’a government, to have Sunni former senior Ba’athists in charge at a corps and divisional level—but, actually advising on how to train, equip and administer what was essentially a completely new army.”
The former two-star general explained how he and his team found “former colonels and brigadiers in the Iraqi army driving taxis in Egypt and Jordan because that was the only way they could earn a crust. But,” he said, showing a glimmer of the hope he had once had for Iraq, “a lot were saying the same thing, which was that they would love to play a role in the new Iraq, and we have a lot to offer. And our offer is: let us come and talk to you, the Americans, and the Iraqis, about it.”
However, it would prove to be a dead end, as Porter clarified: “The Americans weren’t too keen because they knew what the Iraqi reaction would be—the Iraqi reaction was ‘no way.’ And actually, one thing we did manage to do was to get the former military onto the new pensions law for the army—that was about as far as it went.”
But the pair did offer one Middle Eastern reconciliation success story. “Talabani and Barzani were not the best of mates—the distinctions between them were pretty serious,” Tim Cross commented, turning to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. “But . . . for the greater good of the Kurdish region, particularly in the context of Saddam, they were able to come together and they’ve stayed together pretty well. So anything is possible. . . . Ultimately, it has to be a majority of the population saying ‘enough.’”
This concept of reconciliation also applies to Iraq’s external relationships. “There was an opportunity,” Porter thinks, “to significantly defuse, or at least roll back, the Shi’a-Sunni problems, and that was over Maliki’s approach to the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] immediately after, let’s say, 2007, once he was elected as prime minister. I think he blew it, to be frank. There was an opportunity there for Iraq to extend dialogue with the GCC, particularly with Saudi Arabia. I think those nations—Saudi, Kuwait, etc.—were waiting for some sort of dialogue to begin, and I think one might have seen some progress in terms of economic collaboration and cooperation, which would have led to defusing tensions, and perhaps a genuine place in the Middle East for Iraq in years to come. But Maliki was focused on his relationship with Iran, by and large.”
General Porter retired in 2011 after a career that saw his involvement in both Iraq wars, as well as Bosnia in 1994 and 1995. There, he sought to enable reconstruction and humanitarian assistance—a cornerstone of prime minister Tony Blair’s foreign policy at that point. Remembering his time in Bosnia, he says: “I think [that] then there was then a feeling of being let down in the Muslim community by the international community. I came across many politicians and imams in Bosnia who felt deeply let down by the UN. One can’t say that it spread into the Middle East, but I think there were tremors.”
Syria and the history of intervention
His last posting—at the Permanent Joint Headquarters (PJHQ), where the majority of the UK’s military operations are planned and overseen—saw him help plan and execute the intervention in Libya and the establishment of a no-fly zone. “I think there’s a sense in which the West is surprised by the Arab Spring—you couldn’t have written it,” he says.
Nonetheless, turning to Syria, General Porter tells about how “people knew something was going to go wrong in Syria back in 2008 and 2009, it was just a question of when. I think what surprised people in Syria was the nature of the implosion. I think people felt that if it was going to implode it would be along the lines of the economy completely failing, but not what happened. And hence the debate going on now—to what extent can you actually intervene? And what’s acceptable to do? It’s an almost impossible question to answer.”
“There’s a very interesting dynamic that Blair drives through in  in Kosovo,” General Porter recollects. “Sometimes, the moral imperative to intervene trumps the legal approval to do so. There was no resolution to be involved in Kosovo, and if they had tried, it probably would have ended in failure. But the moral argument, which was accepted by most, if not all, parties, was that intervention didn’t demand a resolution—it just had to be done.”
“With Iraq in 2003, Bush was very much of this view. If you look at his speeches from 2001 onwards, they take a very moral line that it must be done—we can’t stand by and watch this dictator have his way. So a moral case develops where it’s difficult to build a legal one,” he says, concluding that there is “quite an interesting theoretical debate to take into the context of Syria and other areas.”
“There was no UN resolution over Kosovo,” Maj. Gen. Tim Cross reiterated, “but it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t legal, but it was legitimate. Syria, certainly, wouldn’t be legal because the Russians would never endorse the UN Security Council resolution. Would it be legitimate?” he asked rhetorically.
“Clearly, this is not a pleasant regime,” he concluded. However, even that does not provide simple solutions. “The opposition is very divided,” he added, “and actually there’s a lot of people in Syria who are very supportive of the regime.”
Indeed, many analysts and commentators have expressed the belief that a strike on the Assad government that does not remove him from power completely would merely compound support for the regime.
[inset_right]”If Syria had emerged earlier, we might have seen a completely different response.” –General Tim Cross[/inset_right]
There is a risk of repeating the failed ‘Plan A’ from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which according to General Cross assumed “the Iraqi people would have been so delighted to have been set free that they would rise up as one, give us a round of applause, and we would go home.”
Furthermore, even if a strike could end in a military defeat for Assad, it would not necessarily guarantee stability—certainly not without the proper measures in place for a post-conflict interim government.
“The days of hoisting a flag and declaring victory—as in Germany in 1945—those days are long gone. It’s very often we don’t even declare war in these deployments,” General Cross noted.
This has left few other options available. Other than policies of non-involvement, these have been limited to offering humanitarian aid or providing weapons and training on a significant scale—a decision that was rejected by UK and US officials.
“Do you arm the rebels? Well, who are these rebels? What do you arm them with?” Cross asked. “If there’s one lesson that’s come out of Afghanistan and these other places, it’s that these arms will leak. So, I’m not surprised that we’re locked in this dilemma,” he says confirming a reference to Operation Cyclone—the CIA’s funneling of weapons to the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s—with a nod.
“If I’m honest, I did feel at the time, so this is not just in retrospect, I just think we’ve pushed the regime in Syria into a corner far too quickly and far too ‘easily’ not having learned the lessons of what we’ve just been through with Saddam, Milošević, and in Afghanistan.”
“So Assad ends up in this corner,” Cross said, “and very quickly, everybody’s saying ‘Assad has got to go.’ Well, those sort of rulers do not say, ‘Oh, OK, in that case I’ll go.’ They get backed into a corner and they go out fighting, and with an army that continues to support them—and it does, unlike the Iraqi army, which collapses within hours during the first Gulf campaign and pretty quickly in the second campaign. This is a very strong army,” he states, with the knowledge of an official who has spent his career analyzing foreign threats. “I always felt we backed him too far into a corner far too quickly, and I did not personally agree with quite a lot of the statements that were coming out of the British Foreign Office—and indeed elsewhere.”
A contradiction emerges over the willingness to provide assistance in Libya and the hesitancy over Syria. Intervention in Libya included an invaluable no-fly zone. In the Levant, this would certainly have tipped the balance in favor of the Syrian rebels, as well as preventing many civilian casualties. Indeed, a report earlier this year by the New-York based Human Rights Watch highlights how over 4,300 Syrian civilians were killed as the result of government air strikes in the eight-month period between late July 2012 and March 22, 2013.
Instead, regional and international players have observed as the Syrian conflict has consumed the nation, region, and—increasingly—the outside world. “If Syria had emerged earlier,” General Cross asserted, “we might have seen a completely different response” to the Syrian crisis.
He continued, comparing the two situations from a military perspective: “The no-fly zone in Libya is relatively easy to impose. Libya is a coastal strip—we only need to go back to the 1941–44 campaigns across the strip as they go back and forth. There’s no depth to it. It’s close to the sea. You can do things in Libya relatively easily. Syria is very different. It’s big, it’s powerful, it’s got a lot of kit—a modern air defense capability—and to get to it is not easy. To establish a no-fly zone is extremely difficult. I wouldn’t say impossible, but extremely difficult.”
Incapability is not restricted to military and geographic limitations. “Politicians in the West have got an electorate, they have got people who need to be supportive. We’ve been through . . . a really hard period of time when most people are saying: ‘Why are we doing this?’” Cross continued, speaking about the number of British troops deployed around the world. “Syria comes out of that place. Libya succeeds to a degree because it’s relatively easy.”
“The other issue alongside this is to establish humanitarian corridors,” Cross furthered, “but to establish humanitarian corridors you’ve got to guarantee airspace security and at least you have to have superiority—if not supremacy. You’ve got to have the support of a broad international community. And, of course, one of the key issues with Syria is Russia, notwithstanding China. But Russia is what it is.”
Syria and the international community
Continuing with the international aspect of the conflict, General Porter pointed out “the question of how sensitive the whole region is to upheaval in one state or another.” Analysts and experts have long been concerned over the so-called spillover effect. Through sectarian discourse, tribal and familial connections that extend over borders, and deep-rooted political ties, Syria has influenced events in Lebanon. This is especially true in places such as Tripoli, where sectarian violence is at its worst since the country’s 18-year civil war tore apart the very fabric of society.
The conflict in Syria “has raised the political and military temperature in Turkey, in Israel, in Lebanon, in Iran and Iraq,” he explains. “Of course, Iraq, I think, is a real issue, not least because of the millions of refugees that have made their way there, but because of the whole Shi’a–Sunni problem. There, you have a Shi’a government in Baghdad that is, let’s be frank, determined that Sunni will not share power again, with most of the Sunni middle class and fighting class exiled to places like Egypt and Syria, [and who are] itching to get back in there in some guise, hence the huge support for the Islamic State of Iraq . . . hence the reason why Sunnis are able to do so much damage in Iraq. This has spilled over in a very untimely way for the stability in Iraq.”
But while Syria is now a matter of direct international concern and involvement, General Cross feels that regional issues—such as the Levantine conflict—require a more regional touch.
“In the context of the Middle East, where there’s a huge amount of money, I get a little irritated when people start saying, ‘What is the West doing about it?’ Actually, there are huge amounts of resources and capabilities available in the region,” Cross said, calling on those in a position to help to do more. “There are refugees in Jordan who are Palestinian refugees from 1947, still living in pretty grotty conditions. I think some of the Arab leadership in the round need to be asking themselves some pretty serious questions. This is 60 years on. How much longer are they prepared to allow this to happen in their part of the world?”
“And look at the Kurdish north, where they’ve essentially gone about and done it,” General Porter concluded. “They’ve used the oil wealth that exists to rebuild Erbil and other places and now they look like European towns with new airports. And, actually, you’ve got a Kurdish state in all but name. They’re just getting on with life.”
This interview was conducted on Friday, August 23, 2013.