Time for realism in Syria

William Hague’s thoughtful article in Tuesday’s Telegraph (13 Oct 2015) is based on the mistaken assumption that a Western military intervention in Syria could be helpful.  When you have a hammer it is tempting to treat every problem as a nail, but when you meet a screw it is better to use a screwdriver – which is slower, and involves many twists and turns, but ultimately leads to a secure solution.  Whereas military interventions have sometimes worked in the past, in this case they are a dangerous delusion. The narrative of a holy war to protect Islam against a Western attack is used by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL) to recruit more followers.  Air-strikes alone will not defeat it but past conflicts have illustrated how the locals will tend to join in any struggle against foreign ‘boots on the ground’ – even if that means making alliances with groups they would otherwise disagree with.  Now is the time to develop a better strategy.

Freedom and democracy are desirable goals, but survival of the civilian population is the highest priority.  The West should remember that the Christians in Syria are fighting alongside Assad, not against him, because they understand the overriding need for stability.

The Syrian government has killed many of its people.  War crimes have been committed, and not only by the government, but those responsible cannot be held to account until security has been restored.

Russia is self-interested but nonetheless wears the fig-leaf of having been invited by the Syrian government to operate in its country to help to restore law and order.

William Hague’s suggestion of “assistance from the West to the more responsible opposition groups” and his proposal for “the UK to join the military effort against Isil in Syria” would merely prolong the war and more people would die as a result.  There are grave risks of escalation in proxy wars, not just between different factions of Islam but between Saudi Arabia and Iran as regional powers and even between America and Russia.  Now is the time for realism.  Since Russia’s escalation of its support for Assad it is now next to impossible for freedom and democracy in Syria to be established by the use of force against the government.

William Hague rightly makes the point that ‘safe havens’ are an unrealistic option, partly because Russia would veto their authorisation by the UN and partly because they are difficult to defend by force unless they are reinforced by troops who are prepared to put their lives at risk – unlike the position in Srebrenica in 1995.

The refugee crisis has made the world aware of the scale of the Syrian problem, but only people who have enough money are reaching Europe.  The refugee camps in neighbouring countries are the only sanctuary for those who are less wealthy.  People cannot return home until there is a credible ceasefire.  William Hague makes a very sound point that these refugee camps are receiving insufficient aid.

A ceasefire has to be negotiated between all the combatants.  The American strategy seems to be to eliminate both ISIS and the Assad government, so that neither would be invited to peace talks, but this is totally unrealistic.  ISIS is thriving in the power vacuum of Syrian instability and is still gaining adherents.  The Assad government has Russian support and is unlikely to be overthrown in the short term.

For the West, working with the Russians in the UN Security Council would be a better plan.  Support for international law would give the West some dignity in a difficult situation.  Although this gives Putin a diplomatic coup, it might also leave him with the ensuing problem of developing a viable peace plan – which would mean finding some way of dealing with ISIS.

Hopes for a UN relaunch in Syria

Yesterday President Obama made a speech to the UN in which he endorsed the aims of the organisation and offered his support to it as the best hope for achieving a more stable world order.  Then President Putin made his speech, also supporting the UN.  If they put these words into practice the Security Council can function as it should, in contrast to its failures in recent decades.

Their speeches also indicated that they disagreed with each other on a number of fundamental issues.  Whilst President Obama admitted the error made in invading Iraq in 2003, he still advanced the notions that democracy is the only form of government and that the UN should intervene in the affairs of countries where governments behave badly towards their people.  But President Putin endorsed the position taken by both Russia and China that what happens within a country is not the business of the UN.

The Syrian situation is an immediate test of whether the fine speeches made by Presidents Putin and Obama can lead to the practical resolution of a complex problem.  Both Britain and America have argued that Syria’s President Assad should be overthrown because he has killed so many of his people.  Russia, though, has acted to support Assad’s regime as the “legitimate” government of Syria and is working with it to combat the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as IS, ISIS or ISIL).  Although Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine is open to criticism, and President Putin’s behaviour as Russia’s leader has not been in the best interests of its people, the West should work with him in Syria.  Replacement of the Syrian leadership is probably desirable, but that will have to wait until the region has been re-stabilised.

It is doubtful whether solving Syria’s internal problems is really within the scope of the UN, though the International Criminal Court might play a role at a later date.  In the meantime, a peaceful political solution will necessitate compromises by Assad to respond to concerns of the Sunni majority, or the war will continue without foreseeable end; the UN can and should play a role in facilitating peace talks.

Such an approach in Syria offers a chance of resolving its crisis and would be an important step forward in establishing international law.  Although the West passionately believes in democracy, it is not a panacea.  A country’s lack of democracy is not a valid reason for interfering in its affairs.  Wars can be avoided if countries comply with international law and if the only interference in the affairs of other countries is with the UN’s permission, to enforce that law.