Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations – By Nikolaos van Dam

Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations
By Nikolaos van Dam*
Delivered at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, 19 May 2014
Discussion series “Understanding Syria”. Discussion 3: German and European policy towards Syria: “Look the other way and wait as a strategy?

In my view there are two main ways of ending the conflict in Syria:

1. Further negotiations between the regime and the predominantly secular opposition groups. (Although I am aware that negotiations with the al-Asad regime may not yield much in the end, I do believe negotiations should be attempted more seriously than they have been so far in a proper effort to prevent further bloodshed).

2. To continue the present internal war until one side can claim victory.
For the secular opposition groups to win militarily, they need to be properly armed, but the West does not provide them with enough military support to achieve this. Al-Asad’s chances of winning the war have increased and Islamic extremist forces are now overpowering the predominantly secular opposition forces. The worse the situation becomes, the more the al-Asad regime starts to be seen as an option to be preferred over the radical Islamic state that the Islamist forces want to establish. If al-Asad does win this war, however, it will not be the end of this drama. For sooner or later there will be a reckoning against the al-Asad regime and its crimes against humanity. Therefore, negotiations are the better option, both for him and the opposition.

The Western approach to the Syrian uprising has from the very beginning been dominated by an overdose of wishful thinking, because precedence was given to supposedly democratic and moralistic ideals over realpolitik. Many Western politicians based their positions on their day-to-day domestic political reflexes, rather than on the long-term vision and result-oriented pragmatism that is needed to work towards genuinely helping to solve the conflict. Most Western politicians became fixated on the idea that the conflict could only be resolved if al-Asad was removed from power. They had clear thoughts about what they did not want, but no realistic ideas of what they wanted in al-Asad’s place. Yes, they wanted a democracy, but a violent deposal of al-Asad could not realistically have been expected to result in such a desired peaceful democracy.

Al-Asad never had any intention to leave. On the contrary, he intends to overcome the revolution and win the battle for Syria, whatever the costs. And the higher the costs, the more there is a will to continue the struggle, if only to prevent all the victims from having died in vain. It appears to be all or nothing for both al-Asad’s regime and the opposition movements; at least for the time being, as long as there is no war fatigue.

We should not expect any mercy in the way al-Asad’s regime deals with its opponents: there will be no pardon for the massive armed revolutionary opposition groups that are trying to topple the regime. It is to kill or be killed. A compromise has, as of yet, not really come in sight because a real compromise between the opposition and the regime, with real power sharing and substantial political reforms could be the prelude to the fall of the Ba’th regime later on.

If the regime were to be toppled, its leaders can expect certain execution, and the key figures of the al-Asad regime which have been recruited from the Alawi community can expect to be in severe danger, just like the Alawi community itself, even though this community contains many opponents to the Alawi dominated Ba’th regime. It would be naive to expect President al-Asad to sign his own death warrant.

By branding the rule of President al-Asad as illegitimate, Western countries may have been morally just, but they thereby prematurely cut off any opportunity they had to play a constructive role in helping find a political solution to the crisis. What should have priority: being morally correct or helping find a solution?

Many Western countries considered it politically inappropriate to continue to directly communicate with the al-Asad regime, since they did not want to be seen as condoning its methods. They did not want to be seen as being lenient or compromising their morality in any way with al-Asad’s forces, who already had the blood of hundreds of lives on their hands during the early stages of the revolution in 2011.

Three years after the beginning of the revolution, however, once it became apparent that the regime was much stronger than anticipated, and more than 125.000 dead had fallen, Western countries conceded that they needed to return to the idea of political dialogue, by helping organize the Geneva II conference in 2014. Iran was not allowed to participate in Geneva II, although it might have played a constructive role in trying to convince the Syrian regime to change its position.

In general, as the examples of excluding the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran from serious negotiations in other conflict situations have shown, it is a grave mistake to exclude main players in a conflict from dialogue aimed at solving it. Such exclusion achieves nothing, and only contributes to postponing a solution and allowing further bloodshed.

Imposing sanctions in the first year of the revolution with the aim of hitting the hard core of the regime, whilst simultaneously wanting to spare the population from its negative effects, turned out to be illusionary, as could have been predicted on the basis of earlier experiences with boycotts and sanctions elsewhere (e.g. in Iraq). The wishful thinkers hoped that al-Asad would step down once enough pressure had been exercised by the countries condemning him, but dictators do not follow the rules of democratic accountability and decency. Additionally, sanctions that are not accompanied by dialogue or communication generally fail to achieve their intended aim.

Most Western countries closed their embassies in Damascus, thereby further cutting off any opportunities they may have had to engage with the regime, and to maintain a good understanding of internal Syrian developments. The closing of these embassies was meant to send a message of strongest condemnation to al-Asad from the European community, but the symbolism was probably wasted on the Syrian President, who is unlikely to have lost any sleep over the withdrawal of the Western community.

I do not want to argue that if Western efforts for dialogue with the Syrian regime had been taken up much more seriously at an early stage, there would have been any guarantee of success, but it should at the very least have been attempted. At an earlier stage, when much less blood had been shed, compromise would have been much less difficult to reach than it is now.

In its seemingly unwavering conviction that the opposition would be preferable to al-Asad, it was also overlooked that the al-Asad regime is supported by a substantial part of the Syrian population, perhaps some 30 per cent or more, including part of the Arabic speaking minorities (like the Alawis, Christians and Druze). This support should not be interpreted as the existence of real sympathy for the regime, but rather as the prevalent feeling among many that an alternative regime could be even worse. Many Syrians for the time being prefer to preserve their livelihoods under the existing dictatorship rather than having their livelihoods, their shops and spare sources of income and belongings destroyed as a result of the internal war, let alone having themselves and their families be killed. Many are just as, if not more, afraid of what the opposition could bring as they are of the regime’s way of ruling before.

Does the West still have options to help solve the conflict?

– Western military intervention with “boots on the ground” seems to be out of the question. There is no political appetite for it. When the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Summer 2013, thereby crossing president Obama’s so-called “red lines”, neither the US nor the UK reacted militarily although it had been suggested they would. This seriously undermined Western credibility and demonstrated that their moral threats had no teeth.

– The West’s declared aim to arm the opposition, thereby strengthening their chances of winning the war, seems to have been restricted mainly to non-lethal weapons. It is, however, impossible to win a war with non-lethal weapons. When the EU arms embargo against Syria had been lifted at the insistence of the UK and France in 2013, there was – contrary to expectation – no real change as far as arms deliveries to the opposition were concerned. It turned out that there was no political will to really arm any part of the opposition, even the predominantly secular side. Questions were raised around which of the many opposition groups should be armed and with what aim, as the West obviously wanted to avoid an Islamic extremist dictatorship at all costs. But was there any guarantee that arms provided to others would not end up in their hands? What the West clearly wants to see is a moderate democratic secular pluralist successor regime, but is such a regime a serious possibility? I don’t think it is a realistic prospect; at least not in the foreseeable future.

– The rationale behind delivering arms might also be to provide a counterweight to the regime, strong enough to help force a negotiated settlement. For that to happen, both sides should be convinced that this would be the best, or least bad option. The question remains, however, whether the party that thinks it can win the battle is prepared to negotiate, except perhaps for tactical reasons. Western politicians may continue to pay lip service to the secular opposition, but as long as they do not provide them with the necessary means to win the battle, their moral support has hardly any value. While clearing their political conscience by expressing support for the opposition, they are, in reality, unintentionally helping al-Asad move towards victory.

– In order to play a role in helping achieve a solution, Western contacts need to be maintained with both sides, not just with the opposition. Syrian National Coalition offices could for instance be welcomed in European capitals, as was recently done in the US. It should be clear, however, that such a move would presently be not much more than moral support. At the same time, direct contacts with the Syrian regime should be continued or reestablished.

– Various EU-leaders have on several occasions called for the imposition of no-fly zones in Syria to protect the opposition and population from air-based regime attacks, but nothing has come of this. This may partly be due to the fact that imposing a no-fly zone implies direct war with the Syrian regime.

-The setting up of humanitarian corridors to help the population gain access to food aid has turned out to be unsuccessful as well. Although the relevant Security Council resolution was passed in February 2014, this has so far been no more than a success on paper.

– Most actions by the West have been reactive, with no clearly defined plan or aim for the future beyond removing President al-Asad and his regime from power. The absence of this type of analysis is surprising, particularly given the fact that a future regime could, for example if it were to be a radical Islamist dictatorship, turn out to be worse than the current regime.

– Most Western policies have been no more than declaratory, with few tangible positive results on the ground for the opposition. Supposedly, the good intentions that were widely expressed, were generally not followed up by concrete actions, because the Western countries had their hands tied politically.

A key question that has run throughout debates around the Syrian crisis has been: do we want justice? The answer is, yes, of course, but at which cost? It is easy to say that president al-Asad should be tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. So he should. But does that help us in finding a solution? I would say it does not. Let us make no illusions. The idea that Al-Asad would ever be able to leave Syria alive for such a court case, is extremely unrealistic.

Calling for justice is good in itself, as is the documenting of all the war crimes that have been committed. This has to be done, of course, but not over and above efforts to proactively work towards finding a solution and preventing the further bloodshed that will undoubtedly continue if no serious negotiations are facilitated among Syria’s various clashing factions. The call for justice needs to be a part of wider efforts to create peace, focusing on Syria moving forward, rather than merely focusing on the punishment of those that are guilty for the crimes against the Syrian people committed in the recent past. A solution must be found before justice can be done. It cannot be the other way around.

The West should stop raising false expectations, as it has so often done in the past, and adopt an attitude of result-oriented pragmatism in an effort to really help solve the conflict.

* Nikolaos van Dam is the author of The Struggle for Political Power in Syria and former ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia.

Comments (56)

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51. ghufran said:

Most Americans are not comfortable seeing resources and political capital, and may be lives, being invested in what they see as a civil war between a brutal dictatorship and a militant Islamist rebel movement, what has changed is the emergence of a bigger opposition to providing support for rebels but that is exactly what some people in the US government are trying to do.
I see the piece on PBS as a sign that the anti war camp is upset and wants the uninformed average American to know that their CIA and even their President are saying something but doing the opposite, I do not believe the US government has censorship authority over PBS except in matters that are considered top national security secrets, PBS is simply doing its job here.
What is the next step?
Write to key Congressmen and newspapers and share the PBS piece with everybody who may be interested and expose the unethical and counterproductive work championed by certain elements in the US Congress and the CIA which will undoubtedly harm our interests as US citizens and increase the risk of creating a larger and more lethal terrorist movement among Jihadists in Syria who will copy the behavior of Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
It is weird that only 4 days after I posted a suggested letter (to be sent to Congress)about the subject that we see this report from PBS. Our politicians will never learn, but I truly believe US public opinion this time will make it very hard for any US president to engage US troops and assets in any foreign war unless the US is attacked, the outrageous part is that the CIA Syrian rebels program will do just that: give religious zealots and Islamist terrorists another chance to attack the hand that feeds them.

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May 28th, 2014, 6:30 pm


52. Observer said:

99.99999999% of Americans like me do not give a rat’s ass about Syria or the ME.

The problem is beyond solving. The idea is to prolong the war and destroy as much of the ME as possible either by neglect, outright mismanagement, folly of invasion, folly of setting red lines that are not enforced, stupidity of thinking that you can withdraw from the world and not have this blow back, madness to try to tame a world that does not want to be tamed, nation building in tribal societies, or to have a discourse with either Shia or Sunni Islam as they descend in front of our eyes into the abyss.

I vote for complete withdrawal from the region starting with complete cessation of all forms of cooperation and support to the Theocratic State of Israeli Apartheid.

They chose to build their fortress there, let them deal with it.

As for the regime and the rebels, the fools think that there is such two entities. There are Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Fanatic Sunnis running the show.

If you do not admit to this new reality you must be living in lala land.

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May 28th, 2014, 6:49 pm


53. Amir in Tel Aviv said:

I highly recommend watching Obama’s speech at West Point from today.

Except from the part about America’s “exceptionalism”, it’s very sane and makes a lot of sense.

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May 28th, 2014, 8:01 pm


54. Jasmine said:

GHUFRAN is going to like this poem:
اخرقصيدة لأحمد فؤاد نجم
إلى الأمة العربية ، بعد الـ ” طُز ” لم يعُد يليق بكِ التحية
ما أخبار فلسطين؟ .. شعبٌ بلا وطن .. وطنٌ بلا هوية
ما أخبار لبنان؟ ملهى ليلي كراسيه خشبية وطاولته طائفية
ما أخبار سوريا؟ تكالبت عليها سكاكين الهمجية
ما أخبار العراق؟ بلد الموت اللذيذ والرحلة فيه مجانية
ما أخبار الأردن؟ لا صوت ولا صورة والإشارة فيه وطنية
ما أخبار مصر؟ عروس بعد الثورة ضاجعها الإخوانجية
ما أخبار ليبيا؟ بلد تحوّل إلى معسكرات أسلحة وأفكار قبلية
ما أخبار تونس؟ إنتعل رئاستها مهرّج بدعوى الديمقراطية
ما أخبار المغرب؟ إنتسب إلى مجلس خليجي باسم الملكيّة
ما أخبار الصومال؟ عِلْمها عند الله الذي لا تخفى عنه خفيّة
ما أخبار السودان؟ صارت بلَدان والخير خيران باسم الحرية
ما أخبار اليمن؟ صالحها مسافر وطالحها كافر وشعبها قضيّة منسيّة
ما أخبار عُمان؟ بلد بكل صدق لا تسمع عنه إلا في النشرات الجوية
ما أخبار السعودية؟ أرض تُصدّر التمر و زادت عليه الأفكار الوهابية
ما أخبار الإمارات؟ قبوّ سري جميل تُحاك فيه كل المؤامرات السرية
ما أخبار الكويت؟ صارت ولاية عربية من الولايات المتحدة الأمريكية
ما أخبار البحرين؟ شعب يموت ولا أحد يذكره في خطاباته النارية
ما أخبار قطر؟ عرابّة الثورات وخنجر الخيانات ومطبخ للأمبريالية
إلى الأمة العربية ، بعد الـ ” طُز ” لم يعُد يليق بكِ التحية

لم يعد يليق بكِ سوى النعيق والنهيق على أحلامك الوردية
لم يعد يليق بكِ سوى أن تكوني سجادة تدوس عليها الأقدام الغربية
لم يعد يليق بكِ شعارات الثورة حين صار ربيعك العربي مسرحية
لم يعد يليق بكِ الحرية حين صارت صرخاتك كلها في الساحة دموية
لم يعد يليق بكِ أن تصرخي بالإسلام وتهمتكِ بالأصل أنكِ إرهابية
لم يعد يليق بك يا أمة مؤتمراتها مؤامرات وكلامها تفاهات وقراراتها وهمية
لم يعد يليق بكِ التحية .. يا أمة دفنت كرامتها وعروبتها تحت التراب
وهي حيّة !!!

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May 28th, 2014, 11:23 pm


55. Juergen said:

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May 28th, 2014, 11:33 pm


56. Mina said:

Probably real news should be sought for here rather than on PBS
(for public BS…?)
Moderate rebels were known to collaborate at times with Al Qaeda in their fight against the regime. Can you describe how the current split between these two groups occurred in the south of Syria?

For a long time the moderates, if we call them the moderates and the FSA, and some more moderate Islamist brigades, have been very keen to downplay the presence of and the role of Jabhat Al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They were very, very much at pains to say that Al Nusra was really not a major player, that they had a small presence that was not significant and they would sometimes piggy-back on operations and claim the credit for it. They’d also stress that ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group so extreme that even Al Qaeda kicked it out, they also don’t really have a presence in Deraa. So it was long seen as very much a moderate front.

That view has collapsed, almost over the past several weeks, with Al Nusra really announcing its presence there by kidnapping a Free Syrian Army officer, a senior officer called Ahmed Nehmeh. He was a key link between the Free Syrian Army and their foreign backers in terms of weapons supplies and cash and so on to rebel brigades inside Syria. Al Nusra kidnapped him and forced a confession out of him. Basically, they said they are going to put him on trial. They refused to negotiate over that.
Deraa is a fiercely, proudly, almost tribal area. They call themselves big families not tribes. They pride themselves in having links to the West and links to the Gulf and education and not being religious extremists. And yet this element of religious extremism has crept in there. A lot of that has to do with Jordanian, Saudi, and Libyan emirs who have gone in as foreign fighters and taken the lead of Al Nusra in the south. So most of the rank and file, which might be about 2,000 fighters, are local guys. The moderates say these are local guys, they are not Al Qaeda ideologically. They are our brothers and sons and nephews and none of them know who the Al Qaeda leadership is and they really don’t care about fighting the Americans or fighting the Israelis. They are very much fighting the regime. But the ideological leadership of Al Nusra in the south is very much Al Qaeda.

What is the secret military command centre in Jordan that seems to be giving weapons and military advice to the rebels?

It’s known as the MOC by rebels, which stands for military operations command, which seems to be a very Western piece of military jargon. It’s basically general intelligence directorate headquarters in Amman, effectively the head of Jordanian secret services. Apparently there is an operations room there, where a dozen or so military officers from a dozen or so countries, including the US and Gulf countries and some EU states, sit there and advise the FSA on it’s military operations and supply them with weapons and cash. Right down to the point if FSA bridges want to launch an operation they will go in with their plans and run them by these military experts from various supporting countries, who will then say you should tweak this part of the plan, you need more men, you need certain weapons to do this. They’ll advise them whether or not to go ahead with it and whether or not they’ve got the resources to do so.

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June 1st, 2014, 12:02 pm


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