Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: What about our own responsibility to Syria? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Damaged buildings are seen at Al-Amriya frontline in Aleppo March 3, 2015. (Reuters/Hosam Katan)

The Syrian crisis is one of the worst humanitarian disasters that the Middle East has ever witnessed, if not the worst. In one of its most recent reports, the European Union went so far as to say that the Syrian conflict has created the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. More than 4 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country, while 8 million have been internally displaced. In other words, more than half the entire Syrian population have been forced to flee this conflict, whether to another part of the country or from the country completely. This is not to mention the terrible death toll over the past four years.

What is even more saddening is that there is no sign of respite on the horizon. There is no indication that the terrible suffering of the Syrian people will be allayed, at least not in the short-term. More likely, it will get even worse as the fighting intensifies while any solution seems an impossibility given the huge differences between the various parties involved in this conflict—not to mention the tense situation in the region and the absence of any international will to impose a solution. The international community has left the ball in the court of the UN and its envoys, while we have seen three such envoys come and go while the conflict continues to rage. Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi and now Staffan de Mistura have all attempted to find a solution to the crisis to the point that the post of UN envoy to Syria has become something of a graveyard for international diplomats. The UN is, and will remain, incapable of resolving the situation unless it is backed by a genuine international will to intervene to address the crisis and impose a solution, even if this requires the use of force.

De Mistura has finally moved forward with his plan to resolve the situation, which is based on extensive consultations with all parties involved but without necessarily bringing them all together around the same negotiating table. The aim of this is to reach a vision on how to put an end to the war, and what a transitional period would look like, and how, eventually, to reach elections and an elected government that represents the Syrian people. But De Mistura’s chances of success are not necessarily any better than his predecessors, particularly given the vast differences in the positions of each camp, and that includes huge differences among the Syrian opposition itself. All the while, the conflict is escalating and more arms and fighters are entering the Syrian battlefront. The longer this conflict lasts, the more complicated it gets, and the further we are from a workable solution.

De Mistura gave himself a time-frame of one year—which ends in June—to finish his “consultations” with more than 40 different parties that have a stake in the Syrian conflict, including Iran and other international states. Western states say that Iran’s inclusion in any putative talks on reaching a solution is necessary, while Tehran claims that it is seeking to play a “positive role” and contribute to resolving the crisis.

But is it a coincidence that the deadline for de Mistura to issue his report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon overlaps with the deadline for an Iran nuclear deal?

It seems that the West is connecting many regional issues with the putative nuclear deal with Iran, including perhaps Iran’s future role in Syria and Iraq and the war against terrorism, among other issues.

It is this “coincidence,” or at least the perception of one, that is raising serious concerns among many Arab states, as well as Turkey. This is something that is ultimately only serving to add fuel to the regional fire. So, as a result of this, we have seen the fighting intensify in parts of Syria over the past few weeks, along with the unremitting flow of arms into the Syrian interior, as well as ongoing attempts by certain Syrian rebel groups to unify their positions with others that share a similar ideology, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.

There are those who view the escalating fighting and the regime’s recent losses on its northern and southern fronts as a unique opportunity to overthrow the Assad government and impose a new reality on the ground before Iran returns in strength to the scene after the signing of a nuclear accord. According to this view, even if the regime is not wholly overthrown, any advance on the ground now will result in greater concessions later when the time comes to negotiate.

On the other hand, it seems that the West, and particularly the US, believes that this crisis will drag on for the foreseeable future. In fact, Washington, which has finally embarked on a program to train moderate Syrian opposition rebels, said that this training will be complete in three years. While there have also been signs that the US’s greatest fear is Damascus falling into the hands of Islamist terror groups like the Al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). There is a concern that Assad’s ouster, at this point, would lead to a situation similar to that which is playing out in Iraq or Libya today, namely even more chaos and conflict between rival political factions accompanied by the rise of extremist movements like ISIS. This would be even more dangerous in Syria given its proximity to Israel.

So, however you look at it, the Syrian people are the ones who are suffering, and will continue to suffer. The fact of the matter is that all this diplomatic movement will continue to spin for the foreseeable future and likely achieve very little. The US is heading towards elections, while the already tense situation in the region continues to deteriorate, leading to more fighting in Syria, not less.

How and when will this terrible crisis end?

Nobody knows, and there is no clear agreed-upon plan that can achieve this. At the same time, we can keep pointing the finger of blame at the international community, but we have to ask: What about our own responsibility?