Paul Gillespie: Syria’s civil war sends waves of migrants to Kos and beyond

‘US and British governments were unable to intervene decisively because of hostile public opinion after Iraq and Afghanistan’

 A dinghy overcrowded with Syrian migrants approaches a beach on the Greek island of Kos this week after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

A dinghy overcrowded with Syrian migrants approaches a beach on the Greek island of Kos this week after crossing a part of the Aegean sea from Turkey to Greece. Photograph: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

 

The appalling realities of mass migration from Syria’s civil war have been highlighted in images from Kos, where thousands of refugees are now arriving, as well as from their continuing efforts to cross the Mediterranean. After four years of civil war are there any grounds to expect movement on a political solution to the conflict?

A flurry of diplomatic activity from Iran, Russia and the United States this week suggests these states could be ready to initiate peace talks in the wake of last month’s nuclear agreement with Iran. Given Iran’s strong support for the Assad regime and its backers in Lebanon it is a key player. The Iranian foreign minister is reportedly ready to launch a peace plan involving a ceasefire, formation of a national unity government, a scheme to protect Syrian minorities and internationally supervised elections, after talks in Damascus.

On the face of it these proposals make sense given the impasse in the fighting and the frightful suffering that has seen half a million killed and up to five million made refugees in neighbouring states and internally. Regional involvement through proxy forces from Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey has dramatically reinforced the conflict. Their various Sunni-Shia sectarian divisions have been systematically instrumentalised in Syria. The principal beneficiary has been the extraordinarily ruthless Islamic State (Isis) organisation which now threatens all their interests.

US and British governments were unable to intervene decisively because of hostile public opinion after Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia backs Assad but may now be willing to support the Iranian initiative.

Whether Barack Obama is willing or able to do so remains a major uncertainty after the deal with Iran. There is a clearly a potential there for a foreign policy realignment, taking advantage of the new configuration in Iran and his need to secure his foreign policy legacy. Opposition from Republicans in Congress spurred on by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s enduring hostility to the deal and the need to head off their appeal to Democrats are inhibiting factors if he is to secure executive authority for it. But there is a new resolve to his presidency which could encourage his involvement.

A major complicating factor for the US is the twin hostility of Saudi Arabia to the Iran deal and the political consequences of possible US-Iranian entente. Its new political leadership is determined not to be sidelined and seeks to demonstrate its military prowess in Yemen’s civil war. Side payments of extra US military aid may not be sufficient to prevent the Saudis playing a spoiler role in any Syrian initiative as it waits out Obama’s last 18 months, hoping – like Netanyahu – for a Republican victory in November 2016.

Isis’s remarkable success in Syria and Iraq nevertheless spurs on regional and international efforts to resolve their civil wars. Obama has correctly blamed neoconservative critics of his Iran policy for repeating the errors that caused George W Bush to invade Iraq. Islamic State is led by the Sunni officers and bureaucrats dismissed from the Iraqi army in 2003-4, while their Shia opponents inherited leadership of the state, bolstering Iran’s regional role in a great historical irony an unanticipated consequence.

The Arab states are equally responsible for Isis’s political and military successes according to the French analyst Jean-Pierre Filiu. In his recent book From Deep State to Islamic State: The Arab Counter-Revolution and its Jihadi Legacy he argues that the popular rebellions of 2011 seen initially as the Arab Spring, were headed off and defeated by a cynical response from state elites.

They understand it is far better to fight jihadi insurgents than civilian protests if they are to preserve their power. They therefore engineer such conflicts by transforming the protests into sectarian insurgency.

The Algerian “deep state” pioneered the strategy in the 1990s and it has been refined into a counter-revolutionary project by the Syrians and Egyptians since 2011, he tells the New Humanist magazine. Turkey’s current efforts to demonise the Kurdish opposition is similarly inspired.

Such strategies have now created in Isis a monster that threatens all these states’ interests and a humanitarian catastrophe that even they cannot overlook. From such unanticipated consequences peace initiatives often flow.

The stark realities of human suffering in Kos and the Mediterranean can help transform public awareness of these consequences in Europe. They should encourage the nascent and still weak foreign policy process in the European Union to support regional peace initiatives. They deserve success if only to relieve these bleak realities.

pegillespie@gmail.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.