By Gerald Butt
THE overwhelming Western media coverage of the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe has also focused attention back to ways in which the crisis in that country might be resolved — by military or diplomatic means. Both options face huge obstacles, and neither can offer a guarantee of success.
The problem when weighing military action is that different international actors identify different allies. For example, both Russia and the United States agree on the need to contain and defeat Islamic State (IS) and other jihadists in Syria.
Russia believes this can be achieved most effectively by leaving President Assad and his regime in power in Damascus; the US, however, is backing the opposition groups that want to oust him.
Indeed, so great is Russia’s determination to keep a foothold in Syria that Western powers would need to think twice about taking military action there without consulting Moscow first — especially given recent reports of Russian troops fighting alongside Syrian government forces.
The most likely military move would be an extension to Syria of the current campaign of air strikes in Iraq. This is an option being considered by the British Government, and one that has considerable backing.
Lord Carey, writing in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, said that “there must be renewed military and diplomatic efforts to crush the twin menaces of Islamic State and al-Qaeda once and for all. Make no mistake: this may mean air strikes and other British military assistance to create secure and safe enclaves in Syria.”
But the Iraqi experience, backed more recently by events in Yemen, proves that aerial bombardments and drone attacks alone are not sufficient to win wars. Gaining democratic support in London, Washington, or any other major capital for the deployment of troops in Syria seems to be out of the question.
While further drone strikes, or even a limited air campaign, are possible, there is an emerging consensus among most of the parties concerned with Syria that some innovative kind of political compromise needs to be found, both to end the fighting and to create a new united country that is governed neither by President Assad nor IS. At the same time, the parties agree that achieving this presents a formidable diplomatic challenge.
Russia, supported by Iran, is taking the lead in trying to co-ordinate diplomatic moves. Although no firm plan has yet taken shape, several Arab and Western governments are involved in preliminary discussions.
These are focusing on Mr Assad’s retaining the presidency for an interim period before stepping down and going into exile — but not, Western governments insist, on his own terms. Russia would be key in implementing this crucial, and arguably most difficult, stage of any plan.
Along with Mr Assad, the thinking goes, other significant figures in the regime would also be required to step down. But the huge problem here is where the line would be drawn and how to remove the regime’s key players without destroying the governing structure — that is, avoiding a repeat of what happened in Iraq post-2003.
Another difficulty will be bringing the fractured opposition on board. The various groups battling the Assad regime are wary of the motives of the US and other Western countries. They point to recent indications of a shift towards the idea of leaving a modified version of the current regime in power, rather than overthrowing it, as a sign that the West might in the end betray the opposition.
With neither military nor diplomatic options offering a swift solution to the Syria crisis, it is certain that many more Syrians — Christians as well as Muslims — will try to find a home elsewhere, northern Europe being the favoured destination.
But the reality is that tens of thousands of Iraqis, Libyans, and Yemenis are also looking for new and secure homes in other countries. They are lining up with thousands of Afghans, sub-Saharan Africans, and others trying to reach Europe.
Dealing with refugee crises by seeking to eliminate the factors that force people to flee in the first place is the only long-term solution. This is perhaps the next global challenge facing all the world’s major powers — and it is one that we turn away from at our peril.