US President Donald Trump has been widely criticised for his supposed fawning performance in Helsinki at the summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But a minority of commentators have made three countervailing arguments to explain and justify Trump’s statements: preventing a US–Russia nuclear war by calming bilateral tensions that have arisen from the dangerous infection of Russophobia is a transcendental goal that should override all other considerations; if the main strategic rival in the foreseeable future is going to be China, then improving relations with Russia is a strategic move on the geopolitical chessboard; and Russian cooperation is essential to extricating the US from the mess created by the Obama administration’s pursuit of incoherent and inconsistent goals in the Middle East.
So, what if the road to the Syrian hell was paved with the good intentions of liberal humanitarians motivated to act in defence of innocent civilians being massacred in Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown? More starkly still, what if the US-led West (including Australia) had stayed completely out of the Syrian civil war, limiting expressions of abhorrence to strong diplomatic protests? Assad would have triumphed sooner rather than later, but with significantly lower loss of life. Does the West then bear any moral responsibility—not primary, but partial—for the higher humanitarian toll? Or is virtuous intent proof against such tough self-questioning, simply denying the reality of what David Kennedy called The dark sides of virtue (2005)?
Taking sides in the battle to topple dictators who don’t kowtow to Washington’s moral compass is the modern-day equivalent of the white man’s burden that Kipling extolled. Tragically, external interference prolonged, intensified and widened the conflict—and civilian casualties and agony—without dislodging Assad from power. Had the West resisted the temptation to get involved on the side of the rebels, the numbers killed and displaced as the price of Assad prevailing would have been considerably fewer and the scale of the refugee crisis engulfing Europe would have been significantly smaller.
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. It rapidly descended into a vicious civil war, first with a savage crackdown by Assad, then with the influx of freedom fighters, jihadists and mercenaries from all over, and finally with the growing involvement of regional and global powers on rival sides, each with its own agenda. The Sunni/Shia and Arab/non-Arab divisions also intersect in Syria’s civil war. No one knows how many militias are active there, or their strength, allegiances and external patrons.
The US was adamant that Assad had to go, but Russia, backed by China, insisted that the rebels also had to renounce violence and that only an inclusive Syrian political process could resolve the crisis. The anti-Assad forces rapidly morphed and fragmented into increasingly radicalised groups fighting to establish an Islamist regime after Assad’s ousting. The laws of war were violated by all sides.
The seven-year civil war has cost half a million lives (plus two million wounded) and produced the biggest mass population shift of internally displaced persons and refugees—about half of Syria’s pre-2011 total population—in recent decades. Millions have grown to adulthood without experiencing childhood. Physical, social and health infrastructure has been gutted and many priceless historical treasures deserving of the ‘common heritage of mankind’ label destroyed.
Had the stakes been high enough, Western powers could have gone in with a full-fledged invasion force, effected yet another regime change and installed a West-leaning government dedicated to instilling a liberal democratic order that respects the rule of law and promotes human rights norms. Coalition forces tried that in Afghanistan and Iraq with little success. Western forces proved highly efficient at winning the initial war but incapable of securing the peace and became bogged down instead. Western publics lack the stomach for yet another Middle Eastern quagmire where liberators become occupiers, initially grateful natives turn on them as jihadist influence takes deep root, and anarchy is let loose.
A second option would have been to launch air strikes on Assad’s forces to support a rebel offensive to capture the key institutions of government. Following the defeat of the ruling regime, a coalition of anti-Assad forces would form an interim government pending internationally observed elections, and peace and good governance would prevail. Unfortunately, that approach didn’t work out too well in Libya. And Syria had a far greater potential to fragment and collapse into a sectarian bloodbath involving more numerous and vicious militias than their Libyan counterparts as the centre failed to hold and the state withered away.
The policy actually pursued was to encourage anti-Assad forces, give them arms, money and training, and back them diplomatically in international discourse, but without crossing the line into coordinating bombing raids with them against government targets. The returns on this form of investment in ‘moderate’ rebel forces were risible. Western governments could not distinguish ‘good’ from ‘bad’ rebels. As the ranks of the former thinned and the latter swelled, disillusionment grew in the West and the policy gradually changed from trying to overthrow Assad to trying to defeat Islamic State. From the start, Trump indicated a willingness to work with Putin to this end, thereby drawing to a close Barack Obama’s ill-conceived insistence that Assad must go.
Washington gave false hope by providing enough support to the rebels to prolong the armed conflict but not enough to secure a decisive victory. Western interference has worsened the pathology of broken, corrupt and dysfunctional politics across the region from Afghanistan through the Middle East to North Africa.
There is no humanitarian crisis so grave that outside interference cannot make it worse.
This article was published by The Australian Strategic Policy Institute on the 8th of August 2018.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. His most recent book is The United Nations, peace and security (2nd edition, Cambridge University Press, 2017). Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense.