Off the hook? Normalising diplomatic failure in Syria

Off the hook? Normalising diplomatic failure in Syria
5 min read
12 Sep, 2016
Comment: The 'nothing can be done' attitude to the conflict in Syria means those in power face no accountability for its continued escalation, writes James Denselow
The latest US-Russian initiative and its 10-day truce offers a glimmer of hope [Anadolu]
Across Syria the situation remains desperate. The last few weeks has seen tens of thousands of displaced Syrians stuck at the border with Jordan, multiple bomb attacks in the relatively quiet city of Tartus and scenes of children struggling to breathe following chlorine attacks on Aleppo.

With no active peace process in play the situation feels as bleak as it has ever been, and a
new UN report has highlighted "unprecedented levels of violence" in the country.
However, the pessimism around the situation in Syria has become a self-fulfilling prophecy that "nothing can be done", thus allowing those with influence over the conflict to face no accountability for its continued escalation. Syria needs to be moved from the "can't be solved" in-tray to the "must be solved" in-tray, and that requires a fundamentally different view of the conflict.
The latest US-Russian initiative and its 10-day truce offers a glimmer of hope and needs to be fully observed. It's due in theory, to be followed by coordinated US-Russian air strikes against "militants" that could genuinely put Moscow and Washington on the same page in the conflict.

Yet huge doubts remain as to the initiatives' chances of success, after all we've seen all manner of peace conferences and plans arrive and fall by the wayside over the past half a decade.
A fascinating article by Peter Lee recently explored the morality of the Syrian conflict and how different sides are unable to communicate effectively due to the disparity in their understanding of each other's motivations.
Syria needs to be moved from the "can't be solved" in-tray to the "must be solved" in-tray
Lee argued that the regime sees itself as enforcing its sovereignty against non-state terrorists while western powers see the regime commit grievous human rights abuses against their own people.  
Meanwhile in the West, the debate has been far more focused on notions of "intervention" than on Syria itself. Earlier this month, British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP told Good Morning Britain that there is a "price to pay" for not intervening sooner in Syria, pondering "why on earth aren't we doing more to sort out what on earth is happening to these children in Syria?".

Whilst Responsibility to Protect is a global issue that can be seen on virtually every item that comes to the Security Council's agenda, it is haemorrhaging legitimacy in the Syrian conflict as the gap between rhetoric and actions grows.
The focus on the failings of the past (Iraq in particular) and on whether countries should be pro or anti-intervention has meant that a genuine understanding of Syria's history, society and politics has been missed.

Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, once famously said that the Palestinian cause was far too important to be left to the Palestinians, and there is no lack of irony that the regional and international dimensions of the Syrian conflict would appear to suggest the same analogy now applies to Syria itself.
The narrative around the campaign against IS is the perfect example of how the Syrian conflict has been "de-Syrianised".
The narrative around the campaign against IS is the perfect example of how the Syrian conflict has been "de-Syrianised". The universal international consensus against the "Caliphate" refers to the group almost as if they are without nationality, whilst failing to acknowledge the Syrian fighters who are part of the group, or to discuss the plans for who will control liberated IS areas in the centre of the country - Raqqa in particular.
So in asking why people are pessimistic, and given the nature of modern communication technology, it is no surprise that while Syria does get media coverage, it is 99 percent negative.

With an absence of a simple dichotomy of the good guys and the bad guys, and with civilians seen as either victims or potentially would-be migrants, the case for western audiences seeing Syria through a narrow and impossible lens is understandable.
For instance, last week, the BBC were reporting on the evacuation of rebel fighters and civilians from the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh. Suddenly one of the anti-Assad civilians embraced one of the Assad soldiers who was organising the evacuation and said brazenly that whilst he hated the president "we are all Syrians".
A country is ultimately a national project that requires its people to buy into a shared vision of what it is. Despite the mind-blowing horrors of the past five years and the very real prospect that it could go on for a lot longer, there needs to be a genuine commitment to "bet on Syrians" and to move away from an acceptance that the Syrian people deserve to be where they are.

Just as the two Syrians embraced outside Moadamiyeh, one day in the future Syrians will again embrace each other as a country, but before that becomes real it needs to be imagined, and at present we're not yet seeing those candles in the darkness.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.