by David Keen and Larry Attree
The Syrian war is entering new phase. The Islamic State (ISIS or IS) has been pushed out of Raqqa amid disturbing scenes of carnage and destruction. An unrepentant Bashar al-Assad regime, with the help of Russia and Iran, has consolidated its grip in much of the rest of the country, forcing many of the country’s long suffering people to accept a grim “peace” as surrender. Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s “de-escalation” areas have been dubbed “kill boxes” in which remaining rebels (and civilians) continue to face violence from Russia, the regime, and competing rebel groups. The defeat of IS in Syria likewise seems set to result in destruction and carnage reminiscent of the fall of Mosul.
After six years of war and humanitarian relief, three years of Western military intervention, and with nearly half a million Syrians now dead, the conditions that gave rise to militant fundamentalism in Syria—and the regime that nurtured it—seem set to endure, while a just, viable peace seems as distant as ever. What should this mean to Western decision-makers? A new study Syria: Playing into Their Hands by LSE Professor David Keen for Saferworld documents three of the West’s biggest mistakes in the war.
1. The failure to get aid through killed hope and fueled fundamentalism. From the start of the war, the regime told Syrians that “it is Assad or we burn the country.” As the regime crushed moderate opposition and fueled fundamentalism, it also worked hard to starve opposition areas into submission. Armed opposition groups became more criminal and violent. In part this was a survival tactic. But in fact the war was becoming a lucrative business in which even apparent enemies sometimes colluded, whether to make money, to survive, or (in the case of the regime’s collusion with IS in particular) to strengthen politically useful enemies. As the opposition fragmented and external support for moderates dried up, the fundamentalist groups had the foreign funds and resources to fight harder, pay recruits better, and provide services.
In this climate, the fear that aid might be diverted by fundamentalist groups that were already well resourced and the weak international efforts to get aid through in spite of regime intransigence compounded resource scarcity on the ground. Meanwhile regime insiders and smugglers were making significant profit from sanctions-busting. All this helped the regime, IS, and other violent actors gain momentum.
To address the impact that scarcity has had on conflict dynamics, the Saferworld report argues that attempts to block aid to besieged areas needs to be called out and prosecuted as a war crime. Development and livelihood support needs to be greatly improved, and sanctions need to be much more carefully targeted.
2. Fixation on IS let Assad off the hook. IS terror successfully established the group as “public enemy number one” for Western countries. But Western military action against IS and not the regime was, ironically, a major success for Assad. The Saferworld report catalogues the many ways in which Assad’s regime nurtured IS and other fundamentalist groups in Syria. By claiming to be fighting a war on terror and to be a better alternative to IS and al-Nusra, Assad attracted domestic and Russian backing. He also got off the hook with the West despite being responsible for starting the war, the vast majority of killings during it, and fueling the rise of IS and other fundamentalist movements.
What is disturbing about the West’s apparent resignation to a “peace” and reconstruction effort dominated by this regime, Russia, and Iran is not just that it is a tragedy for Syrians. It is that it could leave in place the conditions and the regime that brought about the war and the rise of fundamentalism at such great cost to both Syrians and international security. Accepting an unreformed regime as a “lesser evil” to the fundamentalists it has nourished amounts to being extorted by a protection racket—and seems certain to lead to huge problems down the road. It remains extremely important to work patiently towards a transformation of the regime and to give Syrians agency to create alternative governance arrangements.
3. Wishful thinking gave Russia a free hand to destroy Assad’s opponents. The Saferworld report also shows how the US focus on terror groups ahead of protecting civilians and supporting opponents of the regime played into Putin’s hands. Since it designated Nusra as a terrorist group, the US has sought to target Nusra and separate it from other opposition. But many opposition forces felt unable to break with Nusra in large part because it was playing an important role in opposing the onslaught of the regime. When key opposition groups balked at disowning Nusra, this not only destabilized peace efforts, it also gave the regime and Russia a pretext for blanket targeting of opposition forces and civilians in the name of fighting terrorism.
At important moments in the build-up to the brutal sacking of Aleppo, the US focus on Nusra led it to indulge in wishful thinking about—and joint planning with—Russia as a potential ally in combating terrorism in Syria. This gave Russia a free hand to accomplish its real objective: break Assad’s opponents by targeting moderates, civilians, and hospitals first and foremost. This strategy ceded the initiative in Syria decisively towards the regime at a huge human cost, further strengthening important fundamentalist elements in the process.
In response, the report argues, it is not too late to ramp up pressure and incentives to persuade Russia and Iran to support a viable peace process in which the regime embarks on substantial reforms and other actors share power within new, more inclusive, governance and transition arrangements. Given the weakness and unpopularity of Syria’s reviled regime, and given Russian fears about getting bogged down in Syria, more might be possible than at first appears.
It is high time for Western governments to come back to the table with a peace strategy and support Syrians to have a voice in shaping the future of Syria and in reconstructing their country.
David Keen is a political economist and professor of conflict studies at the London School of Economics. Larry Attree (@Larry Attree) is head of policy at Saferworld. Photo: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with Russian President Vladimir Putin.