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Syria: Five Years On

What lessons can be learned from the conflict in Syria?

Elliot McArdle

Naked Politics Blogger

This past Tuesday marked the passing of a tragic anniversary. The conflict in Syria has now been raging for 5 years. It began as another part of the ‘Arab Spring’. A moment when the world looked with cautious optimism toward what the Middle East might become, as its people rose against their respective autocrats. These uprisings have largely either been defeated or simply seen the nature of authoritarianism shift. Yet it is Syria that presents the most confronting image. Up to 250,000 civilians have been killed and the country remains split among numerous groups. Assad is largely secure and has capitalised on Russian support to beat back more moderate rebels and is poised to take Aleppo. Recent peace talks have been fraught but have provided some respite. Meanwhile, Syrian refugees make up a large part of those heading towards Europe, which is producing political cleavages of its own.

Moving forward will be vital for the international system. There are at least three lessons that can be learned from the last five years.

The ‘Balance of Power gives way to the ‘Balance of Will’

Any student of International Relations will know the phrase ‘balance of power’. The strong prosper whilst the weak follow. Well, following the Russian intervention in Syria one can clearly see that this maxim is incomplete. Russian action has been committed and it has been swift. They have worked alongside Iranian militias to reclaim swathes of territory for the Assad regime; many of the targets have been rebel groups that had previously received backing from the US. This is a Russia whose economy is rapidly shrinking and an Iran who have only just seen the lifting of sanctions due their nuclear deal with the US.

The reaction has been mere words of condemnation from various US officials. The most powerful military on the globe has stood by, as its allies have been bombed. Russia, and to a lesser extent Iran, have played their weak hands incredibly well. The result is that it is now near impossible to see a short-term solution to the violence that simultaneously rids the country of Assad. Russia will maintain its base in Tartus and it will maintain a sympathetic Arab state.

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Caution can also be careless 

The lack of more extensive Western action has had numerous consequences. The Islamic State was able to establish themselves as the most effective rebel group. Absence of any real commitment also left the opportunity open for Russia to make its mark on the conflict whilst risking very little. This all came after Obama had stated that any use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime would be a ‘red line‘ and would provoke a strong reaction. The subsequent lack of any American response sent a clear message to the world; that the administration’s aim was to avoid deep entanglement at all costs, whether this be at the expense of their own credibility or not.

Obama has steadfastly refused to accept any responsibility for US failures. The decimation of US trained rebels by Jabhat al Nusra was largely explained away as ‘see, I told you doing anything was pointless’. Once it became clear that Putin was not about to become embroiled in some Afghanistan-like quagmire, the US had run out of ideas. Strategies have been implemented poorly, and then abandoned as soon as possible.

It would be entirely reasonable to argue that greater Western action would have had no clear goal. Yet that in itself does not mean that aspects of how the Syrian conflict has played out could not have been predicted and mitigated. Russia is now calling the shots, and that is unlikely to be a good thing.

Creative solutions to refugee crises are still lacking

Syrian refugees make up a significant part of those currently heading towards Europe. Reactions from politicians and people appear to vary wildly from ‘let them come’ to ‘put up the barricades’. Any form of rebuilding in Syria will be a long-term effort. This is why it simultaneously makes little sense to embrace the idea of resettling half of the nation’s population abroad or to maintain the status quo.

Life in a refugee camp offers very little to the inhabitants. Education is a luxuryand any form of employment is usually prohibited or dangerous. Once you add in the danger of sexual assault for women and young girls it is little wonder why a camp is often the first stop for civilians, before they attempt to seek somewhere more forgiving.

The introduction of economic activity into these camps and a greater global effort to fund education and infrastructure would go a long way to solving two crises. It would reduce the push factor that Syrians feel once they arrive, as well as being the first step in rebuilding the nation once peace arrives again.

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Whatever the future holds, the Syrian crisis has been exacerbated by the failures and the policies of international actors. One can only hope that the next set of leaders are able to learn from the lessons the conflict has taught us.

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