A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Koert Debeuf Visiting research fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at the University of Oxford
Maybe, with the support of the next U.S. president.
The West could have saved Syria and hundreds of thousands of lives by installing a no-fly zone over northern and southern Syria in 2011. It also could have saved Syria in 2013 by attacking Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a response to his use of chemical weapons. But the West didn’t—because U.S. President Barack Obama didn’t want to.
As the West didn’t do anything in Syria, others filled the gap. ISIS took control of large parts of the country. Russia and Iran took over the Syrian army and the Syrian intelligence forces. Russia is bombing the Syrian population on a daily basis, while working on scam peace conferences in Geneva. And U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t have the power to do something about it.
The only chance left for the West to play a role saving Syria will be the upcoming U.S. presidential elections in November. Once elected, the new U.S. president can make clear that she or he will install a no-fly zone on rebel areas that are not ISIS territory. If that happens, Europe will follow suit. Those first few weeks in office will be the only window for the next U.S. president, and the West, to save Syria.
Michele Dunne Director and senior associate of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Five years into the horrific Syrian struggle, there seem to be more reasons than ever for why the West cannot resolve the conflict. From the beginning, there was an obvious imbalance between the commitment shown by supporters of the Syrian regime and the ambivalence of supporters of the opposition. Bolstering an existing government, however brutal and unpopular, was far simpler than fostering an alternative—which Turkey and the Arab states could not do without serious help from the West. Since then, the rise of ISIS in 2013 and Russia’s military intervention in 2015 have raised the risks of opposing the regime exponentially.
And yet… is it not true that at some point the West will be called upon to help rebuild Syria and allow as many as possible of the country’s nearly 5 million refugees to return? If so, then the choice the West faces—even now—is simply this: pay the bill for a set of affairs in Syria determined by Russia and Iran, which the West fears will perpetuate rather than end conflict, or activate the West’s role to shape a solution with a better chance of leading to a positive future for Syrians.
Joost Hiltermann Program director, Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group
The “West” would do well to save itself before it starts contemplating new interventions in the Middle East, North Africa, and elsewhere. Internal rifts and structural weaknesses in both Europe and the United States have led to a marked decline in Western influence.
Nowhere has this been more on display than in Syria, where the conflict’s gradual metastasizing has drawn in a panoply of external actors. Among these, the United States remains important but it cannot dictate terms. Washington sometimes appears at daggers drawn even with its erstwhile great regional ally, Turkey; has to jockey for strategic influence with Iran; and has had to cede much political ground to Russia.
If “Syria” (presumably meaning the state within existing boundaries) is to be “saved,” the United States will need to strike a deal with at least Russia over the terms—and this will entail painful compromises. The Vienna process and cessation of hostilities pointed the way, but they need to be invested with fresh energies, probably by a new U.S. administration. Absent such a deal, Syria will disintegrate further, and even if the Islamic State and Syria’s Al-Qaeda offshoot are defeated, they will likely metamorphose into more virulent forms if no realistic governing alternative is established.
Salam Kawakibi Deputy director of the Arab Reform Initiative
To be clear, the answer is no.
The role of the West, in the case of Syria, is limited to the United States. Europe is essentially an NGO with more significant resources. But EU foreign policy on Syria is nonexistent and every member state approaches its own Syrian file based on two issues: refugees and terrorism. The rest—essentially linked to the ongoing slaughter in Syria—is left to the Americans, which the United States has delegated to Russia and, indirectly, to Iran.
“Headway” is reportedly being made in talks between the United States and Russia on finding a solution to the Syria war. Actually, an agreement, even if it does not yet exist on paper, already exists in practice. Even though Moscow initially predicted that its military role in Syria would be over in three months, September 2016 will mark one year since the Russian intervention in Syria, with all that this implies in terms of human and material costs.
Russia is trying to impose itself as the “game master” in Syria, which appears to be very easy role to assume given America’s passiveness and Europe’s absence. Added to this, the West’s catastrophic management of the attempted coup in Turkey has strengthened Moscow’s position by pushing Ankara to shift its own Syrian policy.
Lina Khatib Head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House
The West has played a significant role in taking Syria to the point of no return.
The Syrian opposition is dwindling on the ground, largely because of inadequate support by the West, whether military or otherwise. The UN-led political process is stagnant, partly because there has not been Western leadership on the Syria file. And Russia has escalated its intervention because the West’s retreat left the door wide open for Moscow to try to use Syria as a way to assert itself internationally.
A few years ago, the West had a greater opportunity to save Syria. Today, the political, economic, and military costs have risen exponentially. The longer the conflict continues, the higher the cost will be to the West.
Russia’s intervention has already shifted the balance of power so that no resolution to the conflict can happen without Western compromise. Without Western leadership, Russia will eventually set the agenda in Syria altogether. But Western action on this front depends on how much of a priority Syria is vis-à-vis other files. Ultimately, the West can only save Syria if the West chooses to. The bottom line remains Western political will.
Stefan Meister Head of program on Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations
The West is not saving Syria. Instead, it looks like Moscow is saving Assad and parts of the Syrian state.
Russian-Turkish reconciliation, the opportunity for the Russian Air Force to use Iranian bases for its bombers, and the lack of Western—particularly U.S.—ownership in the Syrian conflict has opened increasing opportunities for Moscow to become a key player in the region. As a result, there is a growing dependency of the West on Russia regarding the situation in the Middle East, but without sufficient Russian resources to fill this role.
Yet Russia neither has the know-how nor the interest to pacify Syria and rebuild a Syrian state. Turkish-Russian cooperation will soon reach its limits, in part because of the Kurdish question. Opportunities for a Russian-Iran axis are also limited. Therefore, as long as the West is not willing to do more in Syria, Russia will increase its international prestige, more people will die in Syria, and the West will finally have to accept Assad as part of any Russian conditions attached to any peace deal.
This scenario will eventually be a tactical victory for Putin—and a very costly moral defeat of the West—but it will not lead to the end of the Syrian civil war any time soon.
Kati Piri Member of the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs
Given the situation in Syria, where many different actors—including Russia—are involved, the “West” cannot save Syria on its own. However, the West does have an important responsibility facilitating the peace process. The Geneva peace talks are a crucial platform for the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) to find a long-lasting political solution to the conflict.
In the short term, however, the West should use its powers to pressure the enforcement of a ceasefire so that crucial and urgent humanitarian aid can be delivered across Syria, particularly following the most recent appalling attacks on hospitals in the country. Political pressure—from the United Nations, for example—has been effective in some cases, but should be enhanced.
Regrettably, the Assad regime has often blocked access to vulnerable people in need, which is unacceptable and in disregard of international and humanitarian law. While a slightly successful but geographically limited ceasefire was enforced earlier this year, a more sustainable stop to the fighting is urgently needed for the country as a whole.
Gianni Riotta Member of the Council on Foreign Relations
There is no Syria left to “save.” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fulfilled his regime’s awful promise to “fight until the end.” He was not Mubarak.
America and Europe’s options to save Syria vanished in the summer of 2013 when the British parliament, the Pope, and pacifists all over the world managed to stop U.S. President Barack Obama’s lukewarm attempt to enforce his own “red line” after Assad gassed his own citizens. Europe remained focused on its own troubles, America kept fighting its internecine wars, and now it is too late for either to play a key role in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin stepped boldly into the vacuum and Russia is now a Mediterranean Sea power.
Hundreds of thousands of casualties, millions of refugees, an immigration wave that is fueling populism in Europe, and loss of prestige for the EU and America. Assad may eventually join other dictators in exile, Putin may extract a bargain from the next American president, ISIS may be beaten on the field, but “Syria” is gone. We can pray to God that what comes next will allow Syrians the time and the chance to heal, but it will take decades before this sea of innocent blood is forgotten.
Ulrich Speck Independent foreign policy analyst and writer
The West could have saved Syria but it was not willing to pay the price. U.S. President Barack Obama, the West's commander-in-chief, was elected to move America out of the morass of conflicts in the Middle East. He has been largely successful in that undertaking.
Today, the United States is just one of many outside actors in Syria—and it is not the strongest (that’s Russia.) All of these external players have their own particular geopolitical and ideological agendas and all use the Syrian conflict to advance them. There is no player whose priority is to “save Syria.”
EU countries who suffer considerably from the spillover of the conflict—receiving waves of refugees and facing homegrown terrorists who feel encouraged by ISIS—are in no position to influence what is happening on the ground. The only way for the EU to play a role in Syria would be as a junior partner to the United States. But where the United States does not lead, Europe cannot follow.
Shimon Stein Senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University
This question implies there is a “West” that has a clear and common position on the current situation and future of “Syria,” which I doubt. And assuming that the “West” had a common position, it does not necessarily mean that the “West” would be able and willing to do whatever it takes to impose its solution on the ground. But there is no “West.”
What we have seen instead is an American administration that, under President Barack Obama, has shown no determination in recent years to take the leadership, let alone invest the resources, needed to set the ground to reach a political solution to the crisis in Syria—a crisis that has so far taken a huge humanitarian toll with far-reaching regional implications. As to the other part of the “West,” namely, the EU: aside from its humanitarian assistance, the EU plays (in the words of Marc Pierini) a “second-tier position” in the Syrian crisis at best.
Against this background, the days that during which the “West” could have “saved” Syria (whatever that may mean?) are gone. At best, the “West”—together with Russia (which has emerged as an essential factor in any future solution in Syria due to the “West’s” lack of the determination), Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—can help reach a ceasefire that will hopefully pave the way for a political solution. Currently, even that scenario looks beyond reach.
Stephen Szabo Executive director of the Transatlantic Academy
The West cannot save Syria, but it can save Syrian lives and provide some stability to parts of the country. Unfortunately, there are no signs that it is about to do so.
What the West can do is provide safe havens in those parts of Syria that are not under governmental control by creating no-fly zones and then deliver humanitarian and security assistance in those areas. This will require an American-led coalition and the type of robust response the West demonstrated in Benghazi. This commitment would include shooting down aircraft entering the safe zones.
However, unlike the Libya case, the West should make no attempt at regime change and should work with both Putin and Assad to stabilize a partitioned Syria. The EU, which has a vital stake in stabilizing refugee flows from Syria, should provide massive humanitarian and development assistance, including the construction of refugee centers.
None of this will happen without strong American leadership. Given the Obama administration's continuing reluctance to play such a role, the best that can be hoped for is that a new Clinton administration takes on the task.