Where Is the West As Endgame in Syria Looms?

19 september 2018

Mary Dejevsky - Chief editorial writer and a columnist at The Independent.

Resume: It is high time that the US, and especially the UK, accepted that their war in Syria has been lost – or at least that their original objective, the removal of Bashar al-Assad has not been achieved. Are they prepared to pursue the fight now at the expense of Idlib’s 3 million civilians?

As Syrian government forces started winning back territory, with Russian help, Western coverage of the fighting in Syria waned. In recent weeks, however, a new Syrian theme has found its way back into the news: a dire warning that a “bloodbath” – this is the word used – is at hand in Idlib Province, where Syrian government and Russian forces are seen to be mobilising for the endgame. The warning is invariably followed by the observation that only Russia has the means – and thus the responsibility – to prevent a catastrophe. Or, to put it another way, if there is a “bloodbath” in Idlib, it will be Russia’s fault.

Now it is all too conceivable that there could indeed be a protracted battle for Idlib, which would inevitably bring with it enormous human and material losses. The province has become the last refuge not just of many displaced civilians, but of the variegated rebel groups ranged the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. Some retreated there; others were transported there under safe-passage agreements negotiated as eastern Aleppo and Ghouta fell. It is hard to imagine that these fighters will now simply walk away – not least because, with the Turkish border closed, they have almost nowhere left to go. Idlib looks set to be the site of the rebels’ last, and doubtless blood-stained stand.

So the Western warnings are probably not wrong. But there is something strange about the context. Even as the calls go out to Russia to restrain its Syrian ally and spare the three million or so civilians in Idlib, there is no visible Western presence at any negotiating table. It is not quite true that there have been no Western engagement at all. France has been quietly bringing together a group of EU and Middle Eastern countries, and the UN is involved through its special envoy on Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

But this week’s potentially game-changing agreement to establish a buffer zone between the rebel forces and Idlib was concluded between the leaders of Russia and Turkey in Sochi. It followed a three-cornered meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran in Tehran, and previous rounds of generally unsuccessful talks in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana.

And while it could be argued that this is entirely reasonable, given that Turkey, Iran and Russia are the outside countries whose immediate interests are most at stake in Syria, this is not the whole story. The fact that the conflict has dragged on for so long reflects in part the support given by the United States and the UK in particular to their anti-Assad proxies. So the West does have a stake in the conflict. What is more, during the Obama administration, the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov, met regularly to discuss Syria, at a time when any prospect of an endgame was a very long way off. They even struck agreements on ceasefires and disengagements – which, alas, they could not make stick on the ground.

What is going on? First, and most obviously, by standing aloof from any talks, the US and the UK are washing their hands of any responsibility. Should the worst happen, they can blame Russia and the Syrian government for the likely carnage – and perhaps use those accusations as the basis for a new campaign to remove President Assad. Second, the change since the Obama administration could be part and parcel of Donald Trump’s apparent judgement that Syria is not a US vital interest and his campaign pledge to keep the US out of other people’s conflicts.

If only it were so simple. In London, a recent parliamentary report regretted that the UK had not mounted a direct military intervention in 2013 (when MPs voted narrowly against), and suggested that the UK could yet intervene, despite likely public opposition. At the same time, the UK recently gave its blessing to the evacuation (by Israel) of some 500 members of the civil defence group, the White Helmets, in an apparent recognition that the anti-Assad cause was lost. That was in July, and Syrian government forces have since gained more ground.

The position is no clearer in the US. It is more than a year since President Trump disclosed that he was ending CIA support for some rebel groups in Syria, fuelling expectations that their days as a fighting force were numbered. The US has also quietly liaised with Russia on aid deliveries and measures to prevent military clashes in the air. This summer, however, Trump announced that the US would maintain a military presence in Syria, to continue the fight against Islamic State – and, it is assumed, the growing regional influence of Iran.

All of which leaves a big question. Is the West just putting a brave face on its failure to topple President Assad, with a view to maximising the position of opposition groups in any talks on Syria’s future that may follow? Or have the US and the UK simply not yet accepted that their gamble has been lost? Nor are the two Western allies fully united. While the US appears to have dropped its insistence that Assad should be removed as a precondition of any talks, London (in public, at least) maintains that stance. The US and the UK (and the EU) are also at odds on Iran and the future of the nuclear deal.

The one point on which there is something like clarity is that the UK, the US and the European Union are all declining to join any post-war reconstruction efforts in Syria – despite Russian appeals. Rather than a definitive refusal, this appears to be an attempt to gain leverage for the anti-Assad opposition in any talks on the post-war political order. But we are not there yet.

The agreement reached between Presidents Putin and Erdogan at Sochi for a buffer zone in Idlib might change the game or it might not. At worst, it amounts to a temporary ploy that will keep Western condemnation of Russia at bay until after the UN General Assembly, which has just opened. At best, it could create the conditions for talks on a rebel withdrawal from Idlib without the fight that once seemed inevitable. This would not only be of immense benefit to the population of Idlib, but give Russia something of a diplomatic triumph.

Avoiding a battle for Idlib, however, does not depend only on Russia and the Syrian government, it depends also on whether Turkey and the US and the UK are willing and able to hold back the various opposition groups – some unpredictable and unsavoury – that they support. It was only when rebel fighters faced total defeat in Aleppo and Ghouta that they withdrew on the promise of safe passage to Idlib. Without outside support, or the hope of it, they might well have capitulated sooner. At least some of the civilian suffering that resulted must therefore be laid at the West’s door.

If the Idlib buffer zone is established, and holds, the dilemma will be for the West. The US and the UK will have to decide at what point to abandon their proxies (if they have not already done so) and if and when to try to enter any peace process. Their leverage, however, will be less than it would have been if they had accepted defeat sooner.

It is high time that the US, and especially the UK, accepted that their war in Syria has been lost – or at least that their original objective, the removal of Bashar al-Assad has not been achieved. Are they prepared to pursue the fight now at the expense of Idlib’s civilians?

What we have seen is a triple misjudgement. The West believed, first, that their voters would support intervention; they didn’t and still don’t. It believed, second, that Syria’s opposition could be made strong enough to dislodge Assad; it couldn’t. And the West banked, third, on being able to blame Russia for the whole human catastrophe. After initial success in the propaganda war over besieged eastern Aleppo, that too looks problematic. Russia’s agreement with Turkey on an Idlib buffer zone and the likely reengagement of the UN leaves the US and the UK with some serious rethinking to do. 

The Valdai Discussion Club

} Page 1 of 5