Comment | Is solving the Syria crisis Mission Impossible?

For 18 months, the world has watched the Syrian crisis turn from peaceful protest to a bloody civil war. Chris Doyle argues the international community bears a huge burden in the ongoing tragedy, and only abandoning narrow self-interest and putting Syrians first can pave the way towards a resolution.

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, September 13, 2012 22:19 - 3 Comments

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A Syrian woman sits with her children outside the Lebanese immigration office at the Masnaa border post shortly after crossing from Syria to Majdal Anjar, Lebanon Monday, July 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

For 18 months, the world has watched the Syrian crisis lurch from protest to an armed uprising to a bloody civil war. Over 25,000 people have been killed and perhaps a quarter of a million people injured. Inside Syria– millions are in dire need of humanitarian assistance, whilst 270,000 Syrians have become refugees.

The Assad regime bears the primary responsibility. Instead of responding with real reforms, it adopted its usual security menu of repression, arrests, torture and killing and has ratcheted up its brutality to include massacres, shelling of cities and use of aircraft and helicopter gunships. All of Syria’s five neighbouring countries have been affected and are petrified of the potential spill over. As Kofi Annan noted, “Syria is not Libya, it will not implode, it will explode beyond its borders.” Added to the mix and exploiting the vacuum, there are an increasing number of foreign Islamist extremists joining the fight in Syria.

Given that a major Middle Eastern power, strategically positioned, in the middle of a conflict zone and with an admitted chemical weapons capacity is on the brink of collapse, one has to review what the international community – including the regional powers – has done to resolve the crisis.

The initial reaction from many states caught up in the excitement of the ‘Arab Spring’, the fall from power of Mubarak and Ben Ali, was to push for regime change, reinforced by an array of targeted and economic sanctions There was a belief shared by some Syrians that if Mubarak could be toppled in 18 days, then Bashar al-Assad would not survive much longer. Haitham al-Maleh, a prominent opponent of the regime, told a Caabu meeting in August 2011 that Bashar would be gone by September.

This may be highly desirable, but this is a regime that has lasted more than four decades and enjoys considerable support from various communities. Many Syrians were not convinced about the alternative. There was little trust about the intentions of outside powers. Given that the regime has levelled whole areas of most Syrian cities to the ground, can anyone be in any doubt about its intent – to survive at all costs?

So what has the international community done? Calling for Bashar al-Assad to stand down and sanctioning his entourage may look tough, but has it helped to resolve the crisis? When Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy and Merkel called for Bashar to step aside last August, they wrote themselves out of any mediating or negotiating role. Moreover, as none of these leaders were prepared to back up their call with more coercive measures, they appeared weak in the face of Bashar’s defiance. He shrugged his shoulders and carried on. His foreign minister declared that Europe was no longer on the map. When looking east, the regime was reassured by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and even Indian support. It was not as isolated as many thought.

Outside powers are also not prepared to commit forces for a whole variety of reasons. The US is in election season. The EU is in financial crisis. Any war would be too costly financially and politically and for no clear outcome.Syria has echoes of both Afghanistan and Iraq. Only recently have many in the Syrian opposition come to realise this.

Instead most powers have turned to the age-old formula of supporting – even arming – favoured proxies. A year ago, at the urging of various powers, certain Syrian opposition groups formed the Syrian National Council (SNC). It was meant to be the sole voice of the Syrian opposition, one which the international community could then work with. Many Syrians were suspicious that outside forces could try to co-opt the Syrian revolution by imposing on this fledgling group their own agendas for Syria.

Their fears were confirmed as various SNC leaders hopped from one capital to another, soliciting support from London to Moscow to Paris and Washington. Syrian opposition groups require outside largesse. Consequently there is the risk that they mortgage their policies and aspirations to outside forces desperate to have a foothold in Syria’s future.

Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all have favoured elements within Syrian opposition groups.Iran, of course, backs Hizbollah amongst other groups. The media frequently highlights all the divisions amongst the Syrian opposition, but says little about the outside powers that have played a key role in that process.

Having failed to get Bashar to leave of his own volition and with the UN Security Council divided and bereft of other options, international powers do what they always do when they have no solution: – appoint an envoy. To give greater credence to the spin that this was taken seriously, a high-profile emissary was required, hence Kofi Annan, a former UN Secretary-General.

By having an envoy to deal with the crisis, international leaders and their foreign ministers can offload a thorny problem onto a seasoned diplomat to sort out. He has to meet all the parties and devise a plan. Tony Blair has been the quartet’sMiddle East envoy for five years and achieved almost nothing. Ever heard of David Hale? Few have. He is Barack Obama’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, appointed when the President effectively threw in the towel at the feet of Netanyahu’s intransigence. If there was a genuine chance of the US or the EU resolving the crisis, there would be senior politicians queuing up to take the credit. Clinton and Hague would have been regular visitors to the Syrian capital if a solution had been available.

Kofi Annan was not appointed to provide the solution to the Syrian crisis, but to act as a lightening rod for the international community’s failure to agree on a way forward. Every single external state actor declared in unison that they backed Kofi Annan’s six-point plan but were lacklustre in pushing it. An early sign of this was the miserly number of observers sent to Syria to monitor the plan; just 300 for a country the size of Syria. Worse, many of those who appointed Annan to bring about this ceasefire were actually arming one or other of the sides and stoking the fighting.

Annan resigned. His role could not be allowed to fall vacant, so the veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been called upon once again. Both Annan and Brahimi have rightly tried to refocus the issue back to the Security Council and its failings. They asked the question, did the parties and supporting powers genuinely wish to resolve the crisis or merely manage it? Brahimi described his mission as “nearly impossible.”

On the ground, both armed parties are convinced that they can win. The regime remains confident. It remembers that it has been through similar crises. The armed opposition believe that there is no turning back and the sheer unpopularity of the regime, and their determination, will bring it down, inspired by what has happened in other countries.

Regionally, the major powers seem more concerned that their rivals do not prevail than helping Syrians.Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting to fill the gap that the decline in US influence has left.Iran may lose Syria as an ally but it certainly does not wish to see a pro-Saudi successor. Many Arab states are nervous about Turkish regional designs whilst Kurds everywhere would prefer Turkey to stay out.

For various dictatorial regimes, another aim was to end the Arab Spring in Damascus. The region had to learn the cost of trying to challenge them so Syrians are paying the blood price for it. How many thousands will need to die for the likes of Putin to feel reassured that democracy will spread no further? A bigger question might be whether there are certain western powers that are so alarmed at the implications of the ‘Arab Spring’ for their interests, that they are quietly thinking the same.

All of which leaves Syrians in despair. Most want to see change in their country but are now being given a choice between the existing Assad rule, a backwards theocratic autocracy or a government acting as a front for external ambitions.

Only when states abandon narrow self-interest and power games with their rivals, and put Syria and Syrians first, will there be a chance of resolving the crisis.

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Chris Doyle

Chris Doyle is the director of the council for Arab-British understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic studies at Exeter university.

3 Comments

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NativeSon
Sep 14, 2012 10:08

In order for states to divert from narrow self-interest, they’d literally all have to become Cuba/Venezuelas. Any intervention by the West in Syria will be for the benefit of the West

Hicham Yezza
Sep 14, 2012 19:22

All states act in self-interest (including those non-aligned with Western hegemony). Of course, the extent to which self-interest is the dominant factor in state action varies enormously depending on the extent of popular accountability in place (driving towards the zero mark in most Western capitalist states). This, nonetheless, provides a margin of manoeuvre for popular resistance intent on affecting state actions.

Jonathan Ferguson
May 14, 2013 20:25

President Assad is just doing what he has to do with those vile, radical Islamist rapists and butchers. I hope every last hooligan Wahhabi infesting Syria will get a bullet in the head. Still, it won’t stop brainwashed, bourgeois-fundamentalist New Labour voters from singing the praises of the ‘freedom fighters’ who are currently wreaking havoc.

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