Rebecca Harms, via Wikimedia

The Syrian crisis will not be solved by Western states

In her Dahrendorf public lecture at the Hertie School, Lina Khatib, then Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center Beirut, presented the Syrian civil war as being at the core of the numerous politics of conflicts shaping the region. She outlined and criticized the involvement of numerous external state and non-state actors in the conflict by emphasizing the escalating violence and the continuous rise of ISIS.

Against this background, it struck me as somewhat surprising that Khatib demanded a Western intervention in Syria. To be clear, Khatib did not demand “foreign boots on the ground” as she put it; Instead, she called for a strong support of “moderate” opposition forces – including military support – and the promotion of local ‘good governance’ – initiatives. Her call was informed by the assumption that the empowerment of “moderate” opposition forces would lower the attractiveness of extremist groups such as ISIS as providers of security. While this argument is understandable from a pragmatic perspective, I fear the long-term and humanitarian consequences of such an approach. Hasn’t the Western support and armament of different rebel groups precisely fuelled the chaos in the Middle East in general and in Syria specifically? Where does this approach differ from the previous Western policies?

Inconsistencies are the core of the Western Middle East politics

Throughout the more recent history of the Middle East, the US, the UK and other European forces have selectively used different groups as vehicles to achieve different (and often contradicting) short-term political goals: US forces, for example, deliberately backed radical Islamists in Iraq, as the recently leaked Pentagon report revealed, while declaring them as main enemies in Syria – they are now infamously known as ISIS; moreover, they cooperate with Iran in joint military operations, while supporting Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen. Khatib is well aware of such inconsistencies and therefore demands a more coherent Western approach; and, yet, her interventionist claim is informed by the foundational assumption that Western inaction is the problem.

I claim the Syrian civil war will not be solved by interventionist policies that support some groups and not others. Quite in contrast, these selective Western-backed interventionist policies are part of the problem. It is intervention, not the absence thereof, that fuels the blood-shedding in Syria. This has also been pointed out by a recent UN report: “Conflict dynamics have been further complicated by the deepening external interference, accentuating the internationalisation of the conflict. Different states and non-State actors in the region have continued to support militarily their respective protégés and allies among Syrian belligerents, contributing to the constant escalation of armed confrontations”. The intensification of financial, military, logistical and technical support both to opposition forces (by “the West”) or to the Syrian government (by Iran, amongst others) in order to to achieve a more favorable political or military solution, has only led to more casualties, violence and destruction. An increase in such support – no matter to which group – will only prolong the civil war. Khatib’s argument to support local good-governance, in turn, is not wrong, but it sets the wrong priority given the disastrous situation on the ground.

The consequences of the Syrian war: Mass casualties and the world’s biggest refugee crisis

Since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011 about 220,000 people have been killed, so the UN reports. Many parts of the country, including sights of cultural heritages, have been destroyed.

Violence in Syria both by government forces, as well as by opposition fighters, is increasingly indiscriminately targeted at civilians as exemplified by the bombardment of hospitals, chlorine gas attacks and the use of civilians as shields. A report by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria recently argued that with “each passing day there are fewer safe places in Syria”. Buying a piece of bread can be a decision about life or death. The economy of violence is flourishing with the expansion of black markets and criminal gangs engaging in human trafficking, kidnapping, abuse and pillage.

As a consequence, Syrians are on the move: They are seeking protection from armed conflicts, persecution, violence, grave human rights violations and the collapse of political, health and economic systems. About 7.6 million people have been displaced internally. Amnesty International estimated that the war has brought about four million refugees, making Syrians the largest refugee population of the world. 95 % of them are living in just five host countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt). Lebanon has accepted so many refugees that by now 23 % (!) its residents are Syrians.

Moreover, due to the insufficient funds, the UNHRC and other aid agencies had to reduce their financial assistance to refugees and host countries. Given the worsening situation, Syria’s neighbors are more and more restricting the access for refugees. Due to the lack of options, Syrians are increasingly taking the dangerous sea route to Europe on boats lacking safety and navigation equipment.

The massive outflow of Syrians comes with dramatic socio-economic consequences hollowing out Syria’s resident population. The rise in non-refugee migrants, in particular of middle-class professionals and more wealthier segments of society, constitutes a significant brain and investment drain aggravating the re-building of the country.

The refugee crisis as failure of international community

All this demonstrates the massive failure of the international community, in particular of the bordering region – the EU and its member states – in providing support and protection. It is here, that decisive change is needed. By positioning myself against a Western intervention, I am not in favor an entire Western retreat from the Syrian conflict. Instead, I argue that the West should concentrate itself as provider of humanitarian relief and continue to support the UN-backed negotiations.

What needs to be done: The West should engage in humanitarian relief and cut off supply to “moderate” forces

What is needed is to get the political priorities right. The most important issue to deal with is the humanitarian crisis in Syria. It requires a decisive political commitment to saving life first. The West should call all parties for an immediate cease fire, ensure unimpeded humanitarian access, provide significant financial support to aid agencies and their host countries. The EU as the primary destination for Syrian refugees, should place a human rights perspective at the center of efforts to respond to the crisis. It should distress its restrictive and therefore misguided asylum and immigration policies. The EU should maximize its collective efforts to minimize deaths at sea by ensuring sustained, coordinated search and rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, ensure disembarkation in safe EU ports where individuals can access full and fair asylum procedures. It should increase legal and safe channels into the EU, including providing people with the opportunity to apply for visas at EU embassies in Syria or at the ports of arrival in “visa offices”.

As second priority, the West should – together with other influential states in the region, such as Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – exert pressure on its allied forces to compromise, negotiate and give up on an armed resolution of the conflict. Diplomatic dialogue is no less the route to a solution today. The West has a shared responsibility together with other influential states in the region to create the conditions for a feasible path to peace. This also means that the West, alongside Russia and Iran, should cut off support to its preferred Syrian allies. It is the sustained supply of lethal and non-lethal material to Assad’s military forces and the “moderate” rebels group – which are, in fact, often not so moderate – that hardens political positions and fuels local escalations. A lasting agreement will not be achieved without accommodating to some degree Russian and Iranian interests, the major supporter of the Assad regime. The West needs to set economic incentives and provide guarantees to Iran and Russia to achieve consent. This might mean to preserve part of the Syrian military structure, if not Assad himself, and trade facilitations. With the US nuclear deal signed with Teheran, albeit often seen critically with regard to Syria, there is room for new talks to begin.

Finally, the West may also give up its political wish for united post-Assad Syria and facilitate the creation of autonomous political zones, or even the re-drawing of boundaries if that allows for ending the war. It needs a much deeper realization on the Western side that Syria is a highly fragmented country with political groups pushing for different visions for the future of the country; including visions such as a Kurdish-administered region which the West – in particular Turkey – may not necessarily like. These internal divisions are a reality, which, unfortunately, need to be accepted. This implies also that the political future of Syria can only be formed by Syrians. The route to such a new political agreement remains an inherent challenge for a deeply divided society in the midst of a civil war.


Nikolas Scherer is Research Associate to the Dahrendorf Working Group “Europe and the MENA region” and PhD candidate at the Hertie School of Governance. His doctoral thesis is on “Insuring against climate change – A political analysis of the emergence of regional catastrophe insurance facilities.”

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.