Saturday, September 5, 2015


In this last week, a slow bubbling tragedy that has been affecting mainly Italy and Greece, suddenly boiled over into a full-blown crisis affecting the whole of Europe and indeed the whole of the world.  

The heart-breaking image of a small boy, washed ashore and upside down in the surf of sandy beach seemed to awaken the world's conscience.  And following, the pictures from Hungary seemed to emphasize the scale of the problem - hundreds if not thousands of people with little more than the clothes on their backs embarking on the long walk to the Austrian border.  

Politicians were forced into responding to people's anguish.  For once it was the public leading the politicians.  It reminded me of the distress following the death of Princess Diana.  We have heard many, no doubt sincere, words of sympathy from western leaders, but apart from Germany's Angela Merkel, very few leaders came forward with proposals for concrete steps to alleviate the situation.  

Both David Cameron and Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper talked about accepting more refugees, but stated that the only solution to the problem was ending the war in Syria.  This is no doubt true, but both leaders would have had more credence if they had taken any steps to date to achieve that end.  I suspect that there was a subtext to their messages, reinforced in Cameron's case by the statement today from his Chancellor, George Osborne, hinting at air strikes in Syria.  

The subtext is of course is western intervention in the conflict.  To me what we are hearing is very reminiscent of what we heard before the NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya.  For the more bellicose western leaders I suspect that what is meant by ending the conflict is defeat of Assad.  If they were serious about ending the conflict they would have backed talks between the warring parties which have been proposed many times.  But always the leaders of NATO countries have stated that a pre-condition for such talks is that Assad cannot be part of any future government of Syria.  

It was stated categorically by the British and French foreign ministers following a meeting in February of this year that there was no place for Assad in a future Syrian government, and then in March the Obama administration reiterated this, following an CBS interview with Assad in which he stated that he would be open to a dialogue with the U.S., provided it be "based on mutual respect."  

Assuming that Assad is not going to relinquish power voluntarily, the only way for the war to end would have to be for the military defeat of the Syrian army and its irregular allies.  Even if this is possible, it could take years to accomplish, and result in further destruction of Syrian cities and infrastructure and the exacerbation the terrible refugee situation.  

The question of who would form a new Syrian government following Assad's defeat is not discussed by our western leaders who refuse to contemplate a role for Assad and his colleagues.  Perhaps they still believe in their chimerical "moderate opposition".  Even if such a faction existed in sufficient numbers to form a government, it is a pretty sure bet that it would be toppled very quickly by the jihadi groups who have been doing the bulk of the fighting against Assad's forces.  

Another thing often ignored by those who want to see the end of Assad, is the fact that he enjoys wide support among the non-Sunni population of Syria - the Alawites, Shia, Druze and Christians.  This is probably not because of any great love of Assad, but because they fear much more the possibility of falling under the control of groups like Daesh (ISIS) or Al Nusra.  

If western leaders really do want to end the suffering of the Syrian refugees and really want to end the war, then it seems to me that the only possible way to do this is to try to get all parties to attend peace talks.  And these talks must include the Assad regime.    

What to do about Daesh is another matter, and I fear that there may be no simple answer.  Perhaps quarantining them in a limited geographical area is the best that can be hoped for.

In the meantime whenever Cameron, Harper et al. utter platitudes about ending the war they should be asked for more details of how they see Syria being governed if ever their policy of defeating Assad were to come to pass.

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