European Council on Foreign Relations

Setting up for state failure in Syria

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Western powers have failed Syria. Between a half-hearted humanitarian strategy and a short-sighted plan to perpetuate a war fought by opposition proxies, Europe, the US and key Gulf states are fuelling the fire of Syria's destruction. 

No equivocating: Syria's tragedy is Assad's creation. In fighting the irreversible political transformations in the region, the Assad regime has squarely set Syria on course for collapse. Between a choice to confront the legitimate demand of its long marginalised citizens or to give no quarter to peaceful protest, Assad's government chose the latter. 

But the naiveté with which outside powers responded to Syria's upheaval has been half-baked at best and criminally myopic at worst. No postcolonial system of minority rule over a majority in the Middle East has been unseated without tremendous instability and human cost. Supporting the aspirations of Syria's revolutionaries is honest and just. But as late as the winter of 2012 it seemed that there was no credible Western strategy even to mitigate the spiralling human suffering, short of parroting demanding Assad's departure and playing musical chairs with various opposition groups. 

The Western line on Syria has quietly tiptoed back from the demands for Assad to leave power, and now pays lip service to the paramount need for a political settlement. But Saudi Arabia and Qatar are hellbent on a decisive defeat for the regime, and have been steadily arming and supplying Syrian opposition groups that suit their tastes for many months, no doubt with the tacit support of Europe and the US. And now France and the UK are making full-throated calls for lifting the European Union's arms embargo to arm rebel groups as well.

But to what end? Officials backing this policy will argue the goal is the balance the opposition's military power against the state, not to achieve a decisive victory: in other words, to force a stalemate that pressures Assad to resign and leaves remnants of the regime to negotiate a transition. With Russia and Iran steadily supporting Assad, the timetable for such an outcome is wholly unknown. More importantly, there is no recalling a single conflict where arming different factions has managed to avoid the trap of spawning even more destructive and unpredictable vectors of conflict, even if the original military goal is achieved, ensuring a vicious cycle of competition for power among doubly empowered armed groups. 

For policymakers in Europe and the US, the choices for averting this outcome are stark and unpleasant: deploy significant force to cripple Syrian air and ground defences to tip the balance of power more quickly and decisively (a scenario both too unpalatable and risky), or accept that any settlement in the near future will have to include Assad. But the current strategy essentially consigns Syria to the grimmest possible future, already haemorrhaging its past and present. And Western powers should remember how overwhelming the task of rebuilding a volatile and fragmented security sector will be, already a formidable challenge for Middle Eastern countries (and an area where the EU already performs poorly, as ECFR's European Foreign Policy Scorecard  notes). 

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