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Syria’s raging civil war and the west’s inertia

The Syrian imbroglio is very difficult, not intractable—and the west cannot continue to throw up its hands in despair.

Refugee children in Aleppo They should be in school: refugees in Aleppo. IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation / Flickr. Some rights reserved.After three years, more than 100,000 deaths, 9 million uprooted people and $140 billion damage, the Syrian civil war has moved to the media back pages and off the political agenda, overtaken by the establishment of the “caliphate” in Iraq, the downing of flight MH17 and the inferno in Gaza. Terrible images circulating freely on Twitter—the plight of refugees in Yarmouk, barrel bombings and brutal executions—have not changed this. It has become just another interminable civil war. Despite their proximity in some cases, western countries in particular seem frozen in the spotlights of Syria’s extremity and complexity, unsure what to do and hesitating to intervene.

Such caution is not without reason. The fundamental unpredictability of war rapidly asserted itself as a domestic uprising  turned into a regional proxy-conflict, providing another lease on life for militant Islamism and reawakening colonial heritages. This has forced to the fore long-lingering but difficult-to-answer questions about the role of Hizbullah in Lebanon, the future of the Kurds and how to deal, beyond invasion and drones, with the appeal of Islamic radicalism. The painful legacies of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq must also weigh heavily on the minds of western decision-makers, aggravated by the chaos into which Libya has descended after the UN-sanctioned intervention.

Nor was it ever going to be easy to manage coherently the international crisis which the Syrian civil war represents. The global stand-off between the US and Russia has ensured that the full power and legitimacy of the UN Security Council cannot be brought to bear. Their deadlock has also created a strategic vacuum, giving various regional interests free reign to support proxies. Iran and Iraq on the one hand and, on the other, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saud Arabia and Qatar have done so with gusto. In so doing they have ensured the survival of the president, Bashar Assad, and the opposition—albeit fragmenting and radicalising the latter. These competing regional influences help perpetuate the conflict.

Yet, the Syrian battlefields of this zero-sum game are stalemated. The armed opposition—estimated to comprise more than 5,000 groups—seems strong enough to ensure any further losses it faced would be hard-won. But the power of the regime, controlling Syria’s urban heartland and most of its coastal areas, gives it an edge and few incentives to compromise.

Options in short supply

Although there may have been a moment when a strong international response might have made a difference, good policy options to bring the fighting to an end anytime soon are in short supply. This makes continued conflict, radicalism, crime and civilian misery the more likely prospect. It also invites continuation of the western policy of relative inaction: some humanitarian aid, political statements of abhorrence and surveillance of citizens who leave for jihad. This, however, is supremely risky, for three reasons.

To start with, this approach will ensure that the already calamitous refugee situation will not only worsen but become institutionalised. About 3m refugees are registered in the region (mostly in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq). Many will remain for a decade or more. Syrian refugees may thus acquire a status and presence similar to the Palestinian victims of the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973. As Lebanon and Jordan are states whose government is contested to varying degrees, this will make them susceptible to “Black September” episodes, with militants seeking to expand their networks and exploiting refugees in the service of crime, politics and violence. The fact that an entire generation of Syrian children is growing up without much education will only exacerbate this.

Another risk of benign neglect is that unrest, violence and radicalism could easily extend to Lebanon and possibly Jordan. The structural factors behind the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war largely remain in place. They provide fertile ground for politicisation and especially further radicalisation of Lebanese Sunni groups, now that the standing of the Shia Hizbullah in Lebanese politics is corroded by its participation in Syria on the side of the regime. In Jordan, economic tensions were already on the rise, deepening cleavages between Palestinians and citizens on the east bank, with the influx of Syrian refugees bound to add to them. An Islamic State (IS) incursion, whether via new cells or further encroachment on the Turaibil border post, could also create trouble—encouraging direct Israeli, US and/or Saudi intervention which would be more difficult to resist.

Finally, a civil war which continues unfettered will further intertwine the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts. The successes of IS in Iraq have already enabled it to recapture much of the terrain it had lost in Syria, including parts of Deir ez-Zour city, the two biggest oilfields and a string of towns along the Euphrates including Albu Kamaal—its linchpin connection with Iraq. The tenacity with which the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is holding on to power sustains the appeal of IS among the disenfranchised Sunni and is likely to buoy its proclaimed Caliphate.

Transitional deal

All this suggests that the passive policy of the west comes at its own peril. Gaza provides a tragic reminder of how violence can become self-perpetuating, as enemy images entrench and action-response patterns become embedded and polarised. Avoiding a similar outcome for Syria requires stronger international action. But western countries especially have little leverage. Direct military intervention remains both unlikely and undesirable: it would further galvanise militancy and offend local sensitivities. And yet much could be initiated today to make a difference in the medium term. A more active, three-pronged western policy, which combines sticks and carrots in pursuit of a transitional deal—with a role for both Assad and moderate Islamic groups—can help bring the Syrian civil war to an end.

First, reinforced regional containment is required: much greater humanitarian engagement (the UN’s Syria Regional Refugee Response Plan for 2014 is only one-third funded), much more conflict-sensitive support for the Lebanese and Jordanian governments (the UN’s Interim Force in Lebanon can be better staffed and its posture along the Syrian frontier elevated) and enhanced counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing, including with President Assad, to reduce the risk of radicalisation crossing the Mediterranean. Such actions can make trans-border flows of goods, money and people more difficult, re-establish informal relations with the regime that can facilitate later negotiations, better mitigate some of the long-term humanitarian risks and increase the resilience of the Lebanese and Jordanian states.

Secondly, every effort must be made discreetly to facilitate a Saudi-Iranian regional deal. This could proceed in three steps. Much-needed initial confidence should be built, with a “gentleman´s agreement” on domestic non-interference via religious or ethnic minorities (such as the Shia in Saudi Arabia’s eastern quarter or Arab groups in Iran). Subsequently, the two countries should exert influence respectively on Iraq’s Sunni tribes and its major Shia organisations, to help key Iraqi power brokers stabilise the country. A co-ordinated diplomatic effort, backed by financial inducements, has potential to stimulate a more inclusive approach to Iraq’s governance. If this worked, it would bring a transitional deal in Syria closer. Key elements of such a deal would be maintaining Syria´s territorial integrity on a (con)federal basis, with a role for Assad  (to satisfy Iran) as well as strong international guarantees of, and credible possibilities for, longer-term change (to satisfy Saudi Arabia). As both countries have historically shown pragmatism in their foreign policy, with patience such a regional deal might be struck, especially now that IS represents a new and shared threat.

Thirdly, greater support must be provided to parts of the Syrian opposition. This is not straightforward. “Moderates” in the secular western sense no longer exist in Syria and moderate Islamic groups will inevitably have to be engaged. The fragmentation of the opposition means a first step will have to be a sustained process to encourage political and operational coherence, requiring greater western support via mediation, funds and sanctuaries. Lethal military equipment, training and supplies should only follow such steps, as the risk of warlordism would otherwise loom large. These actions would slowly increase the military pressure on Assad, create stronger countervailing forces to IS and make radical spillover less likely.

Putting such a policy in place will be hard work, needing patience and perseverance. There will be no short-term gratification. Yet it can reduce and manage the risks of spillover and blowback, already of dangerous proportions. And for the mounting price paid in blood by the Syrian people the international community and its inertia must take some of the blame.


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