Syria: Will the West Ever Take Its Strategic Defeat Seriously?
Fifteen Theses For Action
People and children in Ghouta massacre, victims of chemical attack. August 21, 2013
It is often difficult to shake off the impression that everything has already been written about Syria. Since the beginning of the war in 2011, which is now entering its eleventh year, and even more so since the fall of Aleppo, all but those who do not want to see or understand anything, not to mention the propagandists of Assad and the Kremlin, know what is going on: there will be no peace in Syria as long as the regime does not fall and as long as Russian and Iranian troops remain there to protect it.
I myself have written more than a dozen articles on Syria and have often spoken about it in the media and on social networks, sometimes with a simultaneous feeling of duty and uselessness. Thus, at the time of Aleppo, I applied the notion of war of extermination to Syria, reminded that this was the turning point in the history of the 21st century and that such was the intention of the Kremlin in openly committing war crimes, emphasized on the indecency not only of our silence, but sometimes even more so of our empty words, showed, in the name of the principles that have been bequeathed to me, the terrible continuity that links all crimes, from the Holocaust to the Armenian Genocide, from Srebrenica to Rwanda, from Sudan to Syria, and pointed out the perpetual responsibility before history of those who have decided not to act.
A strategic disaster that no government seems to have understood
I am not going to recall here the balance sheet, still provisional, of the war in Syria: probably more than a million dead, of which more than 90% civilian deaths can be attributed to the Assad regime, crimes of humanity that still persist in the prisons where more than 100,000 people remain detained and where torture and summary executions are the rule, about 12 million displaced people, half of them outside the country, Russian war crimes, still, which have caused more civilian victims than even those of IS, a destroyed country under the rule of a predatory mafia and a testing ground for new Russian weapons, but also for propaganda, first of all from the Kremlin, which is probably the most repugnant ever—and sometimes murderous.
If—let us never forget this obvious fact—the most abominable consequences are for the Syrian people, the international system has been critically affected. This was, moreover, one of the blinding intentions of one of the parties involved: Putin’s regime. Tragically bogged down in their lack of understanding, most Western leaders have still not understood this.
In fact, the war in Syria has produced the implosion from within of an already damaged but still somewhat functional UN system. It has affected not only the Security Council, paralyzed by the 16 Russian and often Chinese vetoes, but also certain agencies that have, in fact, made a pact with the regime, the latest turpitude being the election of Syria to the WHO executive board, even though it is guilty, along with Russia, of the deliberate attack on hospitals, health centers and rescue workers. The recent agreement reached at the UN on a very partial, one-point, and temporary opening on the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid to the millions of refugees in Idlib province is, alas, just another rout, even though better than nothing. At least the Western powers have not generally had the indecency this time to create victory.
Let us not forget the primary fact: although with less intensity than two or three years ago, the massacres committed by Assad and Putin continue: a dozen children killed in recent weeks and rescue workers targeted according to the repeated technique of “double tap”: a first strike hits civilians and a second targets the rescue workers who have rushed to the scene.
So, at times, we hoped: Antony Blinken has said some strong and deeply heartfelt words about Obama’s failings, and it’s all too clear that the failure to save hundreds of thousands of people haunts him. We also know that the Biden administration will not sacrifice Syria to a new, uncertain deal with Iran and that the two dimensions are untied for him. But there is no sense today of resolve to act on Syria. The question is not only moral, but strategic
So, in order to clarify the choices, would I dare to restate in fifteen theses why Syria matters, immediately, in the medium term and for our common future?
The fifteen theses that I present here quickly seem to me to be the common foundation from which it becomes possible to act in Syria. If democratic governments do not take over, the conflict in Syria may well continue for another decade or more, with cataclysmic consequences not only for the Syrian people but for the West itself.
1 There is no diplomatic solution to the Syrian conflict.
Let’s leave aside the empty and indecent diplomatic words: if there was a diplomatic solution, it would have been found long ago. The consequence must be drawn: there is a military solution to the conflict in Syria. If we are ready to give our enemies the monopoly of force, we will have lost.
2 The main issue is not humanitarian aid, but the domination of a criminal regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
We must immediately—and categorically—save the Syrian people, who are facing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, along with the Yemeni people. We must do everything to open humanitarian corridors and save, save, and save. But as long as the Assad regime is there, we will not have solved anything and the humanitarian crises will continue.
3 What explains the major failure of the West so far is not our impotence, but our lack of will.
To speak, indeed, of the West’s impotence when one sees the capacity for military action of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and certain Gulf countries that are members of the Coalition against the Islamic State, is a nasty joke. We have not, we are not, powerless, but we have refused to act and save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. We have also allowed three criminal regimes to act according to their absolute will.
4 The UN is not the solution to the Syrian conflict and the regime's crimes against humanity.
From the moment when two powers block the Security Council and when the UN agencies, especially on the ground, sometimes seem to be unable to fight against the diversion of humanitarian aid by the Assad regime, we must draw the consequences. I already wrote this five years ago, sometimes provoking some controversies: “But you cannot marginalize the UN, the keystone of the international system”. Without doubt, it is necessary to do so, albeit with regret and in the hope of better days. No intervention will be decided by the UN against the Assad regime; the New York-based organization will always refuse to refer him and his henchmen to the International Criminal Court. The UN, in fact, serves today as an alibi for inaction.
5 The fight against the Assad regime is as important as the fight against ISIS.
Some heads of state and government pretend in their official speeches to consider that the main enemy is ISIS and that this is the priority fight. No one, of course, will responsibly support the absurd and dangerous thesis that the total eradication of ISIS is not an imperative. But can we consider, on the pretext that Assad is formally head of state, even though not recognized as such by most of the democratic countries, that his crimes are lesser, less abominable, and that, let us never forget, he has not himself made a pact with ISIS by releasing jihadists from its prisons? Should we close our eyes to the fact that the all-out murderous repression by his regime, the total de-education of the majority of the country’s children, the resentment left by the absence of action by the West, prepare the terrorist movements of tomorrow? Our fight will only be coherent if it is twofold: against ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups, and against Assad.
6 The war is not over in Syria.
A dual war is actually still going on. First, as mentioned, Assad’s and Russia’s war against the Syrian people continues in the areas not occupied by the regime and which it intends to retake. Second, Assad has not won the war: in these areas, but sometimes also in those controlled by the regime, Syrians continue to fight, even if the space left to them is reduced. Dissatisfaction with the regime, not to say hatred for it, is still there, fueled by an economic and social crisis that plunges the people into grinding poverty and increases resentment against the profiteers of a corrupt regime.
7 We must act with all powers in the region against the Assad regime.
We have missed many opportunities for two main reasons. First, often out of fear of “provoking” Moscow—the same scenario applied in Georgia and Ukraine—we failed to seize the opportunity that at one point Turkey appeared to offer. Instead, our irresolution pushed Erdoğan into Putin’s arms. Of course, no one will claim that the man is without reproach and crimes—we will come back to this in this blog—but at some point our interests may have coincided. The same is true of the Gulf States that are members of the coalition, which the West, and first the United States under Obama and then under Trump, have left without a clear political direction. It would be dramatic if Joe Biden repeated the same mistake.
8 As a corollary to the previous proposal, the United States and the European Union, including France in particular, must use all their means to dissuade the Gulf States from recognizing the Assad regime.
I have often insisted on this idea: we cannot allow these countries to conclude separate agreements with this regime, as if to recreate an alliance of “strong regimes” in the region. The path opened by the United Arab Emirates is dangerous and could only go against the interests of these countries, especially in view of the destabilization of the entire region by Iran. This also applies to Israel, where the Netanyahu government was tempted to accommodate Assad and thought it could ally itself with Putin against Iran. The Israeli government must be urged to adopt a position that is both more dignified—Netanyahu’s position had in fact aroused indignation in some quarters in Israel—and more realistic.
9 Putin’s Russia is not part of the solution, but the essence of the problem.
Beyond Obama’s moral fault, his main strategic failure was to let Russia take over Syrian affairs from the fall of 2015. This major mistake has, moreover, had consequences for the strengthening of the Putin regime’s positions in Europe. Now, the first reality in Syria is that Moscow is the primary blocking point. One will always remember the disastrous exhortations of certain countries at the worst moment of the war who asked the Kremlin to “put pressure on Assad” so that he “shows more restraint”, while Putin’s Russia was committing almost as many crimes as Damascus and was doing everything to encourage him. The Russian lock on Syria must therefore be broken. Going beyond the United Nations could help.
10 We will not solve the crisis in Lebanon without ending the conflict in Syria.
Most analysts are clear: the Syrian regime, even if it no longer has total control over Beirut, is omnipresent there, notably in corruption enterprises, in trade, notably in ports, and in currency exchange systems. Trying to put an end to the crisis in Lebanon is futile as long as the Assad regime is in power, or at least as long as it is not permanently weakened.
11 After Russia, Iran is the major problem in Syria.
We probably do not need to insist on it here: Tehran largely controls Syria with ground forces and networks that are much more powerful than those of Russia, even if the latter has more of a “diplomatic” role and greater air control. Syria is one of the major fields of Iran’s destabilization of the Middle East, along with Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Yemen. If Moscow and Tehran are fighting for control of the Syrian economy or what remains of it, politically it would be a major misjudgment to separate the two.
12 We must, if we cannot refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, establish a special international tribunal for Syria.
Since Russia and China will always oppose referral to the ICC and Syria is not a party to the Rome Treaty, we must find another way. The Allies, along with as many other countries as possible, must indicate, on the basis of fully documented and damning cases, a decision to prosecute Assad and his cronies for crimes against humanity and war crimes. They must all be subject to an international arrest warrant. A special tribunal should be set up to judge all the crimes committed in Syria, including of course by ISIS, other terrorist groups and Russian and Iranian armed forces and militias.
13 As a corollary, we must lift all remaining restrictions in some countries on the universal jurisdiction of criminal courts.
As incomplete, limited and partial as it may be, the Koblenz trial has shown the importance of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to judge crimes committed elsewhere. These trials, which will also open in other European countries, allow not only the prosecution of presumed criminals, but also the establishment of their crimes and the bringing of them to light. However, some countries, including France, still have legislation that is too restrictive in terms of opening up to universal jurisdiction. It must be urgently modified.
14 The European Union must urgently establish a Caesar Act on the model of the one instituted in the United States.
The American Caesar Act allows sanctions to be imposed on any company or entity that trades in any way with the Syrian regime. Besides the fact that such trade, given what the regime is, is impossible without corruption, it allows its dignitaries to enrich themselves. Imposing a total ban on trade with the regime—except for humanitarian aid, as provided for in the American law—would also make it possible to target certain companies, including Russian and Chinese companies, which participate in this pact of corruption—the visit of Chinese MFA to Syria, where he unsurprisingly condemned regime change, is part of the picture that should be taken into consideration. This would make it impossible to do business with European countries.
15 Heads of state and government in North America and Europe must name the war crimes of the Russian and Iranian leaders.
Finally—I have insisted on this recently on this blog—democratic leaders must not only not be afraid to name the imprescriptible crimes committed by the principals and enforcers of these regimes, they must do so. We must be clear that there is no impunity for major crimes. On a symbolic level, this would be a major sign. Not to do so would also be a bad omen.
These few clear principles govern our understanding of the crisis in Syria and allow us to take the measure of the necessary action. The West has so far let Putin’s regime set the agenda in Syria and given it the ability to impose its own game. Our lack of intelligence as much as our lack of will has allowed him to destroy large parts of the international system. Nor is he unaware that, in the medium and long term, the destruction of Syria will further strengthen the terrorist movements that will directly attack the West.
But we prefer to play the lyre while the City burns from the fire we have allowed to flourish.