Straight-talking statesmen, Syria and the Middle East

Rebel forces have just lost their last toehold in Aleppo. Now residents displaced by conflict may begin to return to (what’s left of) Syria’s historic second city. Whilst we should of course recognise the horrific devastation wrought, mourn the casualties, and put pressure on all sides to cease their use of indiscriminate/inhumane tactics, surely this is cause for relief? Downing Street and the Foreign Office don’t seem convinced.

Having openly criticised Saudi Arabian and Iranian involvement in regional “proxy wars” recently, alas, within days naughty boy Boris Johnson had rowed back on this bout of intellectual honesty. The British Foreign Secretary was back on-message in time to deliver a hastily reworked speech at the Manama Dialogue Summit, where he spoke of a need to engage and work with such countries to encourage and support reform. Emerging from a meeting of foreign ministers in Paris, a day later, he added: “there can be no military solution in Syria”. Notably among attendees at said event was the school-masterly US secretary of state, John Kerry.

Whether Mr. Johnson appreciates that a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the Syrian Civil War remains a prospect every bit as distant as meaningful, progressive reform across the Arabian Peninsula is unknown. Whatever the case, and however one feels about the UK’s idiosyncratic top ambassador, he certainly seems to be spending a lot of time on the road, actively seeking out foreign counterparts, stimulating debate, and occasionally shifting it significantly. All of a sudden the Yemeni Civil War has been back in the news, for example.

The Syrian conflict has now been raging for almost as long as the entire duration of the Second World War. So far, no attempt at a mediated civil settlement has gained any real traction, despite several attempts, with ceasefires having lasted no more than a few months. Scholars of international relations, ethnography, and conflict and security will tell you that there is a reason for this: the battle President Bashar al-Assad and his supporters are fighting is an existential one.

The only circumstance in which someone fighting for political and tribal survival is likely to come to the table is when the ‘peacetime’ threat to power and security appears preferable to the prospect of continued conflict. Remember, this is a leader with an electoral mandate (however dubious), raised in the strong-man tradition of the Assad dynasty, and backed into a corner by a combination of zealous civil insurrection and foreign invasion.

Sadly, minority groups in Syria – such as Assad’s Alawite sect – have little faith that a political settlement would do other than open the door to some combination of anarchism, violent retribution, and the eventual instalment of a new regime potentially even more terrifying than the current one. With Islamic State (ISIS) deeply imbedded in the region, a Syrian population largely comprising of somewhat disgruntled Sunnis (ripe for Salafi radicalisation), and bearing in mind the recent experience of citizens of another nation “liberated” during the Arab Spring (Egypt), this siege mentality is understandable. The forcible, wholesale eviction of Christians from Homs, their persecution from Mosul to Cairo, and the genocide of the Yazidis of Sinjar provide a flavour for what’s at stake.

Self-evidently, Assad is no saint and has a lot to answer for, but then the same may be said of purportedly ‘moderate’ Islamist insurgents that the United States and Britain have backed. We have a duty to deploy ‘soft power’ diplomacy and keenly targeted aid but should also recognise our limits and learn to pick our battles – not mention our friends and allies. Western interests have damaged, degraded, and destabilised the Middle East, also costing our own countries dearly in so doing. Let us never forget the historical lesson of the merits of non-interventionism in a region we will never fully understand and cannot hope to pacify.

Former journalist and current US Ambassador to the UN, Ms. Samantha Powers, may have a penchant for headline-grabbing hyperbole but no Westerner is obliged to follow suit. If public figures and intuitions are to retain credibility then they must choose their words wisely going forward. Citizens of ‘the free world’ have their eyes wide open in this, the Digital Information Age, and it has dawned on many that for too long the tail has wagged the dog; hence, the rebuffal of the intelligentsia and resurgence of populism. Frankly, there’s no appetite for further pantomime vilification or perilous provocation of Russia.

A humble Brit once paved the way for a promising new united and independent Syria. One hundred years later, it falls to the statesmen of today to summon up the spirit of Sir T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” in stimulating a progressive revolution of their own. Here’s to the timely revival of enlightened guiding principles: realism, openness, and plurality in public discourse.


Julian Glassford is a UK-based social, political, and economic commentator. Visit his website here.

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