The Syrian conflict stirs far less public outcry in the west than it should. Weary of foreign wars, distrustful of politicians and economically insecure, the electorates of the western democracies appear singularly unmoved by the tragedy that has unfolded. It is not for want of certainty about the conflict, since about most things we can be brutally clear: sustained slaughter, numerous war crimes and gross human rights violations are all well documented. There is a clear moral asymmetry too between Assad’s brutal regime and those who have risen up against it, despite individual acts of unconscionable violence.
But on the question of what is to be done, there is far less certainty. Dithering, wrote the philosopher, Michael Walzer, seems an entirely rational response to the Syrian tragedy:
The possible outcomes are few and unappealing. The first is a victory for the Assad regime, which would probably bring with it a repression more brutal and bloody than the civil war has been and which would greatly strengthen the Iran-Hezbollah axis. The second is a rebel victory of the sort that we saw in Libya, with numerous militias and warlords (some of them jihadi militants) ruling different parts of the country, the army’s arsenal dispersed among them and among insurgents and terrorists outside the country, and the defeated groups—in this case Alawites, Druze, and Christians—radically at risk. The third possible outcome is a division of the country into a Sunni state centred in Damascus, an Alawite statelet along the coast, and an autonomous Kurdish region in the north. Who would rule in the first of these? Who would protect minorities in the first two of these? And who would deal with the destabilizing effects of the three of them together on politics in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq? Right now, no one can provide even remotely plausible answer to these questions. All in all, dithering makes a lot of sense.
His sentiment is shared even by consistent supporters of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect doctrine like Norman Geras. There is not the remotest chance of a Libya-style operation from the air succeeding in dislodging the regime and facilitating a rebel victory; it is too well armed and entrenched for that to happen, and neither the Russians nor Iranians would permit it anyway. A US-led boots-on-the-ground intervention is unthinkable for exactly the same reasons (and many others besides).
Supplying heavy arms to the rebels would even up the balance of forces and even tilt in their favour in parts of the country. But in truth, the lifting of the EU arms embargo this week was essentially a bargaining chip to bring Assad to the negotiating table in Geneva, not a serious start to military escalation. It appears to have worked: the regime is reported to have been surprised at the EU decision and has confirmed it will attend the peace talks. So it looks like the best prospect for stabilising the situation and saving lives is diplomacy, as it probably always was.
The Russians will not allow Assad to be defenestrated as a precondition of talks, but whether they will stand by him if a deal takes shape is another matter entirely. None of the opposition forces could retain credibility if they signed up to a peace agreement which allowed Assad to stay in power, so the Russians will have to manoeuvre his removal if they want a lasting settlement. In true Cold War style, resolution of the conflict only looks possible if the US and Russia can strike a deal and then roll it out to the main regional players. Even then, there are likely to be holdouts: Iran and Hezbollah on the Shia side, the Sunni jihadis on the other.
But optimistic as it sounds, a peace deal of this kind looks increasingly vital, not just for the Syrians themselves, but for the wider region. Without it, the danger is that the conflict itself will spill out into the rest of the Middle East, alongside the millions of refugees who have already fled Syria. In well-informed analyses of the region’s geopolitical dynamics, there is apocalyptic talk of the ‘end of Sykes-Picot’ and the ‘start of a Thirty Years War’ in the Middle East. The boundaries of the Middle East that were settled in the post-war imperial carving up of the Ottoman Empire and cemented in the transition from Franco-British to US hegemony may be finally starting to unravel, to be replaced by new sectarian cleavages and a reconfiguration of client-state relations with the global powers. If this meant the fulfilment of the emancipatory potential of the Arab spring, justice for the Palestinians and the kind of peaceful transition to democracy enjoyed by Latin America since the 1980s, then that would be one thing. But it is more likely to be a long and bloody nightmare. Diplomacy needs a chance to work.