Even the best of plans are almost always waylaid by unforeseen events. This is very much the case in both international and domestic politics, as the Cameron ministry is finding out after the euphoria of last May’s election victory. One of the most pressing foreign challenges facing this government is the ongoing disaster in Syria.
In my previous article I suggested sending in ground troops to defeat IS. Of course, this only forms one half of the solution, as the long term cause of the conflict remains unresolved. What is to be done with the Assad regime? In the face of Russian opposition, the only option may be a negotiated, drawn out timetable for a change of leadership in Syria. This can lead to a Lebanon style solution where the numerous factions in the war (barring the Islamists) work together to maintain the peace, however uneasily.
The war in Syria, about to enter its fifth year, has had unpredictable and terrible consequences. It has led to the deaths of over 250,000 Syrian civilians. Millions are dispersed across the Middle East and Europe as refugees. These numbers may well be underestimates, as we may never know the full human cost. From a British and European perspective – with our borders being under unprecedented strain — it is vital that a return to peace happens as soon as possible. While the majority of refugees are in genuine need of help, there remains the ever present risk of infiltrators from al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State gaining entry into Europe. At root, however, the main cause of all this carnage is not IS or any jihadist groups: it is the regime of Bashar al-Assad. A dictator who oversees the most brutal police state in the Middle East, he has shown little compunction in slaughtering civilians from the air and on the ground. He will certainly not be accepted as legitimate by most of the Syrian people, many of who rebelled to remove him in the first place.
Even Assad’s strongest supporters in Russia and Iran will privately acknowledge that his staying on would be counterproductive to the aim of achieving peace and stability. Indeed, the Russians had made an offer to have him step down in 2012 to effect a transition, a move the West rejected because we wrongly believed the rebels to be on the brink of victory. Today, the Syrian rebels are a ragtag group of militias with differing motivations and aims. Many of these are explicitly Islamist. If Assad’s regime were to fall today, the victors would likely have at least some Islamist sympathies, with destabilising consequences for the region and the world. It appears at first glance that the West is at a dead end. Assad has to go for moral reasons as well as long term stability. However, the immediate removal of his regime would open the gates to the barbarians. This necessitates a longer term plan.
The intervention of the Russians in Syria has changed the reality on the ground. Removing Assad by force is no longer an option for the West, unless we want a head-on confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s increasingly modern military, not to mention his substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons. As illiberal and expansionist as Russia is today, with Moscow stirring the hornet’s nest in Eastern Ukraine, it remains a rational country. We do share a common threat in the form of the irrational Islamist extremists. The key to ending this catastrophe then is to engage the Russians, the regime and the Syrian people in multifaceted talks. Set a mutually acceptable timetable for a leadership transition in Syria. Assad can step down in a couple of years, to make way for a new government that reaches out to its enemies. This can pave the way for a conflict freeze, where the parties lay down their weapons and attempt to create a united national government to maintain the peace. However uneasy and tension ridden, such an agreement would be preferable to endless war. It would also enable some refugees to go home.
The ideal scenario would have been Assad’s regime falling to secular, liberal and pro-Western forces. That boat sailed three and a half years ago. Today, it is a choice between accommodating (albeit temporarily) a resilient Assad and enabling Islamists to gain ground. Following the horror of the Paris attacks, it is clear which choice is preferable. For all his moral faults, Assad is not an expansionist. Both IS and to a lesser extent al-Qaeda are. Their rollback and defeat must take priority. A united Syria with different and opposed power centres would be preferable to partition. As Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan show, partition only leads to more instability. The great threat to the West in the Middle East does not come from Assad, or even his benefactor Iran. It comes from the Sunni extremists which are bankrolled by the Gulf States. Their defeat can best be enabled by reaching accommodation with their great regional enemy, Iran.
It is good to see that recent Western strategy has come to accept this potential paradigm. The West holds the financial tools in the form of sanctions to pressure Russia and Syria into making Assad step down. In tandem with an aggressive campaign against IS, this will ensure the beginning of a tenuous peace. The long road to regional recovery and end to the refugee crisis can then begin.