Let’s be rational: Syria is not Iraq

Following further evidence of chemical weapons use in Syria and the ratcheting  up of involvement in the crisis by the US, there has developed a trend to refer back to and in some cases draw parallels with Iraq when discussing the crisis in Syria. Drawing such a conclusion is deeply simplistic, and jeopardous for the people of Syria and the surrounding region.

Principal among the very distinct characteristics of the Syrian crisis is the clear and hugely widespread humanitarian crisis which has left thousands of innocents killed, millions internally displaced, and an increasingly large diaspora of refugees leaving the country, many of whom are living without adequate sustenance or shelter. The UN has made unprecedented calls for humanitarian relief funding, appealing for $5 billion to support UNHCR operations in Syria’s neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. Due to the conflict’s absence of any prospect of conclusion, and the long-term post-conflict humanitarian implications of the situation, this cost will inevitably rise in the future, while at the same time current appeals are failing to be met by the international community.

Alongside the humanitarian crisis is the origin and spirit of the conflict. The dawn of the revolution was not marked by Islamist militant attacks, but instead by peaceful protests hot on the heels of the Arab Spring. The protests varied in objective, but were invariably concerned with the desire for greater government transparency and electoral democracy. Dumbstruck, the regime defaulted to the hard handed approach of its previous leader, Hafez al-Assad, crushing protests with excessive force, resulting in many deaths. As tensions between the regime and protesters flared further, protesters began arming themselves, at first to protect demonstrations from deadly police action, but rapidly transitioning to infantry-based small arms skirmishes, gradually burgeoning into the conflict we are witnessing today. While protesters having to resort to armed conflict is a disheartening process to observe, the regime’s severe and utterly disproportionate response to protests was inexcusable and betrayed fundamental human rights, anchoring the foundations of the rebellion firmly in the aspiration of liberal democracy and human rights.

Significantly, the Syrian conflict is multifarious. It is all too easy, especially in the world of relentless headlines, to harbour a one-dimensional facile perspective of the situation in Syria. There is no single aspect of the conflict from which it is possible to extrapolate an accurate and succinct generalisation. There are genuine freedom fighters, the preponderant group of which is the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with a real, albeit weak, command structure and a severe lack of supplies. The absence of steady supply lines for the FSA both in terms of food as well as weaponry and ammunition has made it possible for the better-resourced anti-regime foreign and domestic jihadists to amass themselves a higher and more prolific profile than secular freedom fighters, as well as de facto governmental control over areas such as Ar-Raqqah. Extreme groups such as these purportedly receive funding from regional actors such as Iran, with the recent entrance of the militant Lebanese-based Hezbollah into the conflict in support of the regime being a visible product of Iranian funding. Additionally, the north of Syria has fallen under some form of Kurdish control, seemingly seeking to establish a Syrian Kurdistan similar to the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region. Other regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided meager assistance to opposition forces. It could even be said that there is a lack of clarity when it comes to the motives behind the regime’s staunch opposition to change – while it is true that the regime is mostly made up of a minority, the Alawites, and that there is a fear of reprisals against the Alawites if the regime were to fall,  it could be argued that Bashar Al-Assad’s determination to cling to power stems from an unwillingness to release dictatorial power first and foremost before any concerns for the minority group to which he belongs.

With these things taken into account, it would be wrong to bind cases of notoriety (such as the cruel implementation of Sharia law, or the cannibalistic rebel) to the reticent majority of the population, or take such notorious cases to be a perfect reflection of all armed rebels. Equally, these things do not justify any single automatic course of action by the West. What is evident however is that for any argument to be levelled either for or against intervention of any sort there must be substantial deliberation within the context of the circumstances on the ground in Syria, and also be approached with the persistent undercurrent of the desire to relieve humanitarian strife.

Ultimately, there is an imperative for any Western solution to the Syrian crisis to be strategically multi-pronged, involving both regional players as well as the Syrian people. Relying purely on diplomacy, or purely on varying degrees of intervention such as arming the rebels, will not produce rounded results encompassing broad interests and concerns, crucial for long-term stability. Sadly, the last two years of pure diplomacy have been ineffectual, failing the millions of Syrians on the ground who are suffering every day in direct violation of both the spirit and text of the United Nations Charter. Undoubtedly, diplomacy is a pivotal facet of any solution, and we must continue to pursue it as one channel of resolution, but it must not be pursued in a vacuum. The crisis in Syria is set to continue to intensify, further plunging not just the country but the wider Middle East and North Africa region into a huge schism from which relief is uncertain. The fragile conditions of nearby states such as Lebanon, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, as well as the more quiescent Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan could, in the escalating climate, very easily erupt into varying degrees of violence as a result of spillovers from the Syrian conflict. Lebanon and Iraq are already experiencing an insidious growth in violence.

There is no denying that the Iraq war has cast a lengthy and justified shadow over Western intervention, something which David Cameron has explicitly recognised. However, rather than be blinded by intransigence, we should look back at the failures of Iraq and identify the many areas in which we can improve our handling of delicate situations such as that presented to us in Syria. What we must recognise is that there is a principled obligation for states to look after one another – for the international community to safeguard human rights and build a more stable world. Isolationism, as some Western commentators appear to advocate following Iraq, serves the interests of precious few. Instability, anywhere in the world, assists few and harms many.

In conclusion, with situations like Syria, rather than sit on the sidelines and hope that the situation resolves itself, we have a responsibility to be active in a proportional, pragmatic and bespoke manner.