Four crucial steps to stopping the killing in Syria

There is an opportunity to save thousands of lives over the coming months and years

A Syrian man  sits on the rubble of destroyed buildings following a government forces air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Basha in the northern city of Aleppo. Photograph: Thaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

A Syrian man sits on the rubble of destroyed buildings following a government forces air strike on the rebel-held neighbourhood of Bustan al-Basha in the northern city of Aleppo. Photograph: Thaer Mohammed/AFP/Getty Images

 

Five years in and perhaps a half a million dead, it’s difficult to see any solutions to the Syrian conflict forthcoming.

But there are four crucial steps that can, and must, first be achieved and enforced if peace is to be secured in Syria.

First, and most critically, an agreement to stop air strikes by Syrian and Russian jets in Aleppo and elsewhere must be enacted by international powers. It has been air strikes and barrel bomb attacks that have slaughtered tens of thousands of people, while maintaining the Assad regime’s slight advantage on the battlefield as its ground forces collapsed over the past four years.

Compelling the Syrian government to end its campaign of air strikes on opposition-held areas would first necessitate the putting in place of a safe zone, something Turkey has already been stealthily enforcing across sections of northern Syria over the past six weeks.

Turkey’s incursion on to Syrian soil, with little apparent consequence, shows no sign of letting up or ending anytime soon. It has also seen Ankara unfurl a massive level of humanitarian assistance to residents of northern Syria comparable to what the early stages of a safe zone would look like.

Little-reported fact

But of far more importance is the little-reported fact that American special forces are now openly operating on the ground in Syria, as confirmed by the Pentagon in August. Such an admission by Washington in the past would have been unthinkable but now represents the changing dynamics on the ground.

Second, a humanitarian and reconstruction effort not seen since the second World War must be rolled out within this Turkish-controlled territory. Secured by a no-fly zone, this would gradually allow for the return to normal civilian life and governance, turning a crucial psychological corner in the minds of millions of Syrians who have endured terror for five years and neglect for decades more; it may also see the return of some of the more than two million refugees from Turkey. Despite occasional assaults by Islamic State, Kurdish-Syrian areas have already successfully reached this point, showing that self-governance outside Assad rule is possible.

Third, plans must be made for the long-term partitioning of Syria into regime, Kurdish and Sunni cantons, a precedent that has been incrementally taking place since 2011. This, however, would not see Syria broken up along sectarian lines – there are numerous urban areas governed by the Assad regime such as Damascus and the coastal cities of Tartous and Latakia that are home to large Sunni populations who have been ingrained in the identity and commerce of these cities for generations.

Robust fighting

Syria’s Kurds, the most robust fighting ground force anywhere in the country, would have little qualms with the breaking up of the Syrian state as it existed in 2010, and the largely Sunni, US-backed political opposition would begrudgingly accept an initiative that gives it territorial representation and authority (on the back of Turkey’s gains), albeit not of Syria’s major cities.

The Damascus government, however, would of course need to be coerced to agree to this settlement, a role Russia somehow must also be forced to step in to play.

Which brings us to the question of what Russia really wants in the Middle East. Clearly, Moscow has used Damascus as a route by which to return to centre stage of international diplomacy after 25 years flailing on the sidelines. In a region traditionally dominated by America and now neglected or wilfully ignored by the Obama administration, Russia has become a leading player.

But Moscow has no long-standing ties or affiliation with the Syrian government. What it actually wants to secure in all likelihood, is a major naval base on the Syrian coast and a say in all major Middle Eastern issues throughout the coming decades. To do so, it is engaging in policies designed to test the West, to force the United States and others to either make major decisions or ignore Moscow’s jingoism.

Anne Applebaum, a noted expert on Russia, pointed out on Tuesday that the level of aggressive language now being displayed by Russia has not been seen since “maybe the 1960s”.

What are the chances of all – or any – of these four precedents being reached?

Inevitable

It may be difficult at the moment to envisage any of these scenarios coming to pass, yet in some shape or form they are all inevitable. That is because subjugating the millions of Syrians around the country who oppose Assad’s rule would require a degree of massacres and cleansings that, bad as events have been until now, would far surpass anything we have seen in Syria before. Crucially, no US president would stomach the level of violence against civilians required to take back all the territory now lost by the Assad government.

We know that all wars end, sometime; the question for the new American president and the world watching on is: how many more people are we happy to see pulled from rubble or wiped out by chemical attacks, how many more years must pass before the realisation that a negotiated settlement based on the above four issues will eventually come about?

This war has shaken Europe and shaped national politics in the United Kingdom, Germany and elsewhere for the worse; it has fuelled demagogues such as Donald Trump in the US. It has given us Isis and the Paris and Brussels attacks. Western boots are now on the ground and Turkey has already set up a de facto safe zone in northern Syria, whether anti-interventionists agree or not.

There is an opportunity to save thousands of lives over the coming months and years. The question is, will the West stand up for the values it claims to nurse?

Stephen Starr is a journalist based in Istanbul. He lived in Syria for five years until 2012, and is the author of ‘Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising.’

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