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Five years of war in Syria: five lessons Western leaders haven’t learned

The Free Syrian Army standing lookout. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

Five years of war in Syria: five lessons Western leaders haven’t learned

The Free Syrian Army standing lookout. Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters

The ink had barely dried on the Munich ceasefire agreement announced on February 11 by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry when only a few days later Syrians and others were casting doubt that it could mitigate the fighting and suffering that Syria has endured for five years.

Why such skepticism? Shouldn’t the world be open to any initiative that world leaders suggest can help so grave a situation?

The problem, as I see it, is that these same leaders are ignoring four key lessons from the unrelenting war and destruction of the past five years.

Lesson number 1: Assad is the problem, not part of the solution

There is one reason for Syria’s dismal human situation: the Assad government’s response to peaceful protests in 2011.

Syria’s brutality has vastly outstripped the response of other Arab governments to the region-wide uprisings of the “Arab Spring.” Long-simmering anger at Assad’s repression turned into a full-scale civil war. The fact is that the regime’s trail of destruction has been unmatched by any other group, including the Islamic State, or ISIS.

A new report by a Syrian organization estimates that 470,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began in 2011. Another recent – and unusually blunt – report from the United Nations documents the Assad regime’s responsibility for systematic policies of torture, intimidation, killing and other violence.

A Damascus neighborhood after bombing by pro-Assad forces – February 2016. Bassam Khabieh/Reuters

But despite this clear connection between Assad and Syria’s violence, the primary motivation for Western policy efforts in Syria appears to be stopping ISIS.

The Munich ceasefire, for example, specifically excludes ISIS from any suspension of hostilities. This is understandable since US involvement in Syria has been focused on combating ISIS’ would-be caliphate, in the company of France and other countries,

The West’s focus on ISIS also helps explain how Russia’s recent military involvement has helped to revive the Syrian government’s political control. By some accounts, Washington’s heightened concern to fight ISIS may make it more tolerant of Assad staying in power so that a rump Syrian state could help contain the would-be-caliphate.

Countries like the U.S. may see ISIS as its prime enemy, as ISIS itself might wish.

But, for most Syrians, it’s the Assad government that deserves that dubious honor.

Lesson number 2: helping refugees doesn’t necessarily help Syria

World leaders are confronted with the critical challenge of what to do with over 4.5 million Syrians who have managed to escape the terrible conditions in their country.

This staggering number has strained the financial resources of the international refugee system. At the same time, the focus of existing refugee law – to allow a limited number of people to resettle in other countries, instead of being persecuted in their homelands – is not working.

The poignant photos of the dead toddler Alan Kurdi prompted some European countries to increase their intake of Syrian refugees. But this has been a small bright spot in a dark tapestry of suffering.

Refugees waiting to leave Syria. Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

If the extent of the refugee crisis demands a more consistent and global response, the sheer number of Syrians driven from their country (about 20 percent of the country’s population) complicates the challenge of rebuilding the country.

At best, compassion and aid for refugees help the immediate problems of particular individuals and conveys a critical perspective to Syrians generally that Western countries and individuals are concerned for their plight.

But the refugee problem is a difficult, double-edged sword. Syrian refugees require the world’s help, but Syria will eventually need a significant number of refugees to return to rebuild the country once the war ends.

There are only two real – and related – answers to this problem.

One is for the international community to push harder for a settlement in Syria that puts Assad’s government’s brutal intimidation to a stop as soon as possible.

The second is to find mechanisms, such as significant improvement in the conditions of temporary housing in countries near the Syrian border, that allow Syrian refugees to live reasonable lives and, at the same time, provide incentives for them to return to Syria when this becomes possible.

We know, for example, and I have seen personally, that refugee camps can and should include educational and vocational options for young Syrians to build skills such as hairstyling and electronics repair that can help their chances to contribute to rebuilding their country.

Finding creative and well-funded strategies to turn refugee camps near Syria into innovative zones of empowerment for Syrian reconstruction may be a crucial global policy initiative to ameliorate the crisis, along with addressing Assad and the broader conflict.

Lesson number 3: no regional or global security is likely while the crisis continues

Indeed, the Assad regime’s ongoing brutality, and the refugee crisis that it and its more ruthless rivals have produced, only continue to intensify.

In addition to Syria, internal and regional warfare in Libya and Yemen is magnifying the chaos in the Arab world. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs, in addition to those from Syria, are being forced to leave their homes.

Faced with the complexity and enormity of the problem, many in the West argue that there is nothing to be done apart from doubling down on border control to contain the conflict.

But how can global security be enhanced as the region unravels?

The more Syrians are stuck between the violence of Assad or ISIS and the chaos of escape, the greater the risk that millions of Syrians who see only violence and global abandonment will be a lost generation.

In fact, Western disengagement from the Syrian crisis has only led other powers to involve themselves more deeply. We have seen this with Russia, with the result that the Assad regime may have a new lease on life.

We may well also be seeing another kind of increased outside intervention with new military engagements by Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Such involvement is spurred, among other things, by both countries’ preference to weaken both Assad and ISIS – a goal they do not believe Russia shares.

Today [four out five Syrians]((https://www.icrc.org/en/where-we-work/middle-east/syria) are living in poverty. Over five million children are in immediate need of assistance. Half of the country’s population is displaced from their homes.

There is no security in the country.

There is only an ever-expanding humanitarian and political black hole, while some Western leaders hope against reason that ignoring the situation can make it go away.

Lesson number 4: this is no time for compassion fatigue

In fact, the timing of the world’s reactions seems to have little to do with the actual depth of the crisis.

Many of the worst atrocities of the war took place well before there was widespread knowledge of the conflict in the West. The nature and intensification of Syrian atrocities was being documented in mainstream US media at the same time that most Americans voiced opposition to intervention.

In the years during which civil war and human misery were at their worst, Americans showed little interest in intervening in the country.

It was the Alan Kurdi photo that provoked widespread empathy, despite the fact that hundreds of similar children had drowned before the photo and dozens have drowned since.

In fact, it took this particular photo, years after the crisis exploded, to make most Americans understand the basics of Syria’s tragedy. Briefly, and related to Kurdi’s story spreading on social media, donations to Syrian refugees increased dramatically.

But the Paris attacks last November, carried out by European residents of North African origin, pushed many Americans and Europeans away from further efforts to help refugees from Syria. Allegations around refugee involvement in the attacks led Americans to fear Syrian refugees and shift towards more support for intervention, but against ISIS, not Assad.

The nature and timing of the Syrian crisis correlate little, in other words, with how the West has responded to it.

This is particularly significant to remember now as public attitudes toward the plight of refugees harden. According to polls, 48 percent of Americans believe borders should be closed to refugees.

If Americans and Europeans are experiencing “compassion fatigue,” the depth of Syria’s suffering and its repercussions have not diminished.

With prospects for the limited, impending ceasefire already dubious, leaders and activists in the West must take to heart the above four lessons of Syria’s crisis, and apply them to a fifth and final lesson. “Never again” with respect to state violence against millions of citizens must mean never again.