x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Vicious circle of violence no nation seems able to end

As the plan their little post-Assad plans, outside powers seem not to care about the ever-growing misery of the Syrian people.

Last week, the BBC gathered some of the more prominent commentators on the conflict in Syria to discuss the fallout from Bashar Al Assad's latest speech.

The conversation turned to what might come next in Syria, how the almost two-year-old uprising might be brought to a close. Listening to a panel that included the writer Patrick Seale, a biographer of Assad's father, US professor Joshua Landis and the Syrian-Scottish author Robin Yassin-Kassab, I was struck by the lack of a clear alternative to an endless war in Syria.

Mr Landis has argued, persuasively in my view, that on the evidence today, Mr Al Assad could hold on to power until 2014. He frames this as a simple question: "Who will defeat him?" Mr Yassin-Kassab, who favours intervention in the form of arming the rebels, said he did not see a realistic prospect of western intervention in the near future. For Mr Seale, the empowering of the Syrian opposition outside has merely prolonged the conflict for Syrians inside the country.

The longer the conflict has raged, the more complex it has become. In some ways, that complexity benefits the status quo, in the form of the Assad regime. It allows Mr Al Assad to wonder, as he did rhetorically in his speech, who the leaders of this uprising are - as if a people's uprising must be led.

It bears repeating that there are no good ways for this conflict to end, only a variety of messy outcomes. Indeed, the constant planning for a particular outcome obscures the fact that there is no plan to bring about that outcome.

Outside powers want to decide what comes after Mr Al Assad's rule - without deciding how that rule will come to an end. No action is taking place to stop what is the driving force of the conflict: the use of the military to attack civilians. That is the cause of the conflict and only when it is recognised as the central driver of this humanitarian disaster can ways to stop it be debated.

For now, the options on the table are some form of intervention by outside powers (either a limited military engagement, as in Libya, or increasing arms and training to the rebels); a political solution (persuading either Russia or Iran to abandon support for Mr Al Assad); or an internal change (either a coup within the ruling regime, large-scale defections that cause the regime to collapse, or a victory of some description by the rebels).

The difficulty is that none of these options is persuasive from the point of view of shepherding in what comes next. Outside powers, in particular the US, Turkey and the Gulf states, want to be sure they can shape the aftermath. But that is becoming increasingly difficult as the situation on the ground becomes chaotic.

Reports from within Syria suggest that the loose coalition that is the Free Syrian Army is forming and reforming around specific goals, with some armed groups pledging loyalty to other armed groups. Alliances are shifting - it feels increasingly like the days when the Syrian National Council hoped, naively it turned out, that it could impose some sort of command-and-control structure over the rebels within the country.

Any intervention, even merely political, is seen first and foremost as an attempt to shape the aftermath.

But in focusing so much on a plan for the aftermath, outside powers are ignoring action that could end the crisis.

Take, for example, the statement released last week by the Syrian Coalition after a meeting in London. The statement emphasises the draft vision the coalition has for what comes after Mr Al Assad. It is meant to signal to Syrians within the country and to global capitals that there is a transition plan in place. But there is no suggestion how that transition will come about.

Those who say there needs to be a coherent plan for what comes after Mr Al Assad are right - but the region, and especially the Syrian people, don't have the luxury of time. An Iraq-like outcome looms large: the lack of good political planning for the aftermath of the invasion sowed the seeds for many of Iraq's subsequent problems.

But Iraq was not a moving target. Before the invasion, the situation in Iraq was stable. Syria is not like that, it is moving all the time. The rebels, fighting a vastly superior military, do not have the luxury of choosing to take money or weapons only from those who share their ideologies. They are fighting for their lives and are willing to accept any lifeline.

As alliances shift, so do ideologies. The longer the outside world leaves the fighting to Islamists and jihadists, the greater will be their role in any final settlement.

By focusing on a plan for what happens after Mr Al Assad, the world is in danger of ignoring a solution to the most pressing problem, the on-going humanitarian disaster. And the longer the planning for the aftermath continues, the more the situation on the ground changes, creating a vicious circle.

The situation in Syria is worsening, with no solution in sight. The outside world must find one, and soon.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai