In March 2018, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad had himself filmed as he drove his car through the rubble-filled streets of Eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus.
At that time, seven years after the start of Syria’s civil war, Assad’s forces were gaining ground from rebel groups who had been under siege there for half a decade. The images, showing the triumphant return of an apparently relaxed Assad, were clearly propaganda. However, they also summarized these tragic years of conflict: Syria has been devastated, but Assad is still there.
Numbers alone cannot capture the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster, but they provide necessary perspective. In 2011, when the war began, Syria had 21 million inhabitants. Nearly eight years later, approximately half a million of them had died from violence (caused mainly by pro-Assad forces), more than 5.5 million have been registered as refugees, and more than six million are internally displaced.
These numbers reflect the failure of an “international community” that, in Syria and so many other contexts, has proved unworthy of its name.
Profound divisions in the United Nations Security Council have prevented a concerted response to the Syrian crisis. To a large degree, these are the result of NATO’s military intervention in Libya, which was authorized by the Security Council – with Russia and China abstaining – just when hostilities in Syria were beginning.
The intervention in Libya exceeded its humanitarian mandate and became fixated on removing the country’s leader, Muammar Al Gaddafi, who was brutally murdered shortly after rebels captured him.
That episode has made Russia and China even more distrustful, if that were possible, of any military intervention in the name of the “responsibility to protect,” a doctrine invoked in response to Gaddafi’s excesses.
Vetoes in the Security Council have been increasing, with Russia having so far blocked 12 resolutions concerning Syria. China, which has used its veto power in the Security Council on only 11 occasions, has also blocked six of these resolutions.
One of the joint vetoes by China and Russia prevented the case of Syria from being referred to the International Criminal Court, in contrast to an earlier unanimous Security Council resolution that had approved a referral in the case of Libya.
With multilateralism paralyzed, the course of the war in Syria has been shaped by the geopolitical interests of the major international powers. Any semblance of humanitarianism has been limited to relatively minor and fairly unproductive resolutions, specific agreements such as that concluded by the United States and Russia to destroy the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons, and questionable bombings intended to punish flagrant violations of the latter agreement.
The only consensus that has proven to be moderately robust – and fruitful – has led to the fight against the IS (ISIS), which has left the organisation badly damaged, though not yet defeated.
Given these difficulties, diplomacy in Syria was obviously never going to be smooth sailing. In fact, the incessant dribble of accusations between the great powers was one reason why Kofi Annan renounced his position as Special Envoy of the UN and the Arab League to Syria.
Yet the failure of negotiations was not – and still is not – inevitable. Failure has stemmed not only from important contextual factors, but also from a series of strategic mistakes that the West has made, either by action or by omission.
For starters, although the US has been reluctant to intervene directly in Syria, it has not disguised its zeal to oust Assad. Shortly after the start of the war, the Obama administration explicitly declared that its objective was regime change (as did the European Union), undermining the diplomatic efforts led by Annan. And, as the late Patrick Seale, one of the most renowned chroniclers of Syria, observed, an obsession with regime change “is no plan for peace.”
In fact, this approach served only to put Assad on the defensive and inspire unrealistic expectations among an extremely fragmented opposition. Having missed the opportunity presented by the first Geneva peace conference, convened by Annan in 2012, diplomatic efforts fell into a spiral of setbacks.
The EU, meanwhile, has been excessively passive in the face of a conflict affecting a country that participates in the European Neighborhood Policy. Remember, it was the war in Syria that led to the terrible refugee crisis that in 2015 shook the foundations of the EU and – above all – caused immense human suffering.
Despite this, the EU and its member countries have dragged their feet, applying patches (such as the agreement with Turkey on refugees) instead of resolutely addressing the problem at its root.
Today, Western disorientation regarding Syria is absolute. US President Donald Trump’s administration, in particular, is presenting a disgraceful spectacle with its chaotic messages regarding the withdrawal of the few American troops on the ground. It is still a mystery how the US intends to counterbalance Iran’s influence in Syria, and what guarantees will be offered to the Kurds, who have contributed so much to combating ISIS.
What is clear is that the West is colliding with reality: as the dust raised by ISIS settles, it turns out that the Syria that is emerging is not all that different, in political terms, from its pre-war version.
This doesn’t mean that Assad has come through the war completely unscathed, able to impose his will without restraint. But in the absence of viable alternatives, and despite the brutal crimes he has committed with the direct support of Russia and Iran, he will necessarily have a role to play in Syria’s immediate future.
Clearly, the more time and resources are invested in the wrong policy, such as regime change, the harder it becomes to abandon that policy. But there is no other choice. The West must pierce its illusions and sit down to negotiate more seriously – and at all levels – about Syria. - Project Syndicate