The images of the murdered, wounded and traumatised children of the besieged city of Aleppo have reawakened the world to the tragedy of the Syrian Civil War. Yet we should not need such shocks. That the conflict has raged on for nearly five years, longer than the First World War, shames the world. More than 400,000 people have been killed in Syria, and many millions have been internally displaced or are living in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands more have made the perilous journey across the Mediterranean seeking escape from the industrial-scale murder and state collapse. This has created Europe’s worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.
Syria has become a theatre for great-power rivalry and sectarian bloodletting. The war has fuelled Islamist barbarism and destabilised neighbouring states. What is happening in Syria has even been called a mini world war. The belligerents who are fighting on the side of the Assad regime include Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia. Turkey has in recent days opened up a new front in the north of the country against Kurdish fighters. Various anti-Assad rebel groups are proxies for or are being funded by Sunni Gulf states agitated about the growing power of Iran.
Britain, France and the United States are bombing Islamic State positions in Syria, having failed to intervene against President Assad in 2013 after the regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons. But the lack of retaliatory action by the US exposed President Obama’s weakness and thus emboldened the Russians to act.
It is clear that there can be no military solution to the conflict. Nor is there a dominant player who can impose a political settlement, as happened at Dayton during the Bosnian War, or persuade the parties to get together to produce one. As John Jenkins, a former British ambassador to Syria, puts it in this week’s issue, “No one is articulating a vision of what a post-conflict Syria should look like: there isn’t one, except for the harsh, reductionist version offered by Islamists.”
Two essential principles of any settlement would be that neither Assad nor hardcore jihadis could be part of it. If Assad stays, the conflict continues. If the jihadis take power, Syria will end up like Somalia, or worse.
The US is the only power that could impose a settlement, but, under President Obama, it has ceded too much ground. In the near term, the aim must be to relieve human suffering as far as possible and work towards preparing the political grounds for a new policy under a new US administration.
On the humanitarian side, we need to work more closely with refugees in the region rather than in Europe. If they cross the Mediterranean, they are unlikely to return home. And Syria at some point is going to need its people back. That means making the current camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon sustainable and safe. It might also mean no-fly zones. If the US can establish a no-fly zone over parts of the Kurdish north-east, in effect, then why not elsewhere?
There is also a case for imposing real costs on Assad for attacking protected communities or areas: this, again, would need the Americans to lead.
On the political side, we need to prepare to corral Turkey as well as the Sunni Arab states – notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE – behind an agreed approach. The UK and France should use the next six months to engage discreetly and intensively with Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy team to work up the details at the same time as engaging with the Sunnis. That will make for some uncomfortable conversations and some repellent political compromises.
The Western powers also need to do more to bring the war in Yemen to an end. It would help, too, if there was a better and more coherent policy on Mosul in Iraq: this could act as an example of what proper collective international action can achieve (reintegration of Sunnis, the reassertion of the authority of the legitimate central state in Iraq and the rejection of claims by non-state sectarian factions to an equal role). There is also the Kurdish question to address.
Without a solution to the Syrian war, world order will continue to crumble. In the meantime, consider the people living in the besieged city of Aleppo or under the murderous tyranny of Islamic State in Raqqa, and pity them.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war