Let’s Get A Syria Policy – OpEd


As the noose tightens around the beleaguered Syrian city of Aleppo yet again, it might be time to take stock of the accomplishments of Western foreign policy objectives in Syria. The results are very bleak indeed. The consequences are even bleaker and in great part due to a moral paralysis verging on outright hypocrisy on the part of Western nations – America, the European Union, Canada and Australia. By turning a blind eye to the massive injustice dealt out to our democratic friends and allies in Syria fighting often with insufficient material assistance, the West has allowed indolence to fester thereby enabling the development of the Islamic State, Al Nusra and other Islamist affiliate groupings.

This Western hypocrisy is coming at a terrible human and geopolitical cost. First, the Syrian conflict has created significant refugee flows and affected every single Western government. It has revealed new fault lines in the EU and contributed to the ongoing BREXIT fiasco. It continues to play a role in the present US presidential election campaign and has the potential to create a serious divide in Canadian-American relations. In this regard, Bashar and his Russian and Iranian colleagues have succeeded in destabilizing the political chessboard in the West. A Trump presidency, still a real possibility, would be a by-product of this instability. A Clinton presidency might well find itself in a similar or worse situation being unable to make progress on the Syrian refugee front when faced with widespread anti-Islam sentiment.

By allowing ISIL to form and fester in Syria, the West has destabilized further the Middle East and contributed to Islamic terrorism in Europe and America. One may argue that much of the Islamist terrorism in Europe and North America is the result of lone wolf assailants with no organic links to ISIL. Perhaps, but these lone wolf terrorists find their inspiration in the Syrian conflict and inflict on innocent people their Salafist narrative of history. Syria is a spawning ground in more ways than one and our moral disdain and reluctance to support democracy and freedom there have been paid for by a heavy tribute on our unsuspecting citizenry.

President Obama’s fatally weak foreign policy edict of ‘leading from behind’ has pushed secular Syrian patriots for democracy into the eager hands of the Saudis and Qataris. It has promoted Islamic extremism in a country where it previously was almost unknown. It has given Bashar and his cronies the very excuse they needed to appeal to world opinion, in the throes of Islamic terrorism. The early enthusiasm and support for the Syrian opposition and its call for democratic change and the overthrow of the Bashar al Assad regime was demonstrated by work of the Canadian diplomats in Turkey (http://www.macleans.ca/politics/bruce-mabley-is-canadas-rogue-diplomat/).

With the passage of time, this early alliance with the democratic and youth opposition has given way to Western indolence and inaction. The hypocritical spectacle of phantom negotiations in Geneva between Russia and the US will lead nowhere and provides a convenient excuse as the Russians continue to bombard Aleppo and kill any hope for democracy in Syria. Even the Syrian opposition fighters caught inside Aleppo know not to give up and trust Bashar with their lives. There can be no free Syria with Bashar al Assad still in power and left unpunished for his crimes against humanity.

So the Western powers, in particular the US, dilly dallies, vacillates and makes feeble attempts at beginning a dialogue for peace using the UN and Russia as interlocutors. This is no Syria policy rather they are just attempts at stemming the tide of Syrian refugees and developing timid cease fire agreements with the corrupt Assad and his allies. The non-policy represents Western drift in the Middle East and explains why ISIL has become the force that it has in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

It is time to begin to fill the Western policy vacuum and move on the offensive against ISIL and the Bashar al Assad regime. Every day, the forces of brutality and extremism increase with the arrival of Iranian and Russian fighters. Every day more Syrians lose hope in the West and our values of justice, rule of law and freedom.

What would an enlightened policy of Syria look like? First, the West needs to reverse the tide of Islamic fundamentalism in Syria by persuading opposition Commanders to leave their Islamist masters. After all, when the conflict began most Commanders were secularists and anxious to deal with the West. The Western policy of ‘doing nothing’ drove them into the hands of the Islamists. Time to reverse that and provide to the Free Syrian Army the kinds of weapons it needs to re-take the offensive, gain back lost territory, relieve the siege of Aleppo and liberate the country.

Feckless Western and Turkish political observers and pundits predicate the non- interventionist ‘leading from behind’ non-policy on the view that the West does not know who the FSA or the democratic opposition is. Giving arms to unknown opposition factions on the ground might empower those who seek to do the West harm, so the argument claims. Well, on that view, the West is suffering from self-inflicted damage in addition to undermining its most important strategic objectives. The situation cannot be much worse. This argument is just false. US and Western sources know full well who the Syrian opposition and its ideological composition are and if we are required to wean some back into the fold, we only have ourselves to blame for letting them go in the first place.

Sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons are needed to blunt Russian air-strikes and secure the ground game. Significant numbers of trainers need to be sent to help train the FSA and succeed in welcoming those commanders whose fighters are interested in a free Syria in which Islam thrives alongside other religions but not in a solely Islamist Syria. By far the majority of fighters and commanders would prefer a reliable Western partner to the doctrinaire narcissistic Gulf religious and elitist mentality. The latter is foreign to the Syrian political culture.

Military force might possibly stop ISIL but it cannot win the ultimate battle for the hearts and minds of the Syrian people.

Accepting Syrian immigrants is a small but insufficient part of that struggle. The West needs to take the offensive in Syria and win back the hearts and minds of those who support the values of justice, the rule of law and freedom. Syria could be the decisive battleground (Kampfplatz) where the errant West finds its true north again and pursues it with hope and determination. Without this, we are condemned to endure one Islamist terror attack after another with only a fatally weakened political class to defend us and our political values. The Sanders-Trump phenomenon illustrates the depth of popular disgust with Western leaders, their political parties and their inability to craft authentic democratic policies to promote a freer and just world. Make no mistake: this phenomenon has swept much of the Western world at a time when leadership in foreign affairs and the Syria matter is urgently required. ‘Leading from behind’ has been an abject failure with tragic consequences. It has emboldened dictators like Assad, enemies of freedom and rule of law represented by the Russian and Iranian leadership and international Islamic terrorism. As such, the crafting and execution of an enlightened Syria policy may ultimately signal the beginning of the end of Islamic terrorism and achieve what military means cannot and has not yet achieved.

So far Islamic terrorism has won by default. If the West draws a line in Syria and stands by it (unlike the vacuous line that President Obama drew in 2012 to prevent Bashar from using chemical weapons on his own people), Crimea will mean nothing to Russian expansion in the Mediterranean and Hezbollah will finally have to release its strangle hold on Lebanese politics. By living up to and implementing the values of freedom, rule of law and justice in Syria, the West can begin to ensure that Islamist terrorism will retreat with time and patience but we must make a principled stand in Syria. If not, who will ever believe us again?

Bruce Mabley

Dr. Bruce Mabley is a former Canadian diplomat having served in the Middle East, and is the director of the Mackenzie-Papineau think tank in Montreal.

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