Syria and the Levant

The road out of Syria’s inferno

Michael Williams outlines a set of principles to end a war that shames the world. However much of a spoiler Vladimir Putin has been so far, Russia holds the key to ending the war in Syria

A Syrian runs through the smoke after a regime bombing raid on a Damascus suburb

It is an intimidating task to write about the road to peace in Syria when the horrors of that war have been on our TV screens not for months, but years; when those fleeing the war are not greeted as refugees but when governments such as our own do everything they can to exclude them.

The Syrian war, now in its sixth year, has to be seen against the background of the tragic failure of the Arab Spring, that false dawn of hope in the region. Leaving aside the guarded and fragile achievements in Tunisia, a country of the Maghreb and not the Levant, hopes of reform elsewhere have given way to draconian regimes in many ways worse than their predecessors, Marshal Sisi’s regime in Egypt being the obvious example.

My second observation is the collapse of the state in large swaths of the region, the most striking examples being Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. In all four of these countries it is difficult to imagine a single government whose writ will extend to all the territory within its borders. In Iraq, invaded by the US and Britain in 2003, the brutal autocracy of Saddam Hussein has given way to at least three entities – the weakened government of Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad, the Kurdish entity in the north and Islamic State which still controls large areas, including its second city Mosul.

Further, Iraq demonstrates my third observation: the rise of a vicious sectarianism throughout the region in the form of the divisions within Islam between Sunni and Shia, with their respective champions, Saudi Arabia and Iran. What else is the war in Yemen about? Why else does Iran support the most heavily armed non-state actor in the world, Hezbollah? Originally the ‘resistance’ to Israeli intrusions into southern Lebanon in the early 1980s, Hezbollah is now fighting and killing fellow Arabs and Muslims in Syria, not the Zionist enemy of the past. In fact the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon is one of the quietest frontiers in the Middle East.

Two final observations: first, the collapse of the Middle East ‘peace process’ – there have been no negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians for two years now; secondly, the erosion over the past five to ten years of international standards on justice and human rights.

We had become accustomed to taking for granted, for example, the concept of international courts and the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), a global commitment to prevent war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the 1990s, this had led to the creation of ad hoc courts such as that on Cambodia and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Following those specific tribunals the International Criminal Court was established in 2002. Welcome though that development has been, the cases that have appeared before the court have all been from Africa. Some of those are very serious but they pale against what is happening in Syria.

While Slobodan Milosevic and Ratko Mladic appeared before international tribunals, there is little expectation of Bashar al-Assad being indicted despite the industrial scale of atrocities committed by his forces. As for R2P, not only do we make no effort to protect the innocents within Syria, but we stand by as hundreds perish in the Mediterranean and, with the singular exception of Germany, close the doors to thousands of men, women and children who clearly meet the criteria of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

War, as Clausewitz taught us, ‘is not merely a political act, but a real political instrument’. At some point real politics will prevail over violence in Syria and I believe we are at the beginning of that process. We must remember that the Paris peace talks concluding the Vietnam War lasted some five years before the agreement of 1973 between what was then North Vietnam and the United States, and this in a war that, despite its ferocity, was essentially between two parties.

In the case of Syria the situation is much more complex with at least four identifiable parties – the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the opposition built around the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, the Kurds, and the self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ of Islamic State. The picture is complicated further by the fragmented nature of the opposition where one of the most successful groups is the Al-Qaeda franchise, al-Nusra Front, a UN-designated terrorist organization, which rebranded itself in July to appear more mainstream.

‘Despite its economic weakness, Russia has turned the tables on the West in Syria’

The complexity grows when one looks at outsider involvement. On the side of the regime one can count Russia, Iran and Hezbollah – three disciplined and highly effective military actors which have prevented the collapse of the Assad regime and are ensuring its survival. By contrast, the opposition has received far less robust and disciplined support from the United States and Saudi Arabia. I have not included Turkey which, although initially a strong supporter of the opposition, has over the course of the war turned into a bitter opponent of America’s main ally on the ground, the Syrian Kurds of the Democratic Union Party, better known as the PYD.

This imbalance has taken its toll. It will be difficult to exclude the Assad regime − not necessarily the man himself − from post-war Syria.

In essence wars are only ended in two ways – you don’t have to be Clausewitz to realize this – by the victory of one party over another, or through negotiation and compromise. The time for victory of one party over the other has long passed, if it ever existed. It is striking that even in the early months after the outbreak of revolt in March 2011, no significant military figure or unit has broken from the regime.

For its part, the Russia of Vladimir Putin has not intervened to see the demise of the Assad regime. On the contrary and despite its economic weaknesses exacerbated by falling oil prices, Russia has turned the tables on the West in Syria.

On the other side, assistance from the West to the opposition forces, while not inconsequential, has not in any way matched the support lent by Russia to the regime. The reasons for this are essentially twofold. First, the long shadow of the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the subsequent war and the evident futility of the loss of life. Secondly, the perception in Washington, London and Paris that hideous though the Assad regime is, it presents no direct threat to the West. By contrast, Islamic State palpably does. Hence the US is now conducting an air war in Syria against Islamic State, with limited assistance from the UK and France.

Russia for its part has its own air war on the side of the regime, and a third external air force, that of Israel, has made numerous air strikes against Hezbollah supply convoys going through Syria en route to Lebanon. The very complexity of the violence in Syria − the strengthening of the Kurdish PYD and the emergence of a fourth actor in the form of Islamic State – has effectively thrown a lifeline to the Assad regime. The US-Russian agreement in September, which called for a ceasefire and the setting up of a joint operations centre to fight Islamic State and the rebranded al-Nusra Front, reinforced the impression that the regime and its backers are in the ascendant.

Against this complex background my former colleague Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy, battles valiantly to keep a peace process alive in the Geneva talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees works to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the Syrian inferno and other humanitarian agencies strive to help both within and without Syria.  At the same time there is an echo of the 1930s in the hapless position of the UN and of its highest political organ, the Security Council, to make any meaningful progress on the road to peace. The judicial and human rights organs of the UN have been found wanting at the very least. An attempt to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court was blocked by the opposition of Russia and China in the Security Council. For all their shortcomings, safe areas were set up in Bosnia during the wars of the 1990s. Nowhere is safe in Syria, as the dreadful bombing of Aleppo reveals.

Despite this it is to Russia that we must turn for a settlement. On its own the US and the West cannot end the war. More-over, the indispensability of the Assad regime and of Russia in the fight against Islamic State makes that more, rather than less likely.

Minority support within Syria for the Assad regime, above all among the Alawites, has remained strong and to a lesser extent among the country’s Christians and Druze. This needs to be explained. Following the Anglo-US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the position of minorities within Iraq was gravely undermined. At the time of the invasion the Christian population numbered one and a half million, now it is barely a fifth of that number. Their exodus has had a profound effect on remaining minorities in the Arab world and especially in Syria. I remember visiting Damascus in 2008 and encountering very large numbers of Iraqi Christians on the outskirts of the capital with tens of thousands arriving each month. The fate of Iraqi Christians after the US invasion and toppling of Saddam’s regime goes some way to explain continuing minority support for the Syrian regime.

For the same reason many Lebanese Christians, supporters of Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, have entered an alliance with Hezbollah and the Assad regime and fervently believe that their future depends on protection by an avowedly secular Syria.

In any post-Assad order, protection for the minorities is of the utmost importance. We must and we should do better than what happened in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. That will demand a resolution in the international community which we have not seen for years.

What then is the way forward? A breakthrough in 2016 was the formation in the margins of the annual Munich Wehrkunde conference in February of the International Syria Support Group, or ISSG, which groups the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Italy, Turkey, Japan, Iran and key Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the critical international institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League. It took five years and hundreds of thousands of lives to get here. History will, I believe, be sharply critical of the international community’s inability to agree on a common stance to end the war based on sound principles.

We have to build on this development. In my view there has to be a permanent bureau to match the scale of this war and to intensify the search for a comprehensive solution. As a first step I would suggest a small secretariat of the ISSG in Geneva.

One of its first steps might be the writing of a charter for the protection of Syria’s myriad community of minorities drawing on best international practice.

A second step might be to build on the work already being undertaken by Abdullah Dardari at the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia in Beirut for the reconstruction of post-war Syria. That work should be tied up with the endeavours of the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

Thirdly, the ISSG should convene monthly official-level meetings so that their discussions are regularized and common policies accepted.

Fourthly, the bureau should present a report to the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly and to the Security Council.

Fifthly, greater engagement is needed with Russia so that it becomes a genuine sponsor of political transition in Syria, instead of a spoiler. While Putin has run rings around Barack Obama, Russia cannot want to be at war in Syria indefinitely.

Once that is achieved, the sixth step can be envisaged: pressure on the Assad regime by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to cease immediately all aerial activity with the threat of a no-fly zone if the government does not accept. Without these steps there is no end in sight to the Syrian inferno.