Tolerating the intolerable: Syria, four years on
For Lebanon, this period ahead requires yet more wisdom, caution and neutrality, to keep Syria’s war away
On the first anniversary of the Syria conflict, I wrote about the staggering impact it had already had - those numbers seem small now. On the second anniversary, I wrote about the generosity of Syria’s neighbours and parts of the international community, the frustrations of diplomacy, and the need to maintain a sense of rage. On the third anniversary, I wrote about the prospects for Lebanon’s millionth refugee.
As the song goes, wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.
As we somehow find ourselves at the fourth anniversary, what emotions are there left to feel? Over 210,000 dead, over 11 million displaced, over 85,000 imprisoned or tortured. Assad jokes about pots and pans while the barrel bombs he denies fall on the people he claims to lead. His Frankenstein’s Monster, an ISIS death cult that is neither Islamic nor a state, look to outdo themselves in box office barbarity and vandalism. Disillusioned European individuals are drawn to the power buzz of a knife and a cause. The neighbours struggle to sustain millions of refugees.
We are left with many ‘what ifs’. As even Assad’s allies now recognise, what if he had chosen to engage the peaceful protects of 2011 with dialogue rather than bullets? It never had to be this way.
What if the international community had carried out strikes in August 2013? Who knows. What if regional powers had spent as much time and money on ending the conflict as arming it? Perhaps only one thing is certain - if events had taken a different course, there would be a different set of conspiracy theories about the West’s responsibility for whatever followed.
It is too soon to draw conclusions, and those of us who have been working on this crisis are far too close to it to do so. With hindsight, we underestimated the brutal lengths the Syria regime and its regional allies were prepared to go to in order to remain in power. We overestimated the coherence of our allies, of Syria’s moderate leaders, and of Western influence, stomach and patience.
We have also learnt something about the democratisation of foreign policy. In the Digital Age, it will become easier for citizens to influence the diplomacy of their government. That is clearly a good thing - we will become more peaceful and more representative. But it also limits the ability of democratic governments to project force, to win the arm wrestles that need to be won, to hold the red lines that need to be held, to play diplomatic poker. In the short term, that leads to more caution from those who value freedom, and more confidence from those that don’t.
Limits of the world’s compassion
I fear that we also discovered in the last four years that too often we can tolerate the intolerable. We have found the limits of the world’s compassion, and attention. Many responded with immense generosity. But a picture of a weasel riding a hummingbird will be shared more times this month than all the photos from Syria. It is too soon to say RIP R2P, but the concept is bruised and battered beneath the rubble of Syria. After Rwanda, we said ‘never again’. We can’t say that now.
To those working on the conflict, we must not let ourselves be ground down, anaesthetised, or resigned to the status quo. We can’t just pump out meaningless platitudes. We must double down on audacious and courageous diplomacy. We must speak truth unto power. We must continue to get help to the conflict’s victims.
I won’t be in Lebanon to write ‘Five Years On’. But, if the conflict continues on this trajectory, others will be writing it. And we outside the carnage will read, sigh, despair, and carry on with our lives. Yet this filthy, pointless, soul destroying, child slaughtering, toxic war leaves us all more deeply scarred than we can comprehend.
For Lebanon, this period ahead requires yet more wisdom, caution and neutrality, to keep Syria’s war away. Lebanon may have faced some grave threats and taken some deep wounds. But we back the resilience of the Lebanese people.
Tom Fletcher was appointed the British ambassador to the Lebanese Republic in August 2011.
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