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We Have Let Syria Burn

Why have efforts in Syria been so unsuccessful and what can be done to change it?

Elliot McArdle

Naked Politics Blogger

A little over a week ago, airstrikes on a refugee camp in Syria killed 28 people. Most reports have pointed to the Syrian government as being responsible for yet another war crime, whilst Russia has denied any involvement. This atrocity comes amid signs that the government’s bombardment of Aleppo is intensifying, as Assad’s regime looks to assert its unchallenged dominance over the West of the country. Their success would essentially leave Syria torn between the government, the Kurds, the Islamic State and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Between 24th April and 1st May, government airstrikes killed over 200 civiliansin Aleppo and have also consistently broken any truce or ceasefire deals. Diplomacy is only providing the smallest respite for the people of Syria.

Such devastation and loss of life poses serious questions for how we appraise the West’s role, or absence of it, in the country. Those who, after the Brussels and Paris attacks, bemoaned our collective lack of grief over attacks in Lahore and Lebanon have been conspicuously silent over these latest deaths. Confirming what we probably knew all along, such sentiment was only offered as a way of personal aggrandisement.

Those who have attacked Europe’s response to the refugee crisis must also spend some time on reflection. It is incredibly easy to tweet or hold a placard saying ‘let them all in’ and to spare no thought for the practicalities or ramifications of what you’re saying. The truly odd quirk of the entire debate has been to treat the refugee crisis as somehow centred on Greece, Italy or Calais. Activists and parliamentarians have been eager to talk about the symptoms of the problem but the cause has remained off the table.  There has always been a bizarre overlap between those who scream for the government to ‘do more’ about those fleeing warzones and those who have opposed any move toward intervening in those conflicts. It appears that Europe’s humanitarian role should be limited to aiding the refugees and migrants who make it to the continent’s shores alive, like some perverse version of the Hunger Games.

A no-fly zone would not have prevented every death or outrage but it would have meant fewer Syrians drowning in the Mediterranean or dying in their homes. A buffer zone for refugees in the country could have done the same, it could also have provided a starting point for a post-Assad future. Neither of these measures needed to be carried out solely by the US but could have made use of several Arab nations’ pledges to contribute troops to multilateral action. A joint Yemeni-Emirati force was able to oust Al-Qaeda fighters from Makalla at the end of April, proving that regional cooperation is not an entirely theoretical concept. Instead, Obama has decided to openly deride longstanding allies as ‘freeloaders’ and ‘so-called allies’ making his flawed diplomatic approach harder to achieve. A desperation to avoid any real involvement has also made it clear to Russian and Assad forces that they can use negotiations when they see fit and suffer no ramifications.

The slaughter in Syria should pose questions for the entire future for UK and Western foreign policy. The moral and humanitarian fight in Syria has been lost for some time. Assad is likely secure, bolstered by a more committed Russia. The West has largely let Putin and Assad forge their way to victory whilst cobbling together a half-hearted coalition against the Islamic State, which has been hugely reliant on the United States for nearly all of its success.

The UK and US have been cowed by Iraq and Libya in particular, the memories of these blunders and miscalculations have now frozen any action. You need look no further than the fraught and overblown debate over our attacks on Islamic State being extended into Syria for demonstration of this. Our parliament was debating crossing a border that no longer existed to carry out airstrikes that would be hugely limited in scope, from the tenor of the speakers and the media you could have been forgiven for thinking that we had been contemplating the merits of defending Poland in 1939.

The parallels with US policy after the calamitous involvement in Somalia are striking. Feeling the sting of a failed intervention, ‘Africa’ was written off as a quagmire to be avoided. A couple of years later up to a million Rwandans had been killed, with the rest of world wondering why nothing had been done. In the case of the Rwandan Genocide the killing had lasted little over 4 months, Syria has been ablaze for 5 years.

The interventions in Iraq and Libya should have brought about reflection in when we choose to use our military and how it is used. Yet it appears that the US and Europe have decided that these instances have ruled out everything. There is apparently no lesson to be learnt from either conflict other than to watch and mourn ethnic cleansing, rape and cultural destruction for as long as possible. Ben Rhodes, a former novelist whom Obama has come to look to for advice on these issues cannot muster much more than ‘Iraq’ when questioned on the administration’s reticence over Syria. Toppling Assad would always have been risky and perhaps foolhardy, it would however be a mistake to suggest that therefore nothing could have been done since the 2011 uprising.

History is unlikely to be kind to those who stood and watched on this issue, one can only hope that we learn the lessons of this conflict as keenly as others.

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