Everyone has failed Syria. The failure is not partial but total. This must be the first and most devastating assessment after five years of this country-ravaging conflict. The Syrian regime, much of the Syrian opposition failed to put national interests first but engaged in a winner takes all, loser dies conflict.
Is there one power that did not stir up the conflict? The UN Security Council has failed in its “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.” Obama did a Pontius Pilate style washing of his hands; Putin continues to feast at the carcass of this country to feed the Russian expansionist bear.
Europe’s failure was as acute. The French engaged in fraudulent gesture politics designed as one senior US official told me to line “Parisian coffers with Saudi petrodollars not help Syrians.” Britain largely just followed the diplomatic crowd. Germany only woke up once the refugees landed on its doorstep last September. The financial cost of failure for donor governments is a paltry $15 billion.
The seven pillars
Here are seven pillars of this Syria follow, seven lessons to be learnt.
The first lesson is to address crises ideally before they happen but in their infancy not at the catastrophic phase. The evidence that major powers have yet to learn is evidenced by the labored reaction to the Yemen catastrophe where already 21 million are in need of assistance, and the complacent stance on Libya where ISIS has deftly exploited the vacuum and disorder to control a major city like Sirte. Obama’s criticism about the British prime minister being “distracted by a range of other things” regarding Libya may have some validity but Downing Street could return the attack with interest citing Obama taking his eye off matters in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen.
The second lesson is you cannot quarantine a conflict of this scale - “over there” soon can hit “here.” Conflicts metastasize across borders facilitated by cheap travel, diaspora communities and extremists desperate to cash in. European leaders labour under the costly myth that refugees desperate enough to risk the deadly waters of the Mediterranean, will be thwarted by barbed wire and tear gas.
The third lesson is to be wary of grand declarations from the side-lines. Since August 2011, leaders of the US, Britain and France called for President Assad to stand aside. This became the collective orthodoxy trundled out numbingly at every summit. Given the Syrian president’s record of brutality this is understandable, but without any political will to change the situation on the ground, it was reckless grandstanding. Five years on, Bashar Al-Assad is still the president. Obama’s red line on chemical weapons was not even pink.
Lesson four is that a dictator alone does not constitute a regime. Assad is the Capo di Cappi, the boss of the bosses of the Syrian regime mafia but many of his lieutenants are even more hard-line. It is not impossible that Putin will broker an Assad out-regime stays plan ensuring leaving Russia’s Damascus myrmidons still in place. This is the startling weakness of the “Assad must go” cure for the conflict. Any solution for Syria must address, root and branch, the nature of power in Syria but without dismantling the ability of the state to function.
The Syrian regime, much of the Syrian opposition failed to put national interests first but engaged in a winner takes all, loser dies conflictChris Doyle
The fifth lesson is that marginalizing the Syrian people was and remains disastrous. The exclusionary politics of the regime frustrated huge swathes of Syrian society for decades. Yet outside powers contributed to this by quickly abandoning the centrifugal force of the peaceful Syrian protests of 2011, for externally armed proxy forces who worked solely for a military victory for their patron’s interests. Peace talks must similarly be inclusive and Syrian driven (remember the Vienna meeting in November where not one Syrian was present). The protests across Syria during the cessation of hostilities show just how Syrian popular aspirations have not been eradicated by the war.
The sixth lesson is that conflict is the perfect incubator for ISIS, al-Qaeda and other extreme currents. They did not create the conflict but like parasites, feed off it and foment it. The knee jerk reaction should not just be to bomb them but to kill the host – the conflict itself.
The final lesson is that those outside the region understand far less than they imagine they do. The general assessment of Syria was merely that Assad was the final toppling domino after Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi. Many in the left propagated the looney line that this was all a western conspiracy to destroy Syria.
Foreign powers played catch up with events on the ground unaware how real change was occurring. Confident Western assertions of who were representative Syrian opposition figures belied the scratchy familiarity with Syrian civil society, Islamist politics and other protagonists. That the US state department could not even muster decent Arabic speakers for their ceasefire violations hotline tells it all. But at least “most of my colleagues can now find Syria on the map,” said the same US official to me. Progress?
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.