Michael Williams
Distinguished Visiting Fellow
The war now marks one of the darkest hours for modern international diplomacy.
People walk through debris in an area recently hit by an alleged air strike by Syrian government forces in Aleppo on 11 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.People walk through debris in an area recently hit by an alleged air strike by Syrian government forces in Aleppo on 11 November 2014. Photo by Getty Images.

For nearly four years now, a devastating war has raged in almost every corner of Syria, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and creating even greater numbers of refugees.

Apart from Iraq in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, there has been no war in the Middle East since 1945 that has lasted so long or been marked by such savagery. Any solution seems a long way off, but when it comes, it will need to involve further Western cooperation with Iran.

Slim prospect of justice

For the international community, the disaster in Syria eclipses the Bosnian nightmare of the mid 1990’s.  Appalling though the Bosnian, and subsequent Kosovo, wars were, the international community did intervene using military force acting under UN Security Council resolutions to eventually bring peace. It also brought justice to the many victims through the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia.

It is daunting to write four years into this war that there is slim prospect of interternational intervention, and if truth be told, even less of international justice. Despite their obligations under the International Refugee Convention of 1951, Western countries, with the honourable exception of Sweden, have taken fewer refugees from the Syrian war than almost any other conflict in the past 100 years.

Notwithstanding the terrible toll on the Syrian people, the war has also had a coruscating and debilitating effect on the West and the international community in general. The dark shadow cast by the disastrous Iraq war, and its even more calamitous aftermath, are partly to blame. But a loss of will is apparent in all Western capitals, further complicated by a freeze in East-West relations hardly seen since the days of the Cold War.

Assad and IS 'victors'

Who are the victors and losers in such a bleak situation?  In terms of Syria it is difficult not to conclude that as of today the ‘victors’ are Bashar al-Assad and his regime and the mediaeval caliphate proclaimed by Islamic State (IS). Between them they control more than two-thirds of the country and all its major cities and towns.  The losers are the vast majority of the Syrian people and the opposition Syrian National Council.

The chances of this grim state of affairs being reversed are minimal barring yet unforeseen developments. There are still hopes that the UN Special Representative for Syria Staffan de Mistura might be able to establish local ceasefires relieving the appalling humanitarian conditions present in almost all urban locations. Welcome though this would be, moving forward to meaningful political dialogue and concessions is still a distant prospect. With strong Russian and Iranian support, and the active military presence of Hezbollah, President Assad seems to have concluded that he has passed through the eye of the storm, evidenced by his recent re-emergence in the Western media with interviews with the BBC and the journal Foreign Affairs.

It would also not have escaped the Syrian president that the rapid rise of IS in Syria and Iraq poses a greater threat to the West than to his own regime. There is scarce doubt that for the West itself IS is by far a greater evil, murdering British and American citizens in the vilest manner and openly appealing over the heads of Western governments to disenchanted Muslim citizens.

The path forward

Strangely, this state of affairs provides the only path forward for international diplomacy. De facto, Iran and the West are allies in the common struggle against IS, with arrangements already in place, mediated by the Iraqi government, to avoid potential aerial accidents between Western and Iranian aircraft. This tacit understanding could give way to a new international diplomacy that ends in a ‘Geneva III meeting’, a more inclusive conference than the previous two, one which includes Iran.

There is a precedent for alliances of convenience between ostensibly hostile actors achieving surprising success in resolving conflict. Some 60 years ago in the very same Swiss city, the US had to sit down with the People’s Republic of China, which the US did not recognize at the time. The arch anti-communist John Foster Dulles, then-secretary of state, famously refused to shake hands with the Chinese statesman Chou En Lai. He did however sit in the same room in negotiations which brought to an end the first Indochina War. An example, perhaps, to remember.

This expert comment is part of the Chatham House spotlight Four Years On: The Costs of War in Syria.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback