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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The price civilians had to pay for Assad's 'victory'

His regime clearly had to be part of the solution, no matter how unpalatable it would be to deal with a man with so much blood on his hands, writes Sholto Byrnes

Assad has won, said former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. EPA/SANA
Assad has won, said former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. EPA/SANA

The words of Robert Ford, the former American ambassador to Syria, in these pages on Monday were stark.

"Assad has won and he will stay," he said. "He may never be held accountable. This is the new reality that we have to accept, and there isn’t much we can do about it."

To say "I told you so" could seem both inappropriately boastful and cruelly callous, considering the torture and destruction Mr Al Assad has wrought upon his people in his desperation to cling to power, not to mention the role that his regime may have played in enabling the barbarians of ISIL to set up their so-called (and thankfully now shrinking) caliphate.

But over two years ago in this space, I did argue that the Syrian president had to be part of any solution. And in that column I relayed a discussion from 2013 in which a TV reporter friend and I had made the same case to the head of a well known Gulf think tank.

The reasons for this position never included any sympathy for Mr Al Assad, the former opthamologist whose mild manner led many to think he could be a reformer incapable of the brutality which appeared to be second nature to his father Hafez. (Al Assad junior long ago disproved the latter assumption.)

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No. It was simply clear to some of us, almost from the start of the Syrian civil war, that the forces arrayed against him would probably never be enough to defeat whatever of his armies that stayed loyal to him; that there was a significant percentage of the population sufficiently invested in the Baathist regime to prefer it to any alternative; and that he could probably cling on indefinitely, even in a much reduced Alawite heartland. Given those circumstances, he had no incentive to step down – and spend the rest of his life in fear of justice finally catching up with him. So he clearly had to be part of the solution, no matter how unpalatable it would be to deal with a man with so much blood on his hands.

If this is the conclusion that some are coming to now, how much better if that had been the verdict in 2015 or even 2013. Not only had ISIL not even come into existence then, but hundreds of thousands would not have lost their lives.

Why was the conclusion that peace could only return to Syria when the precondition that Mr Al Assad could not be part of negotiations was dispensed with not reached sooner? It was unfortunately another instance of a familiar view having been arrived at early on. "Something had to be done" in Syria. Mr Al Assad had to go. That was the imperative, and to suggest otherwise was to be in favour of a queasy compromise that drained the great liberal democracies of moral authority.

But the consequences of this gut, righteous reaction were not properly thought through.

After Iraq – one of the most terrible instances of action being taken with insufficient planning – no western country had the stomach for another full-blown intervention.

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However, western nations still encouraged the Syrian opposition to believe that they would help them get rid of Mr Al Assad. They have intervened to a degree, with some of the most expensive military training programmes per man in history (with almost no effect), with airstrikes, non-lethal aid and with arms, many of which quickly ended up in the hands of militant groups. And the overall effect? It may have been just to prolong a civil war that one of the US’s most informed observers of Syria now says Mr Al Assad is going to win after all.

"What would you have done instead?" is a reasonable question - and a particularly difficult one in the case of Iraq. We know full well the horrors inflicted by Saddam and his homicidal sons on the Iraqi people. To state that the invasion made a terrible situation far, far worse does not hide the fact that most opponents of that war have no good response to the question of what was the alternative. Leaving Saddam in office is easily portrayed as a betrayal of his victims, although the reality is that the world at large tolerates many unpleasant dictators for good reasons and bad – just as Saddam was once the West’s friend, and provided assistance to him during Iraq’s war with Iran.

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In other instances, however, there are answers. If the US had seen North Vietnam's predations on the South as the culmination of a long liberation struggle, rather than pure communist expansionism, that war could have been avoided – and with the same result.

And in Syria, we know that the chief obstacle to any kind of solution has, for years, been the refusal of various parties to accept that Mr Al Assad not only had to be involved in negotiations, but that he might have to be left with some position of leadership, at least on an interim basis. If this had been reversed, or ignored, this option could have been explored from early on.

Instead, in the absence of a strong international consensus which would have supported regime change, the world has encouraged the Syrian opposition (if one can define such an amorphous entity) to believe that they could achieve the removal of their dictator. That has never been on the cards. Having decided that “something must be done”, however, that was the only morally satisfactory outcome for the maintenance of western leaders’ purity of conscience.

What a price in death, displacement and destruction the Syrian people have had to pay as a result. More pragmatism, and less lofty principle divorced from concrete action, could have saved them years of agony. Let us hope that is remembered in the future.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia

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