The most recent developments on Syria have been predictable and largely driven by political and presentational dynamics. That applies both to Russia and the West. Innocent Syrians killed by what appeared to be air-delivered chemical weapons – followed by US cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air force base – followed by Russian outrage – followed by knowingly unrealistic calls by American and British governments for Mr. Putin to withdraw support from Mr. Assad – followed by tired arguments about sanctions and whether to meet, or not to meet, senior Russians for discussions.
Western governments should ask themselves why it has taken them six years to understand that Iran and Russia will not let Assad lose the war in Syria. Or, more specifically, not let the Alawite regime lose – the Russians have no love for Assad himself.
Here are some factors:
- Six years ago it should have been obvious to the West that it was as much in their interests as in those of Russia and Iran for the Alawites to remain in power. The Alawite regime is relatively secular and has a stake in the survival of minorities – including Syrian Christians.
- Russian interests in Syria have been considerably greater than those of the West for decades. Syria was a client state of the USSR. That was recognized by the USA in 1973 when the two main Cold War powers put pressure on their protégés – Israel and Syria – to end the Yom Kippur war.
- The trade-off for the West agreeing with Russia that there were advantages to the Alawites staying in power – had we so agreed, secretly or openly – could have been discussions with Russians or Iranians on their removing Assad and the selection of a different Alawite head of state.
- This would have suited the West because the reality is that we cannot get rid of Assad – both for practical and legal reasons – however much we vainly say he must go. Nor are we able to deal with him – despite a channel of communication that we had with Assad personally – reportedly of sufficient embarrassment to some senior British government figures to order it severed.
- Working with Russia and Iran would of course have been challenging. But there have been some potential access points. For example, Iranian president Rouhani was partially educated in Britain; to what extent our government has used mutual contacts with him as a channel of communication is not openly known – but to try to so would have made sense.
- Working with Iran and Russia, notwithstanding the challenges of doing so, might by now have helped stabilize the situation in Syria. Factors towards stability might have included someone with less blood on his hands in place as the new Alawite head of state. And this option, while late in the day, still remains a possibility.
- Amongst wider implications, working with Russia where their interests and those of the West might have coincided, would have led to easier conversations with the Russians over the Ukraine.
Instead, the West decided early on to take a course that in many ways has been more challenging. In the absence of any comprehensive and longer-term policy on Syria, it was decided to support the moderate Syrian opposition. This was despite the well-known and hard-learnt lessons from the region that moderates tend to give way to extremists. Indeed by 2013 it was clear that extremist Sunnis had begun to dominate some parts of Syria – I saw this for myself when I worked on the Lebanese-Syrian border. At the same time other questionable Sunni groups were benefitting from support by some Gulf states.
It can therefore be argued that those Western and Gulf governments who have been active on Syria bear a measure of responsibility for prolonging the suffering of the Syrian people and for the quantity of refugees from Syria seeking sanctuary in the West. A different policy would likely have kept some of the hardline Sunnis out of Syria. It would have been in everyone’s interests – both East and West.
The West’s difficulty in finding a strategy for effective dialogue with Russia has not helped. Not since the Cold War has the West been able to determine how to do that. For example, we find it difficult to accept that there might be advantages, on the one hand, to ‘compartmentalizing’ the issues on which we are in strong disagreement with Russia (Litvinenko, Sergei Magnitsky, the Crimea etc.) and yet on the other hand concurrently working with Russia where our interests do coincide.
As it happens, Mr. Trump might have bridged this paradox in his particular and personal way. But it may see him ejected from office if it is proven that he knew that members of his team were conspiring with Russia in the run-up to the US elections.
So, in conclusion, on Syria, we are faced with a slowly developing situation that has been generally foreseeable and to a certain extent avoidable. This has been driven as much by the impulse on the Western side to play to the gallery – taking the superficially easy route of making noises about the need to remove the ogre that is Assad – as by a concern about the risks (not least reputational) associated with the alternatives. Thus those Western governments who have acted have chosen a route that has presentational rather than practical advantages. In short, we have found a harder way to do business. That said, there have been signs from time to time that the US government has considered a change of course. It is not necessarily too late to do so, but it would have been easier to stabilize the situation if it had been done long before.