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Time for the West to get real about Syria

The civil war will continue until an agreement is reached about how to stop the violence without overthrowing the Assad regime

June 25, 2013

Robert-MurrayEDMONTON, AB, Jun 25, 2013/ Troy Media/ – At the conclusion of last week’s G8 summit, a joint communiqué on Syria was released that demonstrated one point quite clearly – absolutely nothing is going to be done about the ongoing civil war.

Much emphasis in the days leading up to the summit was placed on Russia’s ongoing double-talk about Syria but, in reality, the problem is less about Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy and far more about the utter ineptitude being demonstrated by the United States, Canada and other Western states.

As the situation in Syria has evolved throughout the last two years, a few points should be highlighted. First, what is happening in Syria is not genocide or ethnic cleansing, it is a civil war. The Assad regime is preoccupied with maintaining power, not in eradicating specific ethnic or religious groups. Even so, the use of chemical weapons and the brutality with which Assad’s forces have attempted to quell rebellion are certainly worthy for debate as war crimes and crimes against humanity, but those describing the situation as genocidal are wrong.

Second, it would seem we are beyond the point of debating a Libya-style intervention and regime change, so any solution moving forward will at the very least have to account for what role Assad will play in post-civil war Syria.

Third, arming rebel groups is by far the worst solution to this issue, as there is no united group that can be identified as a potential post-Assad governing force. Arming rebels is cheap humanitarianism and demonstrates a lack of political will for solving the problem.

With all of this in mind, we return to the heart of the debate, that is, the propensity to blame Russia for the ongoing atrocities in Syria. At what point did humanitarianism and human security become contingent upon Russia? In the historical evolution of peace missions, starting with the various generations of peacekeeping and now into peacebuilding and humanitarian intervention, Russia and China have been perennial obstacles to instilling any sort of genuine normative framework for human rights and security agendas. At best, the United Nations Security Council hopes for Russia and China to abstain on votes that might lead to intervention, so to blame Russia for the current inaction in Syria is a convenient excuse for the west not wanting to act.

Explaining the lack of intervention in Syria must be focused mainly on the United States, and also its closest western allies. Obama’s foreign policy is becoming more and more focused on rhetorical red lines and zero sum games, and it appears that by now surrounding himself with overtly pro-interventionists like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, we may see a shift in Obama’s attitude towards Syria and future conflicts. The political divisions in the United States are also significantly impacting how Americans perceive the situation in Syria, with prominent Republicans calling for the rebels to be armed while others call for no action at all.

To date, Obama’s warnings and strong language have amounted to nothing, other than inviting the Russians to dare him to engage in yet another quagmire.

In the Canadian context, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s hardline towards Putin leading up to the G8 was as confusing as his change in tune after the summit concluded. Harper’s apparent desire to promote human rights without the military or economic resources to enforce such a position does Canada no favours at home or on the world stage, and does even less to help Syrians in need.

Syria’s civil war is likely to continue until an agreement can be reached about precisely how to stop the violence without overthrowing the Assad regime. A long-term peacebuilding mission is totally untenable, as western states have exhausted their capabilities due to the mission in Afghanistan (and Iraq in the case of the United States and Great Britain). Humanitarianism from 35,000 feet, like the strategy employed in Libya, is also not an option, and do not forget about the regional dynamics involving Iran and Israel.

The solution seems clear in finding a way to end the violence without talk of total regime change. In order for this to happen, western states need to back away from their recent preoccupation with hastily intervening and risking further atrocities if they genuinely want to find a workable solution.

Robert W. Murray is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at the University of Alberta.

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