It seems that not a day goes by without news of fresh tragedy in Syria. Reports have emerged that Islamic State may have been responsible for chemical weapons attacks, two years after their use by the Assad regime and their subsequent confiscation by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. The images of the suspected mustard gas injuries are horrific and as the people flee the chaos, the scenes of desperate refugees making their way toward Europe have become all too familiar, trying the logic of those tempted to think that this is not the West’s problem. It is a huge test for the continent and one that has, so far, produced mixed results. Yet while it is imperative that Europe comes up with an effective, coordinated response for the sake of the most vulnerable (the Junker proposals so far seem the most promising), offering asylum is clearly not a long-term solution. Whilst the civil war rages, more and more people will become displaced. Efforts must be made to at least ease the fighting, but the range of options available makes grim reading. As so often is the case in foreign policy, the choice is between varying degrees of bad and, as Janan Ganesh of the Financial Times has said, “anyone certain on what to do about Syria is best ignored”. Here I will outline one possible path for policy makers to take.
Such is the complexity of the situation and the brutality of the fighting in Syria, that the prospects of a peace-making deal at present are virtually zero. That is the view of the BBC’s reporter in Syria, Jeremy Bowen, who has exasperatedly reported that “the dynamic of war matters now in Syria. Not politics or diplomacy,” a bleak outlook indeed. The situation is undoubtedly complex. There are believed to be as many as 1,000 armed opposition groups in Syria, whose alliances with the various coalitions seem to be constantly shifting and realigning under the strains of war. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US, the UK, Iran, Russia, Jordan, Qatar and the UAE are all involved to varying degrees in the conflict, and several of the major players have, for now at least, irreconcilable interests.
The starting point, then, must be a de-escalation of the fighting, which is why calls for a ‘boots on the ground” intervention on the part of the West are deeply misguided. The situation is as, if not more, complex than in Afghanistan in 2001. A Western army would find itself fighting a prolonged war against a battle-hardened insurgency, with Sunni rebels on one hand, perhaps united in the face of a foreign enemy, and the Syrian army supported by the Russians, Iranians and the fearsome Lebanese Hezbollah on the other. Of course this is all dependent on being able to persuade Russia and China to abstain in a UN vote in the first place – full Western intervention without UN backing would surely be politically impossible. Air strikes have their place, but their limitations are well-documented. Despite Jeremy Bowen’s understandable gloom, any possible path to an easing the fighting surely lies in a diplomatic and political solution.
One of the obstacles to this solution is the diverging interests of the foreign powers involved. The international community must be pulling in the same direction. This process could begin with Western powers, namely the US, UK and France, realising that their blinkered focus on the defeat of Islamic State and other extremist rebel groups alone is counter-productive. A combination of Islamic State’s fundamentalist ideology, brutal tactics, success and an ability to recruit directly from the West, all amplified by an effective propaganda operation, has created a Western discourse on Syria in which they are the only antagonists. There should be no doubt, however, that the brutality of the Assad regime toward Syria’s Sunnis, during the 2011 protests and before, is one of the key reasons for the rise of IS. The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that the regime is responsible for 124,752 civilian deaths since the start of the war and 7 times more civilian deaths than Islamic State since the start of 2015. The frequent and indiscriminate use of barrel bombs, a blunt and brutal weapon, has killed an estimated 115 people in August this year alone. A strategy to ease the fighting must address the actions of the regime. The conflict will not de-escalate if the rebels, Islamic State or otherwise, perceive that the international community is turning a blind-eye to the atrocities of the Assad government.
The key obstacle here is of course Iran and Russia. Recent reports have indicated that Russia’s support of the Assad regime has increased to the provision of a small number of ground troops and fighter-bombers. The West has to work with Russia on this. The Russian government fears Islamic State but they must be convinced that supporting the brutal and sectarian regime of Assad in order to defeat it, is the wrong strategy. Indeed, some have suggested that the regime actually avoids attacking IS, instead focusing on other parts of the opposition. The same goes for Iran, whose fear of IS, and rivalry with Saudi Arabia, fuels their use of proxies in Syria such as Lebanese Hezbollah. The UK and France in particular should capitalise on their thawing relations with Iran to convince them that a de-escalation of the conflict is in their interest. This must be accompanied by parallel diplomatic efforts with the Saudis and Turks, who, in a mirror image of the situation with Russia and Iran, must be convinced that their aim of removing Assad is not best served by supporting extremists. This will take an enormous diplomatic effort, with either side unlikely to want to blink first. It certainly falls into the category of “easier said than done”, but efforts must be made.
If, and it is a big if, all sides could be persuaded to withdraw their support from their respective sides, various paths could open up. The next step could be to form an international coalition that could take part in air strikes against IS and regime targets in Syria, focusing on the heavy weapons and aerial capabilities of the latter. Of course airstrikes are always risky, despite the efforts made to limit collateral damage, but they would be at least more selective than barrel bombs. That kind of international cooperation is admittedly a distant prospect, but if both sides’ ability to wage war is downgraded and they could be brought to the table alongside the foreign powers, space may be created for a political solution. The shape of that solution is a topic for another day.
If the aim is to de-escalate the conflict to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, the first step must be for foreign powers to recognise that responsibility for the carnage lies in the hands of both the Assad regime and Islamic State. The strategy of aiding one to defeat the other is exacerbating the violence. If the West does have an immediate role, refugees aside, it is to use their diplomatic clout with the countries involved to convince them that a de-escalation of the conflict would be in their interests. Perhaps then the fighting can be eased, lives saved, and breathing space for a political solution created. It would take a colossal effort and it would be no immediate fix, but there are no easy options.