The bitter truth about the world’s biggest challenge

Syrian cities and towns continue to be unreachable by aid convoys, primarily because Assad's forces access. Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters
Syrian cities and towns continue to be unreachable by aid convoys, primarily because Assad's forces access. Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters

The world’s leaders descended on New York for the United Nations General Assembly, and so much of the international community’s political gravitas was felt therein. Despite the gravitas, little was actually expected to come out of it. In that regard, it’s not particularly the fault of the United Nations, though structural reform of the institution is deeply advisable – but of the institution’s most powerful members. And there is no more obvious example of that than the tragedy of Syria.

Even as the president of the United States, Barack Obama, decried “crude populism” at the UN, the reality is that crude populism has allowed for the calamity of Syria to become ever more tragic. It is that kind of crude populism, for example, that has allowed for so many people in Europe and the wider West to escape their responsibilities to Syrian refugees while populist parties ride a wave of anti-­immigrant sentiment.

But as Mr Obama comes to the end of his presidency, and the UN meets, there is a flip side to that populism that has yet to be adequately addressed. Populism can only be punctured when it is met by leadership and resolve – otherwise, it will fill the vacuum. And on Syria, there has been no leadership nor resolve from the international community at large. On the contrary, as the events of the past few weeks continue to remind us, there has only been more waffling, more indecision and poor policy, which has allowed Bashar Al Assad’s forces to act with impunity. In the interim, Syrian civilians continue to pay the largest price, simultaneously having to suffer attacks from regime forces, Mr Al Assad’s allies in Moscow and Tehran, and extremists such as ISIL.

Once, Mr Obama spoke about “red lines” – and it turned out that he didn’t have any. Now, as he draws to the end of his presidency, he appeals instead for “hard diplomacy”. After five years of war, one might have thought the international community would have risen to the challenge, particularly considering that a half a million people are dead and millions more are refugees. But little changes.

Month in, month out, there will be another statement, another conference, another declaration – but the modus operandi remains the same. While Russia and Iran know what they want in Syria – the success of the Assad regime – and are willing to do what it takes to get it, the rest of the international community flounders.

The international community declares that the refugee situation is terrible – but what is actually done about it? Few countries actually take steps to address it comprehensively, by opening their doors. The Arab world cannot crow about Europe in this regard, because most Arab countries have failed even more abysmally in terms of providing for the refugees of that horrid conflict.

Syria continues to be unreachable by aid convoys, primarily because pro-Assad forces continue to block them. And why would they not? What incentive do they have to respect agreements, even in terms of de-escalation? What has the international community done to ensure Mr Al Assad’s compliance? And to ask the question in a more comprehensive fashion: what political weight by the international community has been invested that comes close to what is needed to push for a solution on Syria?

It isn’t impossible. A critical mass of the international community managed to forge the Iran nuclear deal – it wasn’t perfect, but it happened and the world is better off. Is the Syrian catastrophe less worthy of that kind of political investment? It would seem that far more attention is being given to the violent Islamist extremists of ISIL and their ilk, a hundred times over, than ending the conflict in Syria and protecting Syrian civilians.

Perhaps the most poignant statement at the United Nations this year did not come from Mr Obama, or indeed any other state leader, but from the UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein: “The bitter truth is, this summit was called because we have been largely failing. Failing the long-suffering people of Syria, in not ending the war in its infancy. Failing others in now-chronic conflict zones, for the same reason. Failing millions of migrants who deserve far more than lives marked by cradle-to-grave indignity and desperation.”

The international community has to admit to itself that it has been failing and the people of Syria have paid the largest price. When the most powerful nations of the world are gathered, and they cannot invest enough collective effort to bring the carnage to an end, then all they do is encourage the idea that there is no “international community” to speak of. Rather, it’s simply the law of the jungle. We must do better than that.

Dr HA Hellyer is a senior non-­resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington and the Royal United Services Institute in London

On Twitter: @hahellyer

Published: September 22, 2016 04:00 AM

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