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Syria — nothing but endless dilemmas

by David Howell

Sometimes there are international issues just too complicated to explain or unravel and which leave policymakers completely baffled. The current situation in Syria is a good example. It is becoming ever harder to work out who is on whose side, who should be backing whom, and to what end.

A few examples of the impossible di lemmas:

The Western allies have taken a poor view of President Bashar Assad all along, regarding him as an oppressive tyrant who gasses his own citizens and ought to be ejected if Syria is ever to settle down again. But the murderous Islamic State movement (IS) has been an even bigger threat to order, human values and international peace and stability, and Assad, along with his allies, has been a major force against IS. He is also seen as the protector of the Christian minority in Syria against more violent Islamic hostility and oppression.

So should he and his well-equipped forces be supported, left to get on with it, or attacked?

Iran is the enemy to many Arab countries friendly with the West, and also the bane of Israel, which it publicly proclaims it wants to destroy. It is pouring arms into neighboring Syria, to Israel’s fury, as well as arming both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are firing missiles into Saudi Arabia and generally disrupting life throughout the region. But Iran, too, is the sworn enemy of IS, and of the Taliban, who are once again sweeping over Afghanistan.

So is Iran the enemy to be attacked, further sanctioned and isolated, or supported, or at least left to get on with its activities — on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Western countries, including Britain, have been strongly supporting the Kurdish militia with both arms and training, as they battle against IS and against Assad, and against the Turks. But to Turkey the Kurds are anathema and need to be crushed. Turkish weapons have already killed a British woman fighting with the Kurds. Yet Turkey is supposed to be a strong NATO ally of the West, and is also opposed to Assad and backing the rebels. So here we have our ally attacking our friends.

Just whose side are we supposed to be on?

And on whose side exactly is Russia? In Syria, Russia strongly supports Assad and is against both IS and all other so-called rebels. Elsewhere in the world, the Russians are strongly hostile to the West, disregarding the rule of law, deploying nerve agents in Britain and of course grabbing Crimea and stirring up violent action in Ukraine. So does the West work with or against Russia in Syria? And can anyone agree on who the rebels and terrorists are?

Perhaps most puzzling of all, the Western allies have been strong supporters of the Syrian rebels (the Syrian Free Army) all along, on the grounds that it would turn out Assad and bring a democratic spring to Syria. This proved to be badly wrong. Worse still, the Syrian rebels have split and become entangled with other anti-Assad forces — such as al-Qaida, Nusra Front and all manner of other jihadi terror factions and cells — most of them in fact deadly enemies of the West and who have already visited murder and bloodshed on the streets of many Western capitals. So are these still the right allies to have in Syria, on the grounds that they hate Assad? No one knows the answer to that one either!

Good diplomats are of course trained to face both ways and to live with contradictions. But here we have a situation in which violence, slaughter, betrayal and repression seem to lie in every direction and whichever way one turns.

In both Geneva and Astana rival peace talks have stumbled on — peace talks without peacemakers and often without the relevant attendees.

Perhaps the beginning of wisdom would be to see that this is not a conundrum for the West alone, as always used to be assumed in the heyday of American and Atlantic hegemony (and, before that, of British imperialism), but a problem for the entire connected globe, including the rising powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

There is now a universal interest in preventing humanitarian disasters, in exercising some responsibility to protect populations from massacre, in halting obvious war crimes and of course in preventing disputes from escalating into hideous new forms of conflict, such as chemical and biological warfare. Above all, there is common global interest in preventing escalation into the use of nuclear weapons, small or large. Once nuclear weapons start flying around then nobody, no nation, no society on Earth, is protected.

If the United Nations was a modern structure, reflecting today’s power realities, this is where it would come in as peace enforcer. Instead it is almost powerless and left to do heroic (and dangerous) work rescuing civilians from flattened neighborhoods.

Even if the world came together in the right spirit, it would not of course solve the Syrian horror anytime soon. But at least it would prevent the antagonisms and international rivalries of the last century, and of the Cold War era, from spilling over into the infinitely more complex issues that now bedevil the 21st century. And that would be a start.

David Howell is a Conservative politician, journalist and economic consultant. He is chairman of the House of Lords International Relations Committee.