The city of Qamishli in northeastern Syria closed out 2015 with explosions. They weren’t fireworks. They were the blasts of a car bomb outside a popular café. Thirteen people were killed, mostly young men and many of them fathers. Where there should have been sparklers there were shootouts. Where there should have been champagne there were caskets.
The New Year brings with it the sixth year of the Syrian Crisis, inevitably ringing in more casualties to add to the 260,000 already dead and more uprooted persons to add to the 12.5 million currently displaced. Each of the last five years in Syria has been worse than the last. Military and political experts believe this year will be worse yet, and Syrian citizens agree.
But it doesn’t have to be.
The situation in Syria has continued its sharp downhill dive because, instead of putting the brakes on a series of destructive trends, the world has thrown a collective lead foot on the accelerator. This global microbus is charging headlong down the steepest lane on the highway to hell, and diplomatic and moral vertigo has left too many world leaders and armchair activists believing that down is up, that flames are cool.
Here are four ways to reverse Syria’s—and the world’s—deadly slide and, if we are granted grace enough to avoid an Arab retelling of Apocalypse Now, make 2016 a better year than those we dare remember.
1. Do actual diplomacy inside and outside Syria
When the foreign ministers of the most powerful countries in the world met in Vienna last fall to haggle over the fate of Syria, no Syrians were there—they hadn’t been invited. Iran and the United States were both reluctant to attend while the other was present. Russia thought to nix anything that didn’t keep Bashar al-Assad in the throneroom of Damascus. It half-crossed France’s mind to sit sulking in the corner. None of them could quite recall the reason Jesus wept.
This is no way to conduct diplomacy in the middle of the most brutal, bloody conflict the Middle East has seen in decades. Syrians, the regime and representatives of the Free Syrian Army, must be at the table. It was one of the great mistakes of the twentieth century that the West designed the Middle East without consulting Arabs. If we repeat the same mistake in the twenty-first century, we will not only revert to an old colonial order, we will oversee Sykes-Picot 2.0, a misadventure whose undoubtable corpse we’ll find littering the floor of the twenty-second century.
Outside of Syria, the big global and regional players need to shape up. Turkey shot down a Russian jet and has acted as gateman for terrorists entering Syria to kill Kurds and Armenians. The United States and Russia can scarcely agree to fight the same enemy even when they are fighting the same enemy. Putin’s lunges into Europe, especially his annexation of the Crimea, and the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees has left the European Union delegations in many ways stifled. Saudi Arabia opened 2016 by severing diplomatic relations with Iran—this in the shadow of their deputized feuds in Yemen and Syria, the Saudi execution of a controversial Shi’ite cleric that prompted Iranians to storm the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and the schismatic Islamic war between the two neighborhood powers for regional hegemony. (In a twist of heroic irony, Obama has called for cooperation and negotiation between the Kingdom and the Ayatollah. Nevermind that the Americans refused to talk to the Persians until only last fall.) Even now, a third restart of talks in Geneva (where talks failed in 2012 and 2014) is off to a shaky start—no one could agree who to invite to the table, and even once the table was set, negotiations faltered within a week and are set for a reboot to begin February 25.
To fix the ambassadors’ problem, the boys need to come back to town. They need to talk and, when they play, play nicely. Here’s how:
- Ankara needs to say it plain messed up, then promise not to shoot every pigeon that flies into its airspace, especially when the pigeon belongs to Vladamir Putin. They also need to prioritize the destruction of IS over historic ethnic animosities.
- The United States and Russia need to stand side-by-side on the common ground they’ve already found in destroying the Islamic State. When they agree, they need to agree together, not separately.
- Putin, of course, should halt any imperial ambitions immediately, but seeing as he apparently longs for a reheating of the Cold War, that is unlikely to happen.
- In the meantime, the European Union should focus on ending their refugee crisis by contributing solutions to the root problems in the Middle East and North Africa, not by settling boatpeople in the shanty towns of Greece and Italy, nor by ending the good, forward-looking promise of Schengen.
- While no one can or should expect the Shia Crescent and the Sunni Bloc to become friends, their Saudi and Iranian representatives owe it to Abraham’s children everywhere to at least maintain relations. Sit down at the table of brotherhood, even if you sit at opposite ends. And instead of feeding this sectarian war with proxy militias, terror, and executions, fight it where it belongs—in the theology of mosques and the policy of parliaments.
2. Tolerate Assad so you can focus on Baghdadi
The West rejected Assad when he cracked down on what began as peaceful protest of his regime’s oft-illiberal politics in early 2011. Then, when the country went to war, it sided half-heartedly with the rebellion. And when the Ba’athists crossed Obama’s “red line” of chemical weapons, the West—mostly the Americans—went all in with the moderate opposition, much of which turned out to be not so moderate after all. (Of course, not all in enough to really do much of anything, but surely the rhetoric and weapons flows were turned up.)
Then, when IS was spawned from the seventh circles of Syrian and Iraqi hell, and when it became apparent that the Free Syrian Army wasn’t entirely in favor of freedom and was more a mingling of jihadists and militias than an actual army, and when it became clear that the rebels weren’t going to win quickly, and when it became clear that Western publics were by turns annoyed and confused and angry and scared—then it became possible to believe again that Assad wasn’t all bad. At least, not as all-bad as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, or the al Qaeda affiliates wreaking their own havoc under the auspices of the Syrian opposition. But, then again, Russia and Iran backed Assad, so he must have been pretty bad, the American State Department agreed.
Well, that sort of thinking can’t go on. The West doesn’t need Assad to leave as badly as a stable Syria and a cooperative Russo-Iranian alliance needs him to stay. Admittedly, he is probably only the best bad option, but as long as he garners more strategic and diplomatic attention than the leader of the most oppressive and quite possibly the largest terror-state in modern history, the situation is unlikely to improve. The West needs to accept him, if only on a temporary basis, until some semblance of order is restored and a more agreeable, less blood-stained alternative can be found.
3. Stop giving weapons, start giving aid
America gives guns. Russia gives bombs. Iran and Saudi Arabia give guns and bombs and, tentatively, boots on the ground. Britain and France and the Gulf States and pretty much everyone is giving ammunition. Switzerland—dear, dear Switzerland—gives weapons too. And this is a problem.
It’s a problem because 1) more weapons on the ground means more bullets in the air and 2) many of those weapons find their way into hands that were not intended. The Taliban and Osama bin Laden got their weapons fighting for “the good guys” against the Soviets, and we know what they did with them. The Islamic State took the lion’s share of the Iraqi army’s Coalition-provided arsenal when they stormed the armories of Mosul. Not only are jihadists and ‘others’ turning our weapons against us and our allies today, there is no telling who they might aim at twenty years after the present smoke clears. Weapons trade hands, but they rarely disappear.
Perhaps more importantly, this arms dealing pastime isn’t only unhelpful—it’s utterly contradictory to our more noble policies. How can we preach peace but sell war? What does it say when we try to legislate for stability and coexistence by passing out instruments for chaos and ethno/religiocentrism? What sense does it make to flood Syria with weapons at the same time as we want to stem the flood of refugees? These are not unrelated phenomena. They are the opposite pulls of the very same tide.
I submit that if all of the money presently given in the form of weapons and training to fuel the machine of war in Syria were given instead to support refugees and internally displaced persons, to create opportunities for employment, and to build infrastructure, Syria could begin its turnaround.
4. Empower refugees
On that note—the note of humanitarian aid—the world must, for the sake of generations to come, do more to aid refugees and IDPs. Empowering refugees to stay in their homeland is the most urgent priority, but fixing the structural problems at the heart of the conflict is more important in the long run. Resettlement is, of course, another vital piece of the puzzle, but it should not be our dish du jour.
Turkey is holding about 1.8 million refugees right now. Jordan has over a million and Lebanon has about 1.5 million on top of the 300,000-400,000 Palestinian now-stateless refugees from the last century. Turkish and Jordanian refugee camps are operated by those states and their militaries, not aid agencies, so they have both their perks (order) and pitfalls (subservience to the agenda of the polity). In Lebanon, displaced people can no longer register with the United Nations (a futile effort to dam the influx), and today about two-thirds of Syrian refugees don’t have all the legal paperwork to reside here. That means mobility is stifled and any hope of legitimate work and education is hindered. If refugees can’t work, learn, or move within their host countries, what other choice do they have but to flee to a third country?
The United Nations and partnering aid organizations ask for billions of dollars a year to keep up with the ever more protracted crisis. In 2016, due to the burden of refugees, there are nearly as many vulnerable Lebanese as vulnerable Syrians in Lebanon—though their needs vary. The answer, of course, is to end the war so that Syria will be livable again. But even if the war ends today, many refugees have nothing to go back to.
The world, much of which has contributed weapons or funds or silence to the calamity in the Syrian Arab Republic, owes it to refugees of this war—and to future humanity—not only to keep them alive with food, water, and medicine, but to give them hope and opportunity. It will require rebuilding, restructuring, retooling. There need to be jobs, education, health and hygiene, trauma healing and a million kinds of training. It will be a long haul. But the cost of doing nothing is too high, for them and for us.
Empower refugees to stay, to live, to thrive. If we don’t, we are only coercing them to leave, to run, to drown.