Three years on, the conflict in Syria is still raging. Our leaders cannot continue simply to look the other way

In hindsight, our policy towards Syria was mischievous and opportunistic

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The prospect of this blood-stained, catastrophic leader boasting of a democratic mandate to govern for another seven years is as appalling as it is surreal. Assad recently predicted that the rebellion against his regime will be snuffed out by 2015, but his words reek of chutzpah. Whatever happens between now and then, Syria will remain wasted, divided and in no position to hold an election, even in the unlikely event of Assad suddenly granting his people a free choice to select their leaders.

The prospect of this blood-stained, catastrophic leader boasting of a democratic mandate to govern for another seven years is as appalling as it is surreal. Assad recently predicted that the rebellion against his regime will be snuffed out by 2015, but his words reek of chutzpah. Whatever happens between now and then, Syria will remain wasted, divided and in no position to hold an election, even in the unlikely event of Assad suddenly granting his people a free choice to select their leaders.

In the West, meanwhile, Syria’s continuing agony evidently is no longer a priority. But the fact our leaders have averted their gaze from a sectarian revolt which has come to embarrass them, does not mean that the killing and suffering have ended.

Assad’s forces have indeed consolidated control over Damascus and the centre and west, which is why he is now floating the absurd-sounding idea of elections. But Syria has not undergone some neat surgical partition into zones which can now go their own ways. Anti-Assad rebels cling on in various enclaves deep behind government lines, starting with the Old City of Homs and the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus where, for thousands of trapped people, no end to misery is in sight. As the West’s fickle interest in Syria has faded, the regime’s attacks on these besieged enclaves have intensified and become more unscrupulous. Now that no one appears to be looking, the government has reneged on its earlier promises to let in aid convoys, leaving the people caught in Yarmouk and Homs on the edge of starvation. The bombardment of these enclaves has become fiercer, too.

There is, of course, a school of thinking that says the Syrians must be masters of their own destinies. If civil war is still raging, it should be left to burn itself out. What proponents of this view tend not to mention is that governments in the West and their Sunni Middle Eastern allies, Saudi Arabia above all, actively encouraged the rebels to rise in the first place, not just with warm words but with persuasive-sounding talk of a large-scale flow of arms.

In hindsight, our policy towards Syria was mischievous and opportunistic. Assad was a dictator and – more importantly – an unfriendly one. The chance to put an end to his regime appeared too good to miss. But while policymakers in Washington, London and Paris were busy concocting their schemes, they forgot to factor in Plan B: what if the Assad regime declines to fold, or if a democratic revolt against the regime morphs into a sectarian crusade?

The way that Western leaders have washed their hands of Syria, having decided that they don’t like rebels after all, is almost breathtakingly cynical because countless people who have nothing to do with al-Qa’ida or its affiliates remain locked into a revolt that has had the carpet pulled from under its feet. They cannot defect now, so have no way forward and no way back. Our leaders should have thought more carefully before stirring the Syrian pot. It is too late. But when their Easter holidays are over, they must demonstrate a more palpable sense of urgency about reviving the stalled peace talks between the parties than they have done recently. We may not be able to stop the war in Syria but we could have the grace not to pretend it isn’t still happening.

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