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Friday, 23 February 2024
Tackling the Syrian Fire
James Denselow

Writer, Middle East Analyst


The Syrian war marks its nine year anniversary - if that is the right word - later this month. The scale of damage and destruction to the country and its people often results in a litany of statistics too awful and impossible to seem real to those outside of the country. The fire of conflict continues to burn as brightly as ever however the map of the fighting has metastasised over the years and is currently focused on the northwest province of Idlib.

Syria’s war tells us first and foremost about the politics of that country, but then it reverberates into the geopolitics of the region and then further still providing a reflection of where the international order is during this decade. The primary mechanisms of dispute resolution, the guardians of war and peace have clearly failed when it comes to Syria. The United Nations Security Council is characterised by the gridlock of apathetic Western states and the veto-wilding Russians and the Chinese, the former of which is of course a key strategic actor on the ground itself.

The apathy of Western states is born from the experience of the post-9/11 era. Activist foreign policies, and in particular the interventionist invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan led to a period of what seemed like endless wars, where blood and treasure was spent in huge sums for little to no material gain.

Surveys of Western publics revealed a nostalgic preference for the older conflicts that pitted good versus bad, the Allie versus the Nazis say, rather than the ‘grey zone’ of modern conflicts like Syria with numerous State and non-State actors muddying the battle space.

Yet the fundamental mistake in the debate in Western capitals has been to imagine the choice as between extremes of options; full scale intervention or full scale isolation. It was only the macabre rise of ISIS and their industrial level propaganda that forced the hand of the Americans, the world’s most powerful military actors let us not forget, from getting actively involved on the ground in the country albeit with a narrow mandate.

However, as is famously said if your neighbour’s house is on fire you have self - as well as altruistic - interest in putting it out. A pervading sense that Syria’s conflict is too complex, too brutal and of little strategic importance, has left the fire of war to burn for this many years. Neighbouring states like Turkey, previously not huge geopolitical players when it came to the politics of Syria, were forced into involvement. Firstly by their accommodation of millions of fleeing Syrians and now in Idlib in response to the very real prospect of millions more moving across their borders as Syria continues to haemorrhage its own population.

Turkey using the control of the movement of Syria refugees is cyclical policy indeed, but at the same time a predictable response to what Ankara sees as a position of denial from the EU as to both the war and its consequences. The ‘butterfly effect’ of global events has linked the war in Syria and its subsequent mass migration as half the population was forced from their homes, to events such as the Trump election and the Brexit referendum in the UK, where those arguing for ‘leave’ used photographs of Syrian refugees along with a message of ‘breaking point’.

Today the threat of tens of thousands of refugees flowing into Europe comes at a time of heightened alert as the Coronavirus outbreak teeters on becoming a pandemic. These are all reasons for a recalibration of Western policy towards Syria; away from a position of hope that the conflict will somehow resolved itself, towards one that recognises that the wildfire of conflict and its associated fallouts don’t recognise and respect international borders but instead burn chaotic with a host of unpredictable consequences.

An EU looking to reinvent itself following Brexit, a UK looking to redefine itself following the same event and the prospect of a new US President in 2021 are all factors in the equation that could alter the current stagnant Syria policy and chart a new course towards a more global approach to what must now be recognised is a conflict with global repercussions.