Why has the west failed to resolve the Syrian crisis? I am no apologist or supporter of the Russian actions, but it is clear today that Russia has placed herself in a much stronger position than the USA to influence and shape events in that worn torn and distressed country.
The main reason is the West’s indecision about who to support and who to oppose in this complex, long and devastating civil war. First the West was inclined to side with the forces against Assad, seeing the end of his regime as being a step to a better Syria. Then, with the emergence of ISIL, the West decided ISIL was even worse than Assad, and switched its attention to trying to defeat ISIL. This is difficult to do without committing ground forces, and without having strong local ground forces in alliance. As the West certainly did not want to side with Assad, the main opponent of ISIL on the ground, it made it complicated to intervene. Russia decided early on to side with Assad as the lesser of the evils, and to accept or live with the brutal methods that Assad was using to try to quell the revolts in his country.
Western policy tried to support and create a third force in the maelstrom, a force of so called moderates or democrats who would be able to see off ISIL on the one hand, and to deal with Assad on the other. Given the extreme methods of ISIL and the large forces of Assad using the armed services of the Syrian state, this was always going to be unlikely. It is difficult to recruit and train enough united genuine moderates who will show common purpose and military ability against such dreadful forces set against them on both sides. In a Sunni/Shia civil war there is no obvious third way. In ISIL controlled Syria ISIL is the main enemy, and in government controlled Syria Assad is the main enemy. All too often weapons sent in to help moderates fell into the wrong hands. All too often the so called moderate forces disappointed in one way or another. The Kurds, with one of the biggest contributions to the third force have their own agenda of self government and territorial division, and are opposed by Turkey, a NATO ally of the West.
The West under President Obama in the dying days of his administration is trying to broker a peace. Diplomacy is important. In the end if the various combatants cannot force a complete victory and realise they cannot, they have to talk. They need to give politics a chance. The problem is with Russian support and with the US and NATO effectively out of the military activities, Assad probably thinks he can win or can make considerably more progress against his various enemies. He does not seem to mind destroying the physical buildings and facilities of his homeland or killing many people who ought to be his citizens.
Like many people who look at Syria from afar and grieve over the pictures and reports, I have no obvious answer. Many of us in the west would like there to be answer we could influence or deliver, but it is difficult to see one. Those who say the West should be prepared to use more force to balance things up have to answer how would more bombs and more deaths help? How could the west defeat both ISIL and Assad, whilst leaving a country and people who could then pick themselves up and create peaceful government? To those of us who say give diplomacy and persuasion more of a chance, it is a fair riposte that it seems even now the warring sides are still not yet ready to try to find a political solution.
Sometimes the best the West can do is to do no more harm.
About John Redwood
John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, He graduated from Magdalen College Oxford, has a DPhil and is a fellow of All Souls College. A businessman by background, he has been a director of NM Rothschild merchant bank and chairman of a quoted industrial PLC.
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