19th Mar 2018


Europe must take lead on protecting Syrian civilians

  • Obama's red line on chemical weapons was no line at all (Photo:

For more than five years Syria has been dying a slow, violent, and public death.

Syrian civilians have been the prime targets: by an Assad regime seeking to survive via collective punishment; by an Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) spawned by Assad regime terror; and by other armed groups. The results have been catastrophic.

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With Europe experiencing a migrant crisis traceable mainly to Syria, waiting any longer for American leadership to address the problem's source is risky. Paying Turkey to pen-up unwanted people is neither Europe's finest hour nor the answer to a crisis that may worsen.

President Barack Obama's statements early-on about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad stepping aside and chemical red lines not to be crossed led many Europeans to believe that Washington would lead decisively on Syria. It was not to be.

Yes, America's anti-ISIS coalition-building efforts have been considerable. Yes, we all encourage secretary of state John Kerry to bring a negotiated political transition from brutally corrupt family rule to democracy and pluralism. These endeavours merit full support.

But in five years not a single Syrian civilian inside Syria has been protected from the homicidal rampage of the Assad regime: not one. Are 5 million refugees, 7 million internally displaced, 200,000 dead, countless others terrorised, traumatised and maimed, tens of thousands of people rotting in regime prisons merely someone else's humanitarian problem?

Or is this the essence of the problem that now roils European politics and even crosses the ocean to North America?

Moral failure

There is moral failure and it is not Washington's alone. The transatlantic community has turned away from "never again" and "responsibility to protect." Moral failure, unsurprisingly, has political costs.

Excuses for inaction are many and not without trace elements of fact. Syria is complicated. Those who have rebelled against Assad are not all saints. Intervention – even well short of invasion, occupation, regime change and the like – is risky.

There is no military solution; mitigation of mass slaughter by limited military means cannot be decisive and is therefore useless.

What is happening is horrible, but essentially not our business. It is not genocide; only mass murder. Anything we do to try to protect people will only make things worse. Ancient hatreds are at work; we in the West can do little about such savagery.

None of these excuses is unprecedented. It is as if no one among our leaders has read US ambassador Samantha Power's brilliant account of 20th century Western failure in the face of governments murdering their citizens.

Yet consequences are unavoidable. Even those unmoved by horrors inflicted on innocents must measure the impact on Syria's neighbours and on ourselves. And as we grieve losses in Paris and Brussels let us consider the recruiting bonanza accruing to ISIS from Assad's mass homicide.

There are no easy cures for Syria. There are no clear pathways forward. Yet there is one certainty: no prospect for anything good happening as long as civilians remain targeted and unprotected.

In the case of ISIS, Kurds were protected in Kobani. In neighbouring Iraq Yazidis were protected in Sinjar. Only Assad operates with impunity against civilians: in their homes, hospitals, schools and mosques.

Absent genuine political transition, Syria's death spiral – accompanied by the steady emptying of the country – may continue indefinitely. Yet political transition cannot be mooted while mass murder continues.

Those, like Russia, who say that Assad – the barrel bomber who denies the existence of barrel bombs – should be part of a transition to democracy and pluralism use force of arms to bolster their case. Yes, their minds may change. Dare we bet on it?

The transatlantic community must focus on the source of the problem: mass murder in western Syria. Yes, ISIS must be destroyed, and soon. Clearly a professional ground combat force will be required. No doubt Europe can contribute.

Talks futile

But the problem's essence is civilian vulnerability to regime (and now Russian) aircraft, artillery, rockets and missiles.

Surely talks are essential. Yet negotiating while civilians are deliberately bombed and besieged is futile.

Rather than waiting for Washington to wake up to the political-diplomatic imperative of civilian protection, European political leaders and defence chiefs should stimulate an urgent transatlantic policy review and a professional evaluation of military steps that might mitigate mass murder and complicate the work of perpetrators: steps requiring neither invasion nor occupation.

There will be risks. Yet five years of attempted risk avoidance have yielded catastrophe. Europe is now on Syria's front line. If it wants America's help, it must take the lead. It may prove to be the start of a stronger transatlantic partnership.

Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is senior fellow at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank and a former US special advisor on transition in Syria


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