Adrift over Assad: While the West talks about Syria, Russia and Iran act

Sunday 27 September 2015 22:07

Otto von Bismarck once famously remarked that great questions “are not decided by speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood”. He was talking about German unification in the 19th century but his words seem equally appropriate to Syria. There, years of Western speechifying have achieved next to nothing and Syria’s future is effectively being decided by Russia and Iran – two powers less interested in talking than in supplying the Syrian regime with troops, tanks and guns.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, now in New York with a phalanx of Western leaders, must be inwardly smiling in advance of David Cameron’s planned address to the UN on new initiatives to end the Syrian civil war. Mr Cameron has been talking tough about Bashar al-Assad, insisting that Britain’s position on him has not changed and that the Syrian leader might one day end up before a war-crimes court. In reality, Britain and its allies have steadily abandoned their former red line, which was that Mr Assad had to go before peace talks on Syria could even start. That is now being boiled down to “should” go, and go on an unspecified date.

This discreet softening of the line towards Mr Assad has evolved in response to events on the ground. The marginalisation of the moderate Sunni opposition, the regime’s unexpected durability and the rise of Isis long ago threw the West’s original calculations about Syria into disarray. If Britain, the US and their allies tacitly accept that Mr Assad may have to be included in a transition government, that might be termed no more than realpolitik.

Dread of Isis dominates all Western thinking on Syria, which is why joint Russian-Iranian intervention on Mr Assad’s side passes almost without comment and why Britain and the US no longer speak with their old conviction about his imminent departure.

Nor does the West speak with much coherence. Germany says that Mr Assad should have a role in any Syrian peace talks and France says that he should not – at the same time as carrying out air strikes on Isis targets, not Mr Assad.

Perhaps there is no alternative to living with Mr Assad for now but it is tragic that moderate opponents of the regime appear to have been written off, and that the choice being presented is a binary one: Mr Assad or Isis. As neither of these forces can bring any peace to Syria, this hideous war is destined to continue.

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