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What Can Be Done About Syria?

Address by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans to the Melbourne High School Political Interest Group, 16 July 2013

I’m a congenital optimist about most things in international affairs – in most situations and on most general issues, most of the time, I can find something to feel reasonably positive about. For those of you who think that must mean I am either ignorant, incorrigibly naïve or outright demented, I’ll refer you to the series of public lectures I gave at Cambridge University in May this year, now on my website www.gevans.org, on the theme of ‘In Defence of Optimism’ to see for yourself whether there’s anything at all to be said for my sophistication and sanity.

But even in those lectures I had to confess I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about Syria, and I’m afraid the situation has deteriorated even further since then. Some problems really are what’s called in the policymaking trade ‘wicked’ problems – really, complex, difficult, ugly problems where every single possibly available solution seems to have serious downsides of one kind or other.  And Syria really does seem to be in that category.  As much as one might wish otherwise, every policy option canvassed so far – and I will work through them with you – seems to be either wrong in principle, non-deliverable in practice, unlikely to be effective, bound to increase rather than diminish suffering, and in some cases all of the above.

After two years of civil war, with no decisive military victory by either side in sight, the situation could not be more desperate. According to current United Nations estimates, more than 90,000 Syrians are dead, and 6.8 million – one-third of the country’s population – need urgent humanitarian assistance. Some 4.25 million are displaced internally, and more than 1.7 million have fled the country, sheltering as refugees mainly in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
The strain on Syria’s neighbors is immense, and the conflict is inexorably seeping into the wider region. Both government and rebel forces have committed atrocity crimes. Many more are feared as violence among the main sectarian groups escalates.

The most immediate need, about which there should be little controversy, is massive humanitarian assistance. Delivery problems abound in the war zones, but not everywhere. Yet international donors are dragging their feet both in meeting existing commitments and in making new ones. And all the aid in the world won’t stop the killing.

It is too late now for non-military tools of coercion to have much effect, although Security Council threats of International Criminal Court prosecution for atrocity crimes – including any use of chemical weapons – must remain on the table. But what of the military-response options still strongly favoured by many policymakers and pundits? The trouble is that every tray in this toolkit, too, is empty.

Direct military intervention to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would never win Security Council approval, and has no volunteers anyway among capable military powers – albeit in most cases because of the political and military risks involved, rather than the legal indefensibility of acting outside the UN Charter. A less partisan intervention – pouring in troops and airpower to separate the warring parties forcibly – also has no takers, no likely UN authority, and only marginal hope of causing less harm than it would be intended to avoid.

There are many more enthusiasts for a more calibrated military intervention, designed to establish one or more no-fly zones, and maybe safe havens and humanitarian corridors on the ground. In the early days of the crisis, it was argued that, given the strength of the regime’s air defences and ground forces, even these limited objectives could not be achieved without fighting an all-out war – and thus causing a net increase in human suffering.

With most of the country now ablaze, this argument is less convincing. But it remains the case that there are no obvious takers for a military role, partly because of the scale, difficulty, and risk of the commitment required, and partly because of the likely political and legal costs, given the minimal prospect of Security Council endorsement.

The United Kingdom and France keep pressing hard for indirect military intervention: supplying more arms to the rebel side, in their view, would be a low-cost, low-risk, potentially high-return option. And the European Union has now lifted its ban. But the US, although it has modified its position a little after the evidence emerged of some use of chemical weapons on the government side, continues to very cautious, and in my view rightly so. A troubling proportion of the opposition forces are Islamic extremists, with mortal enmity evident between them and more moderate elements (as shown by the murder last week by the al-Quaeda linked ISI group of an FSA commander, Abu Basir),  and there is simply no guarantee that weapons deliveries will not get into the wrong hands.

More broadly, increases in the supply of weapons funnelled to rebel forces by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others have correlated with surges in the civilian death toll, suggesting that they cost more lives than they save – and with no evident strategic gains. The Assad regime, with its own external supporters, seems likely to have no difficulty matching any new hardware thrown at it.

If the rationale for arming the opposition is not so much to win the war as to weaken the government’s resistance to negotiation, it is arguable that the elements of a “hurting stalemate” are already in place, with more weapons likely to produce nothing but more fighting and more casualties. The pressure that has always mattered most for the Assad regime is that capable of being applied by Russia.

So where does that leave diplomatic pressure, and a diplomatic solution, always the most desirable way of preventing or ending a conflict if you can possibly make it work, and certainly my preferred option? A few weeks ago, with US Secretary of State Lavrov and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov meeting in Moscow and agreeing to jointly convene a diplomatic conference designed to end the carnage, there did seem grounds for hope, however difficult it was going to be to get the warring parties to the table and prepared to make any concessions.

I found it encouraging that the US seemed prepared itself to make one such very painful concession, and to try to urge this upon the rebels i.e. to accept a role for senior Assad regime members in a settlement: this has seemed to me for some time the key to unlocking the diplomatic door with Moscow in particular. Compromise can be anathema for purists, but it has always been the stuff of which peace is made. Maybe Moscow was motivated more by the prospect of Islamic extremism getting a further toehold near its southern borders than by any concern for human suffering, but at least the stars seemed to be aligning.

But now with the Assad regime in  a stronger position militarily, and the US for whatever reason backing away from any willingness to accommodate any continuing role for Assad, even just until the next presidential election due next year, the prospect of any diplomatic breakthrough seems as far away as ever.

For me, what I have found almost most painful about the  Syrian conflict is that the new international doctrine of the responsibility to protect, which I had a lot to do with creating, was supposed to prevent mass atrocity situations arising, or to stop them in their tracks when they did,  has been so spectacularly ineffective. 

The principle of R2P, unanimously agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2005, is that every state has the responsibility to protect its people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes; that other states have a responsibility to assist it to do – if it is willing to be assisted; but if prevention manifestly fails, and populations are at risk, then the international community has a collective responsibility to tak   timely and decisive collective action, by whatever means are necessary and appropriate. That principle has been successfully invoked elsewhere, including in support of diplomatic intervention in Kenya in 2008. It also underpinned Security Council-mandated military interventions in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 and, more recently, in Mali.

But the Security Council has utterly failed to apply the principle in Syria  - not only by refusing to contemplate endorsing any military action, which is perfectly understandable, but for a long time being reluctant to even condemn the violence, and by being utterly unwilling, back in 2011, at the height of the one-sided regime violence, when it could really have made a difference, to put the Assad regime under any pressure at all, e.g. by applying targeted sanctions, arms embargoes or threats of International Criminal Court prosecution.

There is a long and complicated argument going on about why the UNSC failed as it did, who is to blame, and what are the consequences for our capacity to respond to similar atrocity crimes in the future – to ensure that there are no more Libyas, no more Bosnias, no more Rwandas.  We can talk further about  these issues, and that argument, in the discussion period.

But for the moment I’m afraid I just have to leave you with the depressing conclusion that it is sometimes the case in international relations that just because there’s a problem, doesn’t mean that there is a solution.  And unhappily, it does seem that, for as far ahead as we can see, Syria is just such a case.