The 25-year war in Sri Lanka is winding down to a spectacular conclusion as the remnant of the LTTE makes their last stand on a narrow peninsula, amid thousands of civilian hostages. For the last six months, the Sri Lankan military has relentlessly driven the Tamil separatists from their territory in the north, and at last it would appear that the campaign is hours away from final victory. For all his other flaws, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa deserves to be commended for his single-minded determination to win the war that has ravaged his country for nearly 3 decades. Unlike Western leaders, Rajapaksa recognizes that wars are not usually ended by diplomacy or negotiation, but by the victory of one side over the other. Indeed, with all the past ceasefires having failed, and Sri Lankan forces now on the verge of victory, Western demands for an immediate ceasefire seem pathetic in the extreme.
Much of the diplomatic hand ringing concerns the civilians trapped in the LTTE’s final stronghold, evidently being used as human shields. Unfortunately, many of them are going to die, but by demanding that the Sri Lankan government suspend its offensive, the UN and the West do nothing to help the people of Sri Lanka. In the words of Edward Luttwak:
War fully achieved, with forces fought out and every promising expedient tried, with much destruction suffered and inflicted, with hopes of greater success finally spent, may lead to a peace that can be stable. But if war is interrupted before its self-destruction is achieved, no peace need ensue at all…
In the absence of anything resembling a classic Great Power competition, cease-fires and armistices are now generally imposed on lesser powers multilaterally, for essentially disinterested motives – often, indeed, for no better reason than the revulsion of television audiences exposed to harrowing scenes of war. Of course the result is to ensure that there will be many more such scenes.
The war in Sri Lanka offers many interesting lessons for strategists. For one, the LTTE has selected a positional strategy – opting to hold territory against government forces – and has been annihilated as a result. Their last-minute threat to resume a guerrilla campaign seems laughably hollow, and has only succeeded in frightening Western media commentators. Despite the romanticism that surrounds guerrilla fighters, the LTTE itself recognized that guerrilla warfare is ultimately an inferior form of combat, and only success on the battlefield can secure a real victory. Had they not attempted to hold the territory that they claim, they would have lost much legitimacy among the Tamil population (which they managed to lose anyway with their terrorism) and surrendered the strategic initiative to the government. Any LTTE that survive this defeat could take to the jungle, but as long as Rajapaksa is willing to hunt them down, they are unlikely to accomplish anything.
It also demonstrates why the great powers ignore the political ramifications of civil wars in the Third World at their own peril. Beijing has used the opportunity to cultivate a new client state, supplying the Sri Lankan government with weapons in exchange for basing rights, pursuant to the “string of pearls” strategy (which I discuss here and here). From the Financial Times:
Beijing has in the last few years become a crucial supplier of weaponry and aid to Sri Lanka. More than that, it has helped to deflect international criticism of mass civilian casualties in the war. In return, Beijing has won access to a key Sri Lankan port, giving it a strategic foothold next to one of the world’s premier shipping lanes, right under the nose of the south Asian regional power, India.
“China has played a very important role in tilting the balance in favour of the government forces,” says Brahma Chellaney of the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Beijing’s Communist leaders “have been responsible for trying to prevent the United Nations Security Council from issuing any harsh resolutions on Sri Lanka”.
The U.S. and India will be dealing with this for a long time to come. Had Washington or its allies been willing to supply Sri Lanka with arms, China’s strategy for the Indian Ocean would have been dealt a setback. Alas, it’s too late now.
To consolidate his victory, Rajapaksa must address the persecution of the Tamil minority that was the source of the war. This would rob any subsequent insurgency of legitimacy and would install a lasting peace. But for now, the world should bear witness to a rare and remarkable event: a victorious war.