In the face of the mounting crisis in Syria over the past two and a half years, Western governments (primarily those of the United States, United Kingdom and France) have oscillated between explicit demands for President Bashar al-Assad to leave and implicit acceptance of him as a viable partner in UN-brokered peace negotiations. During this time, they have moved from considering military intervention to including al-Assad in the Geneva II meeting, tentatively scheduled for January 2014, following his agreement to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons in September.
Western positions have thus not been as consistent as those expounded by the main supporters of the Syrian government (primarily Russia and Iran). In parallel, but not directly linked to negotiations, Western governments have taken the lead in coordinating humanitarian efforts for up to half of the Syrian population, which is now in urgent need of assistance.
This paper seeks to inform a more strategic approach to the overall Western response to the crisis in Syria and its immediate neighbourhood. It argues that a more effective Western strategy must be based on moving away from the simplified popular depiction of the conflict as primarily sectarian and religiously based. Such a strategy needs to involve clearer objectives, including ending violence, minimizing killing, and preventing state collapse. It also needs to be targeted at the areas where the West has leverage, and move beyond the focus on uniting the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition, to engage with a broader swathe of Syrian opinion.
This paper makes the following ten recommendations for Western governments:
1. Identify clearer objectives and prioritize what matters most in Syria.
2. Safeguard the integrity of the state and what remains of civil society.
3. Focus on areas where there is leverage.
4. Engage with a wider set of Syrian actors.
5. Engage more broadly with civil society.
6. Identify areas for common ground between key players.
7. Plan for reforming post-conflict security institutions.
8. Think about how to guarantee post-conflict security.
9. See the UN as more than a humanitarian and coordinating agency.
10. Avoid seeing the crisis primarily through a sectarian lens.
For more information, please visit http://www.chathamhouse.org/about/structure/mena-programme/syria-and-its-neighbours-project. More information about Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Programme research can be found at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/research/regions/middle-east-and-north-africa