There is currently no clear political solution to the ongoing and calamitous war in Syria that has, according to UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura, claimed the lives of up to 400,000 people. What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest has evolved into an international conflict against the Islamic State, where the post-Cold War balance of power appears to be at stake, as an increasingly aggressive Russia looks to fill the shoes of an Obama administration that has proved weak and ineffective. The rise of IS has internationalised the conflict and struck fear in the hearts of citizens worldwide. Inaction on the part of Western governments is no longer an option. How to reach a realistic solution to this conflict has been much deliberated. A consensus has developed that a solution is achievable, coupling strong US involvement with a unified rebel force and the co-operation of Russia, Iran and regional powers such as Turkey.
The first measure that needs to be taken is to unify Syrian opposition groups under a common cause: the defeat of IS. The US should take this step, as the world’s only superpower supposedly standing for democracy. IS needs to be the priority in Syria and the Assad situation can only be approached after its defeat. A paper published by the Atlantic Council argues for the creation of a Syrian National Stabilisation Force (SNSF) led and trained by the coalition, consisting of around 50,000 troops, which could realistically militarily defeat the Islamic State in Syria. This would go some way to unifying a fractured opposition with a common cause and presenting Assad with a terrifying prospect – unified and US-backed opposition. A Syria with an SNSF pushing back IS is a Syria where Assad’s position will be precarious as he increasingly becomes an ‘occupying force in his own country’, as Bassam Kadmani has described.
The second problem is Russian involvement and support for Assad. According to Staffan de Mistura Assad may have to be ‘part of the solution.’ However, a situation where US-Russian relations improve under President Trump, as Putin has suggested, may change the conflict as Putin and Trump could possibly work together. The Obama administration’s greatest mistake was its weakness in Syria, allowing Russia and Iran to strengthen Assad, when it should have been acting on behalf of the Syrian people and punishing Assad for crossing the ‘red line’. This further complicated the situation, with disastrous consequences for the people of Aleppo.
Iranian involvement is an especially unique issue due to their deep commitments in Syria as the primary backers of Assad. Even if he builds relations with Putin, Trump cannot exclude the Iranians from the path to peace.
The effect that a Trump White House will have on Syria, and the possibility of reaching a diplomatic and well-thought-out solution, appears very unlikely. Trump’s praise of Iran, Assad and Russia is terrifying, as is the impact of his comments. There is a possibility that the US no longer stands for the ideals it was founded to represent. The UN must ensure Trump, and the Western world, work primarily for the people of Syria and not as part of Trump’s supposed plan to win back Russia. Trump must work with the backing of the UN to craft a well-planned ceasefire with major weight behind it, in the form of negotiations. Without this, the ceasefire will fail, as all others have so far, as the US has been unable to control ‘moderate groups’.
Bringing about an end to the brutality and slaughter of the Syrian civil war and bringing justice to the victims of war crimes and genocide should be the primary goal of anyone interested in furthering international humanitarianism. The Syria conflict is not unresolvable. Unifying the opposition into the SNSF, led by an active US, to present a solid alternative to Assad that can galvanise the civilian population, could possibly turn the tide of the war in favour of rebel forces. Doing this while simultaneously approaching regional leaders, primarily Iran and Russia, presenting a realistic diplomatic arrangement that can give substance and a reason for a ceasefire with the evacuation of civilians, is also not unachievable. The Iranians and Russians have both expressed a willingness to end the war and the Trump administration must approach them with the goal of the removal of Assad, perhaps under Iran’s four-point plan of constitutional reform.
Although it may today seem an uphill battle, and it is, IS is losing ground in Syria. Rebel forces remain determined and the possibility of a Syria free from Assad and operating under a viable alternative to dictatorship is an idea we cannot afford to give up on.
Thumbnail image: Aftermath of attack on Aleppo, Syria | Freedom House
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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