Western governments have pursued competing and contradictory goals in the Syrian conflict. This has not worked and they should instead put an immediate focus on ending the violence.
Syria’s civil war has passed the grim landmark of its 1,000th day, and its end seems no closer. As the violence becomes normalized in the eyes of the West, the conflict is increasingly seen there as an intractable problem. It is presented as a sectarian conflict stemming from the 1,300-year-old Sunni-Shia schism, a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and a clash of extremists between a brutal dictatorship and Al-Qaeda. These narratives simplify an extremely complex and constantly evolving conflict that is further complicated by local variations and propaganda from each side.
Having misjudged the speed at which Bashar al-Assad would fall, Western governments need to decide what their main objectives in Syria are. So far, they have had confused ones, ranging from humanitarian impulses, conflict resolution and containment, to regime change for strategic gain, counterterrorism, and the destruction and non-proliferation of chemical weapons.
These goals have often been contradictory. For example, by focusing recently on chemical disarmament, Western governments have in effect reversed their earlier calls for regime change, endorsing the continuation of the Assad regime as part of the process.
Clearer, realistic goals need to be set, with the immediate focus on joint humanitarian-political objectives – specifically, ending violence, minimizing killings and preventing state collapse. Security guarantees will be essential for any successful negotiated transition that allows this.
In the short term, despite this being a very dangerous environment, deploying a UN peacekeeping contingent should be proposed before the next peace conference in Geneva. In the long term, the disastrous experience in Iraq shows that Syria’s security institutions should not be disbanded. Instead they will need to be reformed under international supervision, drawing on best practice from the Balkans and other post-conflict situations.
Western governments also need to focus on the areas where they have the most leverage. As the conflict has evolved from a peaceful local uprising to something more internationalized, any political solution will likely require an agreement between the external sponsors of the warring factions.
There is some international appetite for this. The current efforts to create a rapprochement between the US and Iran, and high-level diplomacy between the US and Russia, are encouraging these international players to look for a deal over Syria. There may be areas of broad consensus between them. These include preventing Syria from becoming a haven for jihadi militants, preserving state institutions – particularly the army and the security services – and stabilizing the situation sufficiently to end the refugee crisis, enabling some to return.
Time for Broader Engagement
The tendency to treat Syria as an arena where wider great-power politics plays out is a major part of the problem, however. The Geneva talks, which are largely driven by an international agenda, have severe weaknesses when it comes to representing Syrians.
Since 2011, Western governments, along with their regional allies, have sought to channel opposition to Assad into a single body, based on what initially appeared to be the successful model of Libya’s National Transitional Council. The exiled opposition – currently known as the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) – has gone through various incarnations as a result. But it has been unable to win sufficient loyalty from fighters and activists inside the country, nor from Kurdish opposition groups.
Despite internal divisions that have plagued it since inception, the SNC has agreed to attend the Geneva II conference. However, even if an agreement is reached, it is questionable whether it has the authority and respect on the ground to make it work. The failures of previous temporary ceasefires indicate the difficulty of enforcing regime compliance with international commitments.
It is time to acknowledge that the approach based on moulding a single, coherent opposition body that suits international priorities has failed. Western governments should instead engage with a broader swathe of Syrian opposition and civil society. Syria’s factions are too independent to be forced into an agreement by allies whose own priorities have changed. The original domestic grievances underlying the conflict must be addressed if any agreement is to hold.
Syria’s complex conflict is largely a product of local, regional and international policy failures, even if it is more convenient for external actors to view it as a manifestation of ancient sectarian hatreds for which they have no responsibility. The governments that have encouraged and armed the warring factions bear some obligation to help find a solution to what is now an internationally destabilizing conflict. But, after so many deaths, they should not seek to dictate the outcome based on their changing strategic interests.
This expert comment draws on a new Chatham House paper, Western Policy towards Syria: Ten Recommendations, by Dr Claire Spencer, Dr Christopher Phillips and Jane Kinninmont.
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