We are at a decisive moment for the international system within whose familiar contours we were all reared. European states rush to seal their borders; American presidential candidates compete over who is more xenophobic while Middle Eastern borders dissolve before our eyes. It seems that each time there has been an announcement of a breakthrough in the diplomatic efforts for Syria, progress is smashed to smithereens by another major Russian bombing campaign – shooting to pieces any prospect of an imminent political solution.
As a Security Council member mandated with upholding the international legal framework, Russia is riding roughshod over all the fundamental tenets of international law. The deliberate targeting of hospitals in Russian bombing raids, killing dozens of civilians, is only the most recent such outrage.
However, Russia is just one of the parties interfering in Syria with impunity, along with Iran and its proxies; Hezbollah and al-Hashd al-Sha’bi. A possible Turkish intervention against Kurdish entities could have further destabilizing effects. Meanwhile U.S. and Western policies appear to be continually blowing in different directions, without every leading to any significant effects on the ground. There has been relatively little interest in holding Russia and Iran to account and many deluded Western interest groups still view Russia and Assad as potential allies against ISIS.
Commentators are casually talking about the internationalization of the Syrian conflict amounting to a third world war, without us carefully considering the implications of the scenarios we are sleepwalking into. It is as if all parties suddenly believe they have the right to go wading into Syria. For those of us who have lived through bitter conflicts, we can fully comprehend the terrible consequences of the disintegration of the global conflict resolution framework.
The Aleppo assault by Russia and pro-Assad forces has sent more than 50,000 refugees fleeing to the Turkish border region. Meanwhile, over 320,000 civilians are at high risk through encirclement in rebel-held areas of Aleppo. The recent images of starving Syrians in Madaya demonstrate the regime’s willingness to use hunger as a weapon and the vulnerability of the civilian population.
While some portray these Russian-led assaults as proof of regime vitality; the Russians only intervened to prop up its ally after Syrian regular forces displayed signs of chronic demoralization and strategic exhaustion.
Even Iran seems to have been pushed to the sidelines by Russia, having lost the strategic initiative after mounting casualties. Intelligence sources claim that of the 2,000 Revolutionary Guards personnel deployed to Syria in September, just 700 remain. Of approximately 550 Iranian troops killed in the Syrian conflict, three-quarters are reportedly Afghan and Pakistani mercenaries thrown onto the front lines of the conflict. Similar sources estimate that Hezbollah has suffered even worse, losing around 1,500 fighters.
Balance of power
Experts are realizing that the Russian bombing and encirclement of rebel fighters around Aleppo is leading to a fundamental shift in the balance of power that will have significant geopolitical implications for the region.
We have to momentarily think the unthinkable – What would the region look like with a resurgent Al-Assad, bolstered by Iran and Russia? What would be the consequences of a region where pro-Iran regimes were in effective control across the whole of the Middle East region, from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq?
If the international community had taken a stance in Syria three or four years ago, such a role would have been costly, unpopular and difficult to implement; but it would certainly have stopped the conflict spiraling out of control in a manner which puts the regional balance of power and the international system in jeopardy.
Today, there is once again a question of whether there should be international intervention and what form that intervention should take. Could combined forces from Europe, the U.S., Arab states and Turkey bring a halt to the fighting and prevent a genocidal incursion into Aleppo and other Syrian cities currently under rebel control?
I don’t profess to be a military expert, but we should at least be giving urgent thought to such options, with a view to whether the threat of a major Saudi-led incursion could deter Russia and Al-Assad from plunging forward.
The Syrian conflict and its multitude of ramifications are causing us to catch a glimpse of an altogether scarier and very different futureBaria Alamuddin
Standing on the sidelines is not an option. Giving Russia, Assad, Iran and Hezbollah a free hand only allows for the Syrian people to be crushed entirely. There is therefore a moral case for intervention to protect civilian areas and stop the onslaught on major rebel strongholds.
For too many years, U.S. and Western political circles viewed the Syrian conflict as a localized issue for which they had little strategic interest. The consequences of this have been catastrophic:
• The largest mass movement of refugees since the Second World War and a humanitarian catastrophe which international organizations have scarcely been able to contain.
• The emergence of the first jihadist “state”, with the resources and capability to spread its influence worldwide and stage attacks in dozens of countries around the world.
• The empowerment of right-wing, Islamophobic and xenophobic movements and regimes in Europe, the US and around the world, as a byproduct of the mishandled refugee crisis and the growth of extremism and global terrorism.
• The regionalization and subsequent internationalization of the Syrian conflict, drawing in numerous states and erasing several national borders.
• The exacerbation of regional Sunni-Shiiite sectarian tensions, proxy conflicts and a state of not-so-cold war between Iran and the GCC states, on the back of unprecedented levels of Iranian meddling in numerous regional states.
• The practice of torture, war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale by the Syrian regime – with few serious attempts to hold those responsible to account.
• The undermining of the international conflict prevention system and sidelining of the U.N. Security Council.
Any one of these factors would be a strong indicator that we were facing a crisis at a global level. The conflation of all these factors has the potential for long-term consequences for the world.
Most of us grew up in the context of the certainties of the nation state, and the liberal consensus of progress toward better governance and closer international ties through trade and diplomacy. The Syrian conflict and its multitude of ramifications are causing us to catch a glimpse of an altogether scarier and very different future, as the international order begins to unravel.
We still have time to get to grips with the conflict that has given rise to this complex set of challenges, but it will require unprecedented international efforts to achieve this.
Russia, Iran and others must be forced to realize that continued embroilment in Syria will be prohibitively costly for their own interests and international standing. The sides and their backers must be compelled to seriously engage with the political process; and there will be a need for an international presence to enforce peace on the ground and fight back ISIS, while creating the space for a stable future for the Syrian nation.
These actions will be costly, controversial and difficult to achieve - but we must acknowledge that this is no longer a local Middle Eastern conflict. Failure to act has long term consequences for the international order and the region.
Are our leaders up to the challenge?
Baria Alamuddin is a journalist and commentator on Middle East current affairs.