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The international response to the Syrian crisis

Published: Friday, 31st August 2012

The international community continues to struggle with how to respond to the ghastly and bloody events in Syria. Russia and China remain resolutely opposed to anything which smacks of outside intervention and support for regime change, and have blocked any kind of international action, even sanctions. They seem to have the tacit support of a significant number of developing countries outside the Middle East, though most are keeping their heads down. Western countries meanwhile agonise about whether there should be some greater action to try to stop the bloodshed, and/or to help the regime on its way out, and about the applicability of the concept of the international community’s ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians, which comes into play where the government of the country concerned is manifestly failing to do so.

The conventional wisdom in the western media and foreign ministries seems to be that the Assad regime is doomed and it is only a matter of time before it falls. This may well be right, but that time may still be lengthy since the central Alawite elements of the regime have every reason for hanging together and hanging on in power as long as they can -  the alternatives for them, at this stage, do not look at all attractive.

Meanwhile, the opposition’s failure to come together effectively with a coherent political line, and the presence within the opposition of extreme Sunni Islamic elements, including Al Qaeda, gives pause to even the most ardent supporters of intervention in other circumstances. Help for the opposition is clearly increasing, including in terms of weapons, but western countries are very reluctant to be seen as giving anything but non-lethal assistance for now, even if they are turning a blind eye to others doing so, or even tacitly encouraging them.

Ditchley took a long look at whether international intervention could work in general at a conference in May, chaired by Mark Malloch-Brown. The conclusions from a group who had had a lot of experience of past interventions, not least in Afghanistan, were that effective international interventions were relatively rare, and making a success of them, particularly the long-term nation-building part, very tough. We were not good at learning lessons from the past, especially on the civilian side, and not good at making use of expert knowledge of the countries we were intervening in. It was striking that there was very little enthusiasm in the room at that stage for intervening militarily in Syria, despite the apparent success of NATO’s efforts in Libya, even though the horrors of the Syrian situation were already clear to all.

The truth is that the searing and costly experiences of the quagmires of Iraq and Afghanistan have rendered a generation of western policy-makers and commentators rightly cautious about marching into difficult political messes. This plus the complex ethnic, religious and political mosaic of Syria, and the sensitivity and volatility of its neighbourhood, have been enough to deter all western governments from taking the risk of dipping even their toes in so far. The pressure to do so may nevertheless continue to increase, as the death and destruction continue, and the regime’s military and political response to the rebels becomes ever more brutal and bloody.

Western governments are crossing their fingers that the rebels, for all their divisions and weaknesses, will somehow prevail over a regime which is presumably hollowing out all the time; and that if and when they do, the result will not be either a pogrom against all the Alawites, and maybe other minorities too, or a hard-line Islamist dictatorship which will be no better for the people of the country and will also frighten all its neighbours, not least Israel. There are plenty of voices of reason and tolerance within the opposition, and these are not necessarily vain hopes. But the longer the conflict goes on, the greater are the risks of a catastrophic end to it. I am an admirer of Lakhdar Brahimi, as of Kofi Annan, but unfortunately I cannot see a negotiated way forward in present circumstances.

The Kurdish angle in all this is meanwhile worth keeping a very close eye on. The increased autonomy the Kurds are enjoying within their areas in Syria may have profound consequences for Kurdish ambitions elsewhere, in Turkey and Iraq. There has always been a chance that the Kurds will become the ‘new Palestinians’ in their search for a unified homeland and political independence (of course the ‘old’ Palestinians have not been satisfied yet either, and do not look likely to be in the near future). The Middle East may be about to become yet more complicated, volatile and dangerous.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CM
The Ditchley Foundation