4 October 2013
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


Few of the western governments involved are openly advertising it, but close on the heels of the Syrian chemical weapons deal concluded at the UN General Assembly, the next stage of their international strategy on Syria has fallen apart. 

Speaking at the UN General Assembly, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem made it clear that Syrian opposition movements backed by foreigners are not welcome at the UN-sponsored Geneva II negotiations pencilled in for mid-October. And the umbrella body most widely recognised by western governments as representing the Syrian opposition – the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) – has just been dealt a further blow by a new platform of Islamist and formerly non-Islamist groups fighting in Syria. The so-called 'Army of Islam' (grouping eleven militias together, including a number of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units previously affiliated with the SNC) has effectively banned the SNC from speaking on their behalf. Since this combination constitutes a significant proportion of the active armed opposition groups in Syria, it is time to return to the drawing board in evaluating who is speaking for the majority of Syrians.

Humanitarian disaster

In Geneva, UN agencies, with EU and other backing, have been calling on international donors to fulfil their pledges, and have now openly resituated their focus on the longer-term management of the situation. Adding to the already widely publicized figure that one third of Syria's population are internally or externally displaced, the UN now estimates that over half the population are in need of aid. Explicitly or otherwise, these figures acknowledge that in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, the figure of 760,000 refugees registered with the UN is probably only half of the real total.

The UN, rightly, is now focusing on seeing the most exposed and vulnerable refugees through the winter and on persuading more countries to accept refugees; only 10,000 having so far been taken in outside the region. Schooling for the more than a million children displaced is also rising up the agenda, as is the provision of long-term as well as emergency medical assistance.

The admission that the violence in Syria is not abating but worsening in degree and scale is also reflected in the UN Security Council's recent presidential statement. Urging the UN community to focus its attention on Syria and its neighbouring countries' humanitarian crisis constitutes nothing less than a regional catastrophe in diplomatic, as well as human terms. 

Region at risk

The Turkish authorities are now admitting all-but-publically that they completely underestimated the Assad regime's tenacity and single-minded ruthlessness, while Jordan is struggling to cope with the speed and volume of refugee influxes. The overspill of the armed conflict – as well as refugees – into Iraq, has also attracted renewed attention, not so much for the bombings that brought Iraq's monthly death toll to nearly 1,000 by the end of September, but for a suicide attack in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq's north, the first of its kind since 2007. Normally seen as the only stable hub in an otherwise failing Arab region, the attacks on the Kurdish security headquarters and interior ministry have provoked speculation that this was the work of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Operating across the Syrian border into Iraq is part of the larger regional logic of ISIS: to drag the Kurdish regional government (KRG) further into the battles being fought in the neighbouring Kurdish areas of north-eastern Syria.

Assad goes on

The messy fallout and bloodshed continues in Syria itself. Even with limited UN funding in place, access to the internally displaced and wounded remains fraught with risk. The bombing by the Assad regime has not stopped, even as the media focus has shifted to the intensified infighting going on between rebel groups in Syria's north and north-east. 

As a result, the international community's carefully orchestrated stopgap policies of preparing for the over-wintering of refugees combined with negotiated access for UN chemical weapons inspectors now seem woefully short of the mark. With doubts remaining over the accessibility of chemical weapons stocks held in rebel-held areas of Syria, the localized and shifting nature of Syrian combat zones only compounds the sense of unreality with which Syria is perceived from outside. While central Damascus continues business as usual, whole communities elsewhere are displaced and under repeated attack, barely surviving without water or electricity. 

Following a recent visit to Damascus, UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos observed that 'the politics of Syria are everywhere, but the people nowhere to be seen.' Restricted in their ability to attribute guilt, UN officials are constrained to liaise with the very same forces who are responsible for the human misery they seek to alleviate. Over time, the Assad regime has successfully shifted much of this blame to the rapaciousness of locally and internationally-recruited and funded jihadists, the violence and looting of the SNC-linked Free Syrian Army, and the ubiquitous hand of al-Qaeda. 

None of this gets close to addressing the core of the problem of stopping the violence, which the international community has resigned itself to managing rather than resolving. Yet outside diplomatic circles, the recent use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons against civilians has shifted the emphasis of debate towards the impossibility of Assad retaining any role in credible negotiations, much less the future Syrian state (whatever form it takes). 

The 'original sin' of the international community was to have allowed the diplomatic focus to go beyond, and thus bypass, the civic demands and human rights of the victims of the violence. The resulting distortion of priorities and ultimate responsibilities not only lacks credibility, but, with the failure of the Geneva II negotiating process, has now become untenable. 

It is time to resituate the diplomatic debate and strategic planning back to the Syrians themselves. The best hope for Syria over the long-term lies in its people, a third of whom are a long way from being able to contemplate a future, much less the role they might be called to play in it. The Russians have outwitted the Western powers, and through its orchestration of the foreign jihadist threat to justify its own survival, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has hoodwinked them even more. 

Until the socio-political and human consequences of this are acknowledged and addressed head-on, no palliative care in the world will remedy the interlinked crises at the heart of the Middle East.