x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

A deal with the devil could save Syria from the inferno

Standing back and insisting on drawing improbable lines in the sand, all while the Assad regime is fighting to the finish, will only condemn millions more to starvation and exile.

Free Syrian Army fighters take up position inside a damaged house in Deir Ez Zor, eastern Syria. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Free Syrian Army fighters take up position inside a damaged house in Deir Ez Zor, eastern Syria. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

Days before the 50th anniversary of the killing of JFK and the airwaves and news pages are littered with recurring conspiracy theories.

A similar phenomenon is taking hold over Syria. As the physical reality of the country disintegrates, so too is the intellectual framework fragmenting.

The narrative of a historical event as recent as the start of the uprising is being reinterpreted. Simple explanations are being overlaid on top of fiendishly complex events.

The splintering of the argument over Syria is most apparent on the political left, where numerous intellectual contortions have been evident since the start of the war.

Perhaps the most unfortunate of these has been the tendency of leftists to see the campaign, now in retreat, to intervene in Syria as a rehash of the 2003 Iraq war, and ascribe nefarious purposes to those advocating it.

While it is certainly true that some of the fellow travellers on the path to intervention in Syria (such as Dick Cheney and other American neoconservatives) were not the obvious allies many of those arguing for intervention would have chosen, that does not demolish the argument.

Indeed it is troubling to see, as the novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab wrote in a letter to the London Review of Books, that “large sections of the left have wholeheartedly embraced the very discourse that they resisted during the War on Terror years – that of ‘terrorists’ and al-Qaida conspiracies explaining all”.

Moreover some leftists, focusing on the extremist Salafists who now control parts of Syria, have concluded that Syria (and, one supposes by extension, Syrians) would be better with Bashar Al Assad in charge. That would make more sense if the devil they knew were not genuinely guilty of diabolical crimes.

For while it is certainly true that the rebels have extremists within their ranks – and those Syrians living in “liberated” areas who now find their lives ruled by ideologues with guns know this better than anyone – that is not the same as denigrating all the rebels, nor of believing that it would be better had the uprising not occurred.

The despair many feel at seeing Syria torn to shreds, destroyed piece by piece, should not lead to the simplistic suggestion that it would have been better had no one risen up against Mr Al Assad. One can applaud the beginning while bemoaning the end.

The failure to see the nuances of an overly complex situation was reiterated to me last week. On this page, I argued that Syrians may have to ask the unthinkable, and decide if Mr Al Assad might stay in power for a transitional period.

In response, some accused me of betraying Syria’s revolution, of believing that Mr Al Assad in power would be better than the current chaos.

But that is not what I was arguing. A deal that allowed Mr Al Assad to remain in power indefinitely would, indeed, be a betrayal of Syria’s revolution. It would in effect reward the chief perpetrator of the war against Syria’s civilians.

But just as it is important to recognise the reality of the beginning of the uprising – that it was the reaction of the Assad regime that turned a series of peaceful uprisings into a civil war, and not a western-led plot – so it is important to recognise current realities.

Mr Al Assad is getting stronger. The political opposition to him is fading in relevance, as are the chances of an outside intervention.

At the same time, the country is being drained of people – there are more children fleeing their homes every day in Syria than are born in the country’s hospitals – and of infrastructure. Cities and towns, schools and hospitals, roads and bridges are all being reduced to rubble.

The idea of a long conflict is being normalised, preparing world opinion for the acceptance of millions of refugees.

While there is no inevitability to a long Syrian civil war, it is a likelihood. Given that, insisting on Mr Al Assad leaving as a precondition of talks seems idealistic.

The backers of the Syrian regime in Moscow and Tehran will not countenance the idea that Mr Al Assad and his entire regime vanish. And given that neither diplomacy nor force appears to have shifted them from that position, it is important to be realistic and recognise realpolitik.

Especially when what is at stake are hundreds of thousands of lives, the futures of millions of people, and the possibility of Syria remaining a functioning state. And, especially, when it is Syrians themselves who are making the suggestion.

If the end result of international and Syrian diplomatic efforts are to find a conclusion to the conflict, then one possible way forward – not the only one, perhaps not the best one – is to accept that Mr Al Assad may stay in power for a brief period of time.

Better to allow an ordered, managed transition that sees him depart while there is still something left in Syria to salvage. A diplomatic breakthrough will not please all sides.

But standing back and insisting on drawing improbable lines in the sand while the Assad regime is fighting to the finish, will only condemn millions more to starvation and exile. Only Syrians can decide if making a deal with the devil that saves Syria from the inferno is a deal worth striking.


On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai