Maybe this is just my imagination. But I have the impression that, even as some of the most significant developments since the start of the conflict are gathering pace in Syria, the West in general – but the UK most particularly – is choosing to look the other way.
There are, of course, other headlines jostling for our public and media space, from migration figures through abuse of young footballers to the continuing dramas of Brexit and the transition to a Donald Trump presidency. For the past week, though, what looks very much like the endgame has begun in Aleppo, if not across Syria, and this has been either disregarded or treated with the self-same hand-wringing condemnations as before.
Russia and President Bashar al-Assad are cast as joint villains-in-chief, while heartrending appeals reach us via the miracle of Skype from families without homes, doctors without hospitals, children without food. Ever more despairing pleas from exile groups land in my inbox, calling on the UK or Europe to do something, anything, to rescue their cause.
Here is my question. Given that Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airpower, are currently advancing into rebel-held eastern Aleppo (and it is not clear who these rebels actually are), which is the more humane response? Is it for the US, the EU, the UK – or whoever – to call for a new ceasefire, to promise more weapons, even to dispatch (more) special forces to help those we still like to call “moderate” opposition forces on the ground? Or is it – brutal and heartless though this undoubtedly is – to leave well alone and let the inevitable happen sooner rather than later?
Which response is more likely to curtail the death and destruction? Which is the more likely to save what remains of Syria’s second city and its inhabitants? Which has the better chance of ending Syria’s civil war? Which – Europeans, but also Lebanese, Jordanians and Turks, might ask selfishly – is more likely to stem, or even reverse, the flow of refugees?
The answer should be obvious. Any or all elements of the first option will only prolong Aleppo’s agony. More to the point, it would appear that the United States, if not the EU and the UK, has already chosen the second option, but prefers not to admit it for the time being. As to when the decision was taken? A guess would be that President Obama conceded victory in Syria the moment Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump. Knowing that Trump saw no US interest in the Syria conflict, the outgoing administration may well have decided that Assad was going to prevail and that trying to impede it would only add to the bloodshed.
Arguing continues at the UN Security Council about what, if anything, outside powers can do. But the die has been cast. Regime change – which, despite various twists and turns, essentially remained Western policy – is not going to happen, at least not in the way the US and others had envisaged, and worked for.
Amid the dissension at the Security Council this week, the impassioned appeal made by the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief, Stephen O’Brien, was instructive. He said: "For the sake of humanity we call on – we plead with – the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard.”
Note: he did not call for a ceasefire (as the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, did a couple of days before). He called for the combatants to facilitate access to the besieged part of the city and for those with the power to do so to protect civilians. This sounds a lot less like an attempt to halt the battle and a lot more like a day-after scenario.
And it will be on the victors that responsibility falls for protecting civilians. It was the great failure of the US and the UK in Iraq, and of France and the UK in Libya, that they failed in that prime victor’s responsibility. We will now see whether the Syrian government, with whatever support Russia decides to give, can acquit itself any better. Will its forces – military and civilian – be able to re-establish order and basic services? Will they be able or willing to prevent recriminations? Will victory in Aleppo discourage continued insurrection elsewhere?
Perhaps. But the Syrian government’s recovery of Aleppo will not mean that the civil war is definitively over or that armed attacks will cease. Even if Syria remains a single state, the power of the centre will be a shadow of its former self, and the territory it controls will be diminished; Kurdish forces, in particular, will not want to give up the territory they have gained.
Which should dictate the need for a new settlement – the sort of political settlement that was mooted so many times in what seemed like the endless rounds of talks between the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The tentative outline then was for roundtable talks with a wide range of parties, including Assad, and elections which could lead to a peaceful transition of power or otherwise determine Assad’s future role.
The drawback here was that even the agreement reached by Kerry and Lavrov this past September, which involved other parties, soon came to grief because no one was able to control fully the disparate forces on the ground. Like it or not, a clear victory in Aleppo probably has a better chance of sticking than a brokered deal from which all sides still hope to improve their positions.
There will be claims, in the aftermath, that the anti-Assad opposition was betrayed by its Western backers, as there are already claims that Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons, not only gave succour to Assad, but created a vacuum for Russia to fill. And there will be accusations of “appeasement”, with all the 1930s overtones.
A more accurate version might be, however, that the opposition to Assad was always too fractious to complete the task it had taken on, and that the US, UK and others, seduced once again by a persuasive diaspora, should never have lent it even the support they did. And when the question is asked in months to come about responsibility for the catastrophe in Syria, the answer must be that, yes, Assad began it, but we, the West, made the conflict longer, more costly and more complicated than it would otherwise have been.
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