Our Aimless Policy in Syria

Totally, utterly aimless. Devoid of direction. And genuinely cruel in its self-absorbed hesitation and fear. I speak not just of US policy under Trump, not just of US policy under Obama, but the entire response of Western nations since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War.

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Kobani, Syria. From Toronto Star/Getty Images.

Last night, while I lay asleep in a hotel room in Beirut, American, British, and French armed forces conducted three strikes against Syrian chemical weapons sites less than 100 miles away from me. It was a necessary response to the almost-certain action of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who used chemical weapons against his own people to clear a rebel-held stronghold near the capital of Damascus. But it formed no part of a larger strategy. It was an action required by the dry protocols of international law, and aside from Trump’s pointless tweets, it was performed with the dry efficiency of a lawyer’s brief. Assuming Russia and Iran refrain from responding, it will act as a minor deterrent to chemical weapons and will otherwise be forgotten. And Assad will go on killing his own people, with the tacit support of Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

I wrote just last week about the awful consequences of neocolonialism, and I believe neocolonialism is exactly what Russia, Iran, and Turkey are doing in Syria. Those three countries have essentially tipped the scales of the war in favor of the Syrian government. They may bill it as an intervention to uphold the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad against subversive internal and external attempts to overthrow him. But the reality seems to be this: Turkey is intervening to strengthen its control over Kurdish rebels near the border and to re-establish its influence in the Middle East. Iran is intervening to maintain an ally (and fellow state sponsor of terrorism) in the Arab world. And Russia is intervening to solidify its military presence and economic advantages in the Middle East.

Who pays the price for this intervention? First, and most importantly, Syrian civilians pay. Their legitimate grievances against a tyrant are suppressed. Their homes are destroyed. They are attacked with poisonous gas. Second, however, the interests of Western nations are also harmed by such aggressive interference. Refugees from the endless war head not for Russia or Iran but for Europe. A strengthened Assad government cements the power of an anti-Western autocrat in Syria. And our failure to act undermines more than a century of Western rhetoric about the importance of human rights, self-determination, and humanitarian intervention.

Which is why I have been baffled for more than four years by the complete inability of the West to react appropriately to Assad’s excesses or to Russian/Iranian/Turkish interference. We have only seen two isolated missile strikes in retaliation for chemical weapons and the self-interested defeat of ISIS. Otherwise, the West has only watched in horror. The causes of this inaction are many, but I believe they can mostly be traced to the disasters of Iraq and Lybia. Both the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 air intervention in Lybia were planned and executed by coalitions of Western governments acting — according to most but not all scholars — with reasonable strategic and humanitarian intent. The removal of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was supposed to make the region safer and pave the way for democracy in Iraq and Lybia. Instead, both countries have suffered unprecedented levels of civil war and sectarian violence since Western powers intervened. They are, by almost any measure, failed interventions. And I believe those failures have paralyzed Western nations in the case of Syria.

But we forget, and we forget, and we forget again — these humanitarian disasters were caused by regime change. I don’t mean to over-simplify the problem, but I cannot state this forcefully enough. It seems the West, and in particular the United States, cannot let go of the idea that overthrowing a troublesome leader will solve its problems in any given situation. Along with the Iraq and Lybia examples mentioned above, this mindset backfired with the 1953 coup in Iran, leading to the current Islamic Republic of Iran. It backfired with the violence in Nicaragua and the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980’s. The misguided (and ineffective) Obama administration policy to arm Syrian rebels was yet another example. Need more? Check Wikipedia .

In light of these examples, I unequivocally condemn Western-backed regime change. But there is an alternative in Syria.

At a recent conference in Turkey to discuss the path forward in Syria, Putin said, “Nobody is taking any responsibility other than Turkey, Iran and Russia. There is only a limited humanitarian aid by the UN, but that’s not enough.” This is, in a way, utterly laughable, since the three countries have highly Machiavellian interests in the conflict and have frequently blocked humanitarian missions by the UN and other actors. But his larger point, that those three countries are the only ones who have invested in the conflict, is true. Perhaps if they had not invested, there would be no need for the West to intervene; that is useless speculation now. Western nations must step up to their responsibility to protect Syrian civilians and their own interests. I propose three guidelines for this intervention:

The recent government takeover of Eastern Ghouta was only the latest violation of a ceasefire agreement in pursuit of complete control of the country. Assad’s forces now control the majority of the country, but not all — he will not cease fighting until rebels are entirely subdued. An international peacekeeping force, of the type deployed in former Yugoslavia during the 90’s, needs to be placed in the country to prevent this scorched-earth campaign. Scholars at the RAND Corporation point out that such a situation is already forming organically — American-backed Kurdish forces in the north (now under attack from Turkey), Iranian-backed forces in the south, and so on. But the lack of genuine Western diplomatic engagement on the issue has left everyone uncertain about Western aims and commitment to the country.

That must end. The United States should meet with Russia, Iran, Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia, and other major actors to discuss how and where to deploy international troops. Assad’s allies — Russia, Iran, and Turkey — will be vital in this process. The only condition should be that all fighting cease instantly and that no group be required to disarm at present — everything else can be up for discussion. Russia might deploy troops to the region surrounding its military base on the coast. The United States might increase up its troop commitment in the Kurdish regions in the north. France could take the region around Damascus in the south. And so on. Clearly defined borders, with clearly defined punishments for those who fail to pacify actors in each region, could bring a quick end to fighting and an opening for genuine peace discussions.

Major actors in Syria, both armed and unarmed, should be brought to a negotiating table to hammer out a working coalition for governing the country. And the West should place no conditions on the outcome except that, if Assad remains in power, there be explicit mechanisms for power-sharing in both the central government and regional power centers.

I realize that toppling Assad was long the main goal of the West in the Syrian conflict. But I absolutely, unequivocally, disagree with this approach for the reasons outlined above. In addition, I agree with the aforementioned RAND scholars in their analysis of the situation: “There is naturally great reluctance in Washington, as well as European and Gulf capitals, to assist rebuilding a country run by Assad and supported by Russia and Iran. Yet the United States, its European allies, Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have a major interest in ending the Syrian civil war and allowing millions of refugees to return home. Refugee flows have had a dangerously radicalizing effect on regional, European, and even U.S. politics. The Syrian civil war gave new life to al Qaeda and gave birth to ISIS. Any renewal of the conflict will likely produce similar results. Russia and Iran were influential in Syria before the war and will be so afterward, but the sooner the conflict ends, the sooner Assad will find their support less essential.”

In addition, I do not think the West should be committed to the idealistic notion that the only acceptable government is a democracy. I love democracy. I think the world would be better off if composed entirely of democracies. But negotiations between Syrian actors should determine the form of government, not the theories of 18th-century Western philosophers or 20th-century Western nationalists. Whichever government Syria chooses, the West must accept it.

Russia, Iran and Turkey have already started planning for the reconstruction of Syria following the war. I believe Western nations, including the United States, Germany, France, and the UK, should partner with those nations in providing help to the Syrian central government to rebuild infrastructure, housing, and economy. However, the West should also push for more decentralized reconstruction efforts, providing support to Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, Christian, and other groups to rebuild locally. Local authority to accept this help should be a central requirement of the governmental structure designed in peace talks, whether or not Assad stays in power.

Part of the reconstruction efforts should be the repatriation of refugees. I realize this is a painful subject. I have worked with refugee populations in multiple countries, and I realize that many of them would rather not return home for various reasons. But the presence of an international peacekeeping force, which should be deployed indefinitely, would be a guarantee for their safety. Any refugees currently in Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, or other countries who are not already granted citizenship by the host countries could be reintegrated into a rebuilding Syrian economy. Exceptions should be made for any whose safety is judged incompatible with a return to Syria.

This is not a perfect plan — it would need improvement from many stakeholders. But I think the most difficult part of the plan is the deployment of an international peacekeeping force. There are multiple objections to such an idea.

First, would Russia, Iran and Turkey allow such a force to be deployed? Honestly, with good diplomacy, they should. Ostensibly, their presence in Syria is primarily to prevent humanitarian disasters and to uphold international law. Ostensibly, they want more humanitarian assistance. If Western nations were to act in concert with them to deploy peacekeeping forces and stop all fighting, that would certainly be in line with their expressed wishes, as long as the West made and kept promises to demand no regime change. They would either be forced to comply with the plan or to reveal more sinister motives for their intervention in Syria.

But would such a peacekeeping force even work? During the 1975–1990 Lebanese Civil War, after a UN-brokered 1982 ceasefire between belligerents, a four-nation peacekeeping force was deployed (it included the US, France, the UK, and Italy). However, in 1983 approximately three hundred of those troops were killed in a terrorist attack, and by 1984 the troops had to be withdrawn due to increasing violence and outrage over the deaths of the soldiers. I admit that a similar result is possible in Syria. However, Nir Rosen wrote about the Lebanon incident in Foreign Policy in 2009, and though he is scathing of US involvement in general, I agree with his general assessment — the US was targeted because it took sides in the conflict rather than acting as a true peacekeeping force. If the multilateral coalition can avoid taking sides — and that is a big ‘if’ — I believe it can escape a similar fate.

Finally, doesn’t such a deployment contradict the very arguments I made against neocolonialism last week? I disagree, wholeheartedly. All nations have a responsibility to protect vulnerable civilians. And countries also have a right to protect their own interests abroad as long as such protection does not impose on the sovereignty of another state. Russia, the United States, and Turkey already have military forces openly stationed in Syria, either to fight ISIS (Russia and US), to defend Assad’s “legitimacy” (Russia), or to defend itself against Kurdish “terrorists” (Turkey). Syria is already being used by various powers to further their own neocolonial interests. What Western intervention should do is place power, as much as possible, back in the hands of Syria’s central and regional governments. Any economic, political, or military concessions to developed powers should be strictly forbidden.

In writing this analysis, I do not have access to the intelligence available to governments across the world. I do not have personal relationships with any of the actors involved in the conflict. I have only lived through 28 years of history (and have only been reading the news for five of those years). My limitations are many. But I have been convinced that an international, multilateral peacekeeping force is needed in Syria for years. Given the West’s incomprehensible lack of overall strategy in Syria, I had to write something. I welcome criticisms, comments, and suggestions.

God bless the Syrian people and all who suffer from the conflict. May it come to a speedy end.

“I do not understand one thing in this world. Not one.” — Marilynne Robinson, ‘Gilead’

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