Syria just passed a dismal anniversary of four years of war and mass atrocities. There was a flurry of news stories and reports to mark the date, including Barry Malone’s essay, “You probably won’t read this piece on Syria,” which notes that the world has grown weary of Syrian suffering. The anniversary also brought fresh updates of the abysmal data that quantifies civilian suffering: the best estimates today place the number of Syrians killed at 220,000, of whom some 60 – 80,000 are believed to be civilians (here, for why fatality figures are contentious). Other statistics are just as depressing: over four million people displaced, with regional impacts that affect, as UNICEF reports, 14 million children, including many in Iraq. And, as the Syrian Centre for Research Policy and UNDP note, four out of five Syrians lived in poverty (p. 8) and life expectancy has dropped by over 20 years (p. 42).
The war continues, with increasingly dire consequences, because, to put it succinctly, not one of the key powers involved in it has articulated as their foremost priority the need to end the war. This leaves lonely work for the UN Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura, who is attempting to secure local truces—a strategy that notably is not (yet?) working in Aleppo, his most perilous test case for the approach. In fact, the endgame–for ISIS and other jihadi groups, western-trained rebels, the Assad regime and the far-flung networks and countries supporting the multiple armed groups inside Syria–remains military defeat. Each of the Syrian actors on the ground only receives enough aid to continue the conflict; but ratcheting up military aid to one side is likely to be matched by another. Everyone is in for this hand, and the ante keeps rising.
The consensus international position on Syria is to fuel the war.
Whether one engages with the goal of regime change for reasons of civilian protection or anti-authoritarianism, or a goal of maintaining the state in the name of respect for sovereignty and anti-terrorism, or some other form of rationalization, the effect is the same. The regime in Syria is despicable; ISIS is despicable–but there is a difference between removing the state and conceding ground to nihilist insurgents. The choice is not between friends and enemies, but the choice to de-escalate violence and shift opposition to a political (rather than military) plane, or to increase violence. And whatever the goal, it is important to ask at what point does continuing to feed the dynamic of violence become the worst option?
A February 5, 2015 report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, established by the Human Rights Council in 2011, while vague about which “different States” it is referring to, leaves sufficient ground for all the relevant actors pro-rebel, jihadi, and pro-regime, to feel included in unrestrained condemnation:
Critical financial and military assistance injected by different States into the conflict has fuelled the warring parties’ unwillingness to compromise as they continued to believe that they could prevail militarily. The limited efforts of the international community to restore peace and stability in the region have been jeopardized by some States’ continuous support for the parties, to the advantage of hard-liners on all sides. (para 118, page 18).
What is more, regardless whether the regime remains in power or is defeated by rebels, the Syrian state that emerges from this conflict will be wounded, divided and highly contested. In short, should the war end through military defeat, it will likely require just as much negotiation as a mediated ending and the stability of the country will be just as, if not more, fragile for years to come. John Kerry seemed to acknowledge this fact a few days ago, only to beat a hasty retreat when faced with criticism. The war will end, they always do, and I am willing to bet this one will end through negotiation. But for now it continues, rendering all the work of bringing the parties together, which will in any case be necessary, more difficult and inflicting ever-greater pain on the population.