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Five million externally and six million internally displaced Syrian citizens, a six-year-long disastrous war, and a 5,000 years old cultural heritage turned into rubble – would this be enough to convince world leaders to revisit their strategy and reflect on their mistakes in war-torn Syria? As obvious as the answer might seem to the average person, in the world of anarchic international relations, it’s certainly easier said than done.
Unfortunately for millions of Syrians who have lost their homes, relatives and lives, the people who have the power to turn things around for them are the people who are least willing to cooperate. And even if they were, what’s the best course of action and who’s to define it as such? It’s no coincidence negotiations often take longer than conflicts and as much as we, as witnesses, like to think resolving war disputes is simple and straightforward… it’s really not. So, let’s have a look at what seems feasible, useful and reasonable for everybody involved to do.
Russia Russia’s late engagement in the civil war has proven valuable at the negotiating table and gave Putin the potential to be the middleman in the complex Washington-Damascus relationship. If used masterfully, his double leverage – Syrian gratitude and American respect for him – can go a long way in making sure a consensus between the two sides is reached eventually. However, the problem with Putin is not how he’ll manage to make others cooperate, but who’ll manage to make him cooperate back, and more specifically, with Washington. No one is naïve enough to think that Putin, being the “ballot-stuffing” leader he is, will hold Assad into account if he’s not pressured to. However, the only leverage the Syrian opposition and the US have right now – the territories they control – will soon vanish into thin air. The latest developments make it clear the war in Syria is unofficially over and the silent victors are Putin and Assad … but how long will their silence last?
It is strategically the best time for Washington and the opposition to propose a complete withdrawal from rebel-held territories in exchange for the rebels’ post-war security and its guaranteed enhanced presence in the People’s Council – Syria’s legislative branch. While this wouldn’t have been possible five years ago, the new Syrian constitution of 2012 has made it theoretically achievable (1) and it’s only up to the US to put it into practice. Another logical part of the deal would be for Assad to allow the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to examine the claims he’s still in possession of chemical weapons – which he has done in the past (2) – and if he is, to dismantle them. At this very moment, Assad and Putin wouldn’t dare to reject the deal and protract the end of the civil war even more, but it won’t be long before they manage to end it themselves.
Syria President Obama’s initial caution about funding rebels in unstable Syria turned out to be justified. What started as a collective of peaceful like-minded individuals fighting to advance civil liberties and democracy in Syria, has now been affiliated with terrorist groups and has regularly committed barbaric crimes and blocked humanitarian aid access to civilians (3, 4, 5, 6). The opposition is too fragmented and decentralized to offer reliable leadership and too radicalized to restore peace and order. It is also too weak to keep control over current rebel-held territories without seeking assistance from radical groups or financial and logistical support from the West. The former option would completely and utterly discredit the moderate opposition, while the latter is – well, not likely to happen. The West is just not ready for such commitment – polls show the public is increasingly getting fed up with throwing their tax money at prolonged, fruitless conflicts (7).
Thus, the moment has come for us all to admit that the most viable option for governance in Syria is Assad. This confirms what we’ve known all along, but so stubbornly refused to admit – Middle Eastern politics often calls for choosing the lesser evil. The opposition must retreat and start efforts to advance their interests in more democratic ways and enable the government to unify what’s left from the country. It is then up to the international community to hold Assad’s grip on state power into account.
The US After yet another fiasco in the Middle East, it’s time for the US to accept the reality that abolishing authoritarian regimes is never a bloodless surgery and often helps spread the disease rather than contain it. Toppling dictators has always been Washington’s guilty pleasure but is the pleasure worth it if it causes enormous human loss and leaves a dangerous power vacuum? Syrians need homes, food and medical help before they need civil rights and liberties.
The US can still make a difference by assuring Assad American weapons deliveries to rebels will be cut off (which they will have to be eventually) in exchange for Syrian opposition representation in the government. Another front on which Washington will most likely have to compromise in order to rebuild its reputation in the Middle East, is the fight against Daesh. Previous negotiations sparked efforts to initiate cooperation between Russian and American air strikes but they were later abandoned (8). The two countries’ uncoordinated air offensive has often resulted in unwanted incidents. Joining efforts with Russia in order to push back radical Islamists might be the key to restoring permanent order in Syria and the Middle East as a whole. Critics of the idea have pointed out Russia’s air aggression often leave a number of civilian casualties behind. However, is there a better way of holding the Russians into account than sharing intelligence and coordinating operations with them?
And if all this doesn’t look good to anyone – it’s because it’s not. But it’s the best we have. And luckily or not, it doesn’t even make a difference – it’s now only up to the aforementioned sides to find a way to work together and bring peace to a war-torn country and its citizens. Let’s hope they manage to reach a solution before there is no problem anymore.