How Do We Fix Syria?

Since early 2011, civil war has raged in Syria after anti-government protests turned violent and spiralled out of control during the wave of uprisings across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. Since then, over 20 state and non-state actors have undertaken military and guerrilla action against each other, all the while further complicating the already distressing situation and the vast networks of partners, proxies and enemies.

At the start of the civil war, the primary opposition to pro-Assad forces was the Free Syrian Army (FSA), containing former Syrian military officers and soldiers, and as time moved on in 2013 the Kurdish YPG and Islamist militant groups began entering and operating within the stricken country. Perhaps most infamously, the predicament provided the perfect breeding ground for the then Islamic State of Iraq to begin recruiting fighters and building networks across the border via the splinter group known as al-Nusra Front. Then, in June 2014, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi declared a global caliphate over all Muslims, with the group thereafter referring to itself as the ‘Islamic State.’ By September, a U.S.-led coalition began conducting offensive operations against a range of Islamist militant targets, with Russia commencing its offensive operations in support of the Assad regime a year later.

Fast forward to the present and, following the apparent ‘defeat’ of ISIS as declared by U.S. President Trump, what stands before the international community is a colossal humanitarian disaster in an ongoing conflict zone. Over 400,000 civilians have died, with the UN reporting in 2016 that 13 million Syrians were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, 6 million had been internally displaced, and 5 million had fled the country in the hopes of seeking asylum elsewhere. With Syrian Government forces reclaiming a large portion of the country, rebel fighters are still holding out in the North West, and, following the sudden U.S. announcement of a withdrawal, Kurdish forces now face a great deal of uncertainty.

Evidently then, any solution offering any hope of improving the current predicament will be unprecedented, in that states will probably be forced to break norms of the international system and international law. Otherwise, either the Assad regime will be allowed to continue to retake the entire country, despite having committed war crimes against its people and offering no guarantee over their future human rights and security needs. Alternatively, Assad is de-throned and tried before an international tribunal, his government dissolved, and what follows could be anarchy comparable to Libya in the wake of its revolution, an outcome that would further fuel instability in the region. At this point, only bad and worse options exist on the table, but in the interests of preventing the region falling into any further dismay in the future, some level of action needs to be taken.

Since 2014, a US-led coalition has been striking at ISIL targets both through the provision of air power, as well as supporting ground forces – primarily the Kurdish militias. This military intervention enjoyed success in dismantling and weakening ISIL’s fighting capabilities in Syria as well as Iraq, however due to the reluctance for any large-scale force to be deployed on the ground and engaging with those civilians affected as was seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, destruction of the enemy has been the priority as opposed to efforts to rebuild. Before any long-term solution can be hatched, the world needs to decide whether to replace Bashr Al-Assad, or to make a commitment to work with him and his regime and in many ways, this has already been decided. The fact that the Assad regime is still in power is a mark of wisdom drawing on lessons learned following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of Saddam Hussein and the wider Ba’athist government, which created a power vacuum leading to anarchy that US forces on the ground could do little to control. The same could be said about the 2011 Libyan intervention which created similar circumstances of unrest in the absence of any central governance. Considering the very high probability that Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future, the question turns to what happens next. Will he ever be held accountable for the chemical weapon attacks and 400,000 civilian deaths that his regime is responsible for? On top of this no real plan exists in the west to further engage with the Syrian leader beyond bombing his chemical weapons facilities. Particularly now that the US is withdrawing from the region, it seems that Assad’s victory is inevitable and any efforts to supply opposition forces with any aid will just prolong the suffering reports the Guardian.

With no real option existing for meaningful US-led coalition military action against the regime remaining we must look again at diplomatic options, but in a different way. Authoritarian regimes at least for the moment will always exist and continue to carry out human rights abuses thanks to their unchecked power. Since most of these regimes have some sort of large security apparatus to protect against rebellion and external threats, which can range from nuclear and chemical weapons to massive security agencies and armies, starting wars and attempting to oust their leaders the old-fashioned way becomes extremely expensive both politically and financially, and in any case would cause more suffering than progress. Inviting the leaders of those nations to the table and promoting open dialogue within a revised US-led international order should be the goal here. Since 1945 the world has moved forward in globalising and establishing international institutions such as the UN, WTO and many others to try and draw international cooperation on a range of issues. It faces much greater challenges that it cannot provide answers to, and as such we’ve seen the UN Security Council fail in actually solving issues that are brought to the table. We need to use these institutions to work with Bashr Al-Assad and his ba’athist regime, moving into a new era recognising what it hopes to achieve, and align it with what the rest of the world hopes to see change for the better. At this point in time, this could be manifested in brokering a deal with Assad, exchanging international military and economic support aimed at peace-keeping and re-construction within his state to deal with the unrest for renewed constitutional guarantees of rights to peacefully protest and possibly a further bill of rights to be written in, with a joint guarantee of harsh consequences should its citizens ever be harmed in retaliation for demonstrating. These democratic principles don’t necessarily hint at a complete change of the political system, but certainly sowing some values of agreeable disagreement would help better uphold human rights and is more than feasible. Though the crisis seems beyond its peak, some sort of deal can and should be at least attempted to be agreed on to protect the human security of Syrian citizens. It would be completely irresponsible for the international community to sit by without trying to work with Assad to create a more secure and free Syria for the future, else we risk seeing further discontent and instability sow seeds for a future crisis.

Sam Raleigh