Prolonging the agony, or reaching the endgame in Syria?

Vast tomes have been and could yet be written on how to address the multiplicity of issues facing the entire Middle East, and so one automatically concedes that a single blog post will neither comprehensively elucidate the situation nor authoritatively prescribe effective action. But it will contribute an opinion. The greatest humanitarian urgency, as everyone is aware, is in Syria, and that is what I am focusing on here. And it is also fair to point out that many of the crises and complexities of the Middle East are interrelated and interdependent, and feature many of the same conflicts and alignments of interest, and so it is reasonable to suggest that prescriptions for ending the conflict in Syria have implications that extend beyond that country’s borders. It should also be acknowledged that I am regrettably a little late to the punch with this post, as trends in Syria appear to be pointing in a direction I privately sensed a few weeks ago.

We have a tendency in the West to take one side in a distant conflict and demonise the other, decisions that are sometimes driven purely by humanitarian considerations, but at other times are not. Where the broader geopolitical struggle applies to Syria, that has manifested itself in hostility to the Alawite dominated regime of Bashar Al-Assad, which stems from a wider antipathy to Shia (for which read Iranian) influence in the region. But those treading here must quickly become aware of the fact that this is a most wickedly complex conflict, with an interplay of actors, hostilities and alliances that make predictions of the final outcome impossible. Not only are there multiple warring factions within Syria, there is also the meddling of an extensive list of external powers, usually via proxies. The only certainties over the past few years have been in the realm of human suffering, which tragically show little sign of coming to an end in the short to medium term.

Many of today’s problems are a legacy of the post World War One carve up between Britain and France mapped out in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which failed to take account of the ethnic and religious diversity of the territories contained within the former Ottoman Empire. The borders agreed between the former colonial powers might not be viable in either Syria or Iraq by the time the current bloodshed ends. That said, attempts to redraw the map and establish new borders will potentially be a recipe for further strife, particularly if new borders are not sufficiently monitored and protected by an international force on the ground. However, too much animosity has surely been fomented between Sunni and Shia for them to peacefully cohabit in this region for many decades at least. This Sunni/Shia war is one of the truly malevolent hangovers of the invasion of Iraq 12 years ago.

In visualising an endgame in Syria that offers some future hope for its people, choices are required that might initially seem distasteful. It is not a tenable proposition for the pre-war status quo to be restored, with Assad in control of all of Syria, but we are in a situation that requires common cause to be made with those who stand against the humanity’s most dangerous adversary in the region, the militant jihadist movements who it is our first priority to contain and defeat. I say that it is distasteful to offer support now to Assad, because despite the depravities of ISIS, the al-Nusra Front et al, Assad is probably responsible for most of the deaths in this conflict, and it is from Assad that the large numbers of refugees entering Europe are mostly fleeing. But conflict resolution is rarely about massaging one’s own sense of virtue.

That massaging has been intense until recently, but it has never been difficult to discern that West’s real agenda in Syria has been more slippery than their sermonising would indicate. They have still not made it explicitly clear whether their primary aim is to defeat ISIS or remove Assad and claim a geopolitical victory over Russia and Iran. Those suspicious of Western motives often assume there is a wicked and cunning plan is being deployed. But here it’s the fumbling clumsiness, the obfuscation, the moralising that impresses no one, and the general incompetence that gives the game away. The West ideally wants two simultaneous outcomes that cannot both be achieved at present. That has been plainly obvious ever since the “moderate” rebels, thwarted by Hezbollah and a regime re-armed by Russia, were superseded by ISIS – who have not been short of outside funds and resources themselves – as the primary threat to Assad.

American, British and French wishful thinking in this conflict has now been exposed as risible posturing. Making the removal of Assad a precondition for any peace deal is a strategy that has scuppered previous attempts at brokering a political solution, and will no longer fly because the West cannot achieve it, certainly not now Vladimir Putin has intervened. Prime Minister David Cameron’s ability to positively influence events has been dismissed by his own former military chiefs. His fanatical determination to achieve regime change in Libya resulted in a lawless, ungovernable territory that will likely make headlines for the wrong reasons again in due course. He plainly aspires to the same in Syria, still apparently without giving any serious thought to the potential consequences. Cameron is also yet another spokesman for a failed Western defence establishment mind-set that seems incurably addicted to air bombing. Not only does it represent moral cowardice, bombing from the air has by now been proven over and over again to be a cast-iron guaranteed generator of rage and resentment, and incapable of achieving most long term political objectives. This blind spot contributed heavily to the havoc created in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Syria would surely have been another country to add to that list if they had been subjected to a full scale Western air bombing campaign on top of the other miseries they currently endure. There is a case to be made for military action against ISIS on the proviso that it should be conducted largely on the ground with some air support, not the other way around.

What then should the nature of the Western response be at this juncture? At this point, they have relinquished the initiative to Russia, who have intervened to shore up their flagging ally. Though battle weary, Assad can’t be realistically unseated by anybody other than the jihadists. Moreover, Assad looks to the north (Russia) and east (Iran, and by extension, Hezbollah) and sees allies with skin in the game who are prepared to make a contribution on the ground. Unless the West really wants to escalate the armed conflict and pit themselves against Russia directly, Assad is staying put for now. If anything, these recent developments have made him an even more indispensible actor in the fight against ISIS. As for Putin, he should be regarded as neither ally nor deadly foe. Given that a few thousand foreign fighters among those recruited to extremist groups in Syria are Russian nationals, there is a clear Russian interest in this conflict (not to mind the Russian base in Tartus), though it may be that Russia has also to some extent sought to contrive a common interest with the West in Syria.

That being so, it remains a fact that there is a common interest and it should be the first point of action. It is obviously troubling that the Russians are in no mood to make much distinction between ISIS and the US-backed rebels, who long ago receded in strength relative to the Islamists. This is where the West should be pushing back against Putin. Their priority now should be to lean on Russia in order to curtail Assad’s brutal excesses against his own people, perhaps through the creation of safe havens designated and protected as no-bombing zones. Leverage to remove Assad will likely not be available to the West until after the more important objective of isolating and defeating ISIS is achieved. The priority after that is to put themselves into a position where they have such leverage in a post-ISIS, post-Islamist threatened Syria. We are in a situation that is very fluid, and there will be opportunities for diplomatic initiatives to promote the Western and the humanitarian interest, if the West is smart enough to exploit them.

This is also an important moment for Europe, as the refugee crisis precipitated by the civil war in Syria potentially represents an existential challenge for the EU. American weakness, contrasted with Russia’s pro-active approach, means that the far reaching diplomatic effort that this civil war always required cannot be ducked. Representatives of each section of Syria’s citizenry, plus every external party to the conflict, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, needs to be present at the negotiating table. The EU should muster all its diplomatic leverage to achieve this objective, as it is from such talks that a desired result can be obtained. That desired result involves the defeat of ISIS and the creation of zones of control, if not outright partition, ideally with a solution that is negotiated rather than imposed. The Sunnis and others cannot be expected to return to life under the tyrant Assad, but for the time being the tyrant is protected, and there is a more important mission that must be accomplished. Being against ISIS doesn’t mean that one is necessarily pro-Assad or pro-Putin, but here is an emergency that needs to be tackled sequentially. And despite being behind the curve, the West can still play a positive role, particularly if they can wean themselves from their tried and failed methods.

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