The insoluble Syrian problem: Only wrong answers?

29 September 2015

Syria is the origin of many of Europe’s current security problems. Four years after the war there started, the West has no strategy for ending it; but neither does anyone else, including Russia.

It is understandable that Western leaders who have failed to end the war in Syria over the last four years should now be clutching at straws. They still need to clutch at the right straws, however. There are more ways to make things worse in Syria (and neighbouring countries) than to make them better. The EU needs to re-examine what it is doing, and have achievable objectives rather than lofty aspirations; and it should understand that all the other players in the conflict have their own objectives, most of which are incompatible with the West's.

As world heads of government meet in New York for the UN General Assembly’s annual session, Europe's refugee crisis has given the EU a new incentive to search for peace in Syria. Though British prime minister David Cameron was wrong to imply recently that the EU should stop taking in Syrian refugees and instead wait for a peace deal, he is right to think that the flood of refugees from the region cannot be stemmed unless the conflict in Syria ends. The problem is that neither he nor anyone else has a plan for that.

In March 2015 the EU's Foreign Affairs Council endorsed 'Elements for an EU regional Strategy for Syria and Iraq as well as the Daesh  threat'. (Daesh is the Arabic abbreviation for the so-called ‘Islamic State’ (IS) terror group). The overall objectives of the strategy were "to counter the threat posed by Daesh and other terrorist groups to regional and international stability, and simultaneously to create the conditions for an inclusive political transition in Syria and Iraq as well as in refugee-hosting countries in the region, while alleviating the human suffering caused by the ongoing violence and displacement".

Taking these three points in turn, the West and its regional allies have been conducting an air campaign against Daesh for more than a year now. While there have been some successes (Kurdish groups drove them out of Kobane, near the Turkish border, with the help of coalition airstrikes), Daesh has also advanced in some areas, taking the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra. Local forces cannot defeat them decisively without help.

The chaos that followed Western interventions in Iraq and Libya has made the British and American governments cautious about stepping up their involvement in the Syrian conflict. But without those two countries, it is inconceivable that any Western-led coalition would send big enough forces for long enough to destroy Daesh militarily and then to create a stable framework for political progress. The EU therefore needs to set itself more realistic goals for combating Daesh.

One area to focus on is limiting the flow of foreign fighters to Daesh and al Qaeda affiliates such as Jabhat al-Nusra. A UN expert panel suggested in March 2015 that in total there were more than 20,000 foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq. Apart from stepping up intelligence and border co-operation in Europe to prevent Europeans joining jihadist fighters, the EU should do more with source and transit countries. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King's College London assessed in January 2015 that between 3,800 and 7,000 of the foreign fighters came from three countries: Russia, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia. In addition, the British government says that thousands of foreign fighters have used Turkey as a transit route for joining jihadist groups.

The question is whether the EU can help or persuade any of these countries to stop the flow. Research by the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta strongly suggests that the FSB (Russian security service) created a 'green channel' to enable jihadists to leave areas in Russia where they were fighting the Russian state and to travel instead to Syria, presumably on the basis that they were less of a threat to Russia as long as they were fighting (and dying) in Syria.

Saudi Arabia has cracked down on the Daesh threat within the kingdom, but its own religious ideology and the economic and social pressures caused by low oil prices (including youth unemployment of almost 30 per cent) suggest that it will remain a source of willing ‘martyrs’ in Syria. Saudi individuals also continue to finance various jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, including Daesh. The West has long been reluctant to criticise Saudi Arabia’s export of wahhabist fundamentalism, but it needs to make clear that Western support for Riyadh cannot be unconditional: the Saudis have to do a better job of cutting off the human and financial jihadi pipeline to Syria and Iraq.

Tunisia's democratic government may be a more promising partner. The EU has started a dialogue with Tunisia on security and counter-terrorism, and has agreed to help the government develop an anti-radicalisation strategy which would prevent the recruitment and manage the return of foreign fighters. Work on this strategy should be pushed forward urgently, and the EU should then commit funds and personnel to support implementation: reducing radicalisation in Tunisia would address both the terrorist threat to European interests in the country, and the role of Tunisian jihadists elsewhere.

After initially waving anyone willing to fight against Assad through the Turkish border, Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently been doing more to control the border. Turkey and the EU should have a shared interest in ensuring that Daesh cannot use Turkish territory to smuggle in weapons and fighters, or to smuggle out oil from Iraq and Syria to fund its 'caliphate'. Turkey has long lobbied for a ‘safe zone’ and a no-fly area on the Syrian side of the border, to be maintained by Western forces. Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu repeated the message in a letter to EU leaders before the EU's emergency summit on the refugee crisis, on September 23rd. A safe zone is an unrealistic goal as long as Europeans – and Americans – are unwilling to fly air defence missions in Syrian airspace or put forces on the ground to defend one; but the EU could offer Turkey other forms of assistance with border control.

Clearly, Europe has failed to create "the conditions for an inclusive political transition in Syria and Iraq as well as in refugee-hosting countries in the region". The EU has to decide how President Bashar al Assad fits into any transition. His regime has been responsible for far more deaths and displacement than any of its opponents, including Daesh. In October 2011 the EU Foreign Affairs Council stated that Assad "must step aside to allow a political transition to take place". But Europe is now wavering: German chancellor Angela Merkel thinks Assad should be included in peace talks; David Cameron thinks Assad could have a role in a transitional government, but should then step down. As long as the West lacks the will to force Assad from power, however, he will have a seat at any negotiating table, just as war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic were at the Dayton peace conference which ended the Bosnian war; and his fate will depend on the outcome of the negotiations.


With or without Assad, political progress (as the March 2015 EU strategy recognised) is "heavily dependent...on the willingness of national and regional players to act in accordance with the stated objectives". Unfortunately, none of the influential players share the EU's objectives. The Syrian government is not interested in political transition, and nor are its backers in Tehran and Moscow. Iran and Saudi Arabia seem happy to carry on fighting a proxy war in Syria and Iraq whatever the cost to the local populations. Neither Daesh nor Jabhat al-Nusra are interested in inclusivity – both are Sunni sectarian organisations. For the Turkish government, weakening Kurdish forces for internal Turkish reasons is more important than helping them to defeat Daesh in northern Iraq and Syria.

Russian president Vladimir Putin is not an honest broker in the conflict. Assad and Putin are spinning a seductive tale in which they and the West share an interest in defeating terrorism in Syria, so all well-intentioned countries should now be on the same side: this was the message of Putin’s speech to the UN General Assembly on September 28th. In reality, Assad played an important role in strengthening Islamist radicals at the expense of the moderate opposition, and IHS Janes showed in December 2014 that the Syrian armed forces and Daesh fought other rebel groups more often than they fought each other. The Syrian government and Daesh have even worked together on oil sales, according to the EU.

Putin himself has two aims: first, he wants to keep Assad in power, regardless of how many more Syrians die in the process, thereby keeping Russia’s bridgehead in the Middle East and frustrating (as he sees it) an American plot against his ally. German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could not have been more wrong, therefore, when he "strongly welcomed...the growing military engagement of Russia in the region": the most likely result of Russia's intervention will be more fighting and an even greater flow of refugees to Europe. The Russian military will solve neither Syria's problems nor the West's.


Second, Putin wants to use Russia’s supposed help in the fight against terrorism to persuade the West to drop its Ukraine-related sanctions against Moscow. The West should not fall for this ploy: if Putin wants sanctions lifted, he needs to get out of Crimea and stop interfering in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine should not be sacrificed for the promise of Russian support in Syria.

If progress towards a political solution remains out of reach, that leaves the EU's final objective, "alleviating the human suffering caused by the ongoing violence and displacement". This is the objective most directly relevant to tackling the refugee crisis; it is the area in which regional players are least likely to try to obstruct European action; and it is the problem which a big injection of EU (and other countries’) assistance would do most to address.

UN agencies are running out of money to support refugees in camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. And the camps themselves are not a long-term solution to a long-term problem. Given the bleak prospects for a political settlement, both the West and the countries of the Middle East need to do more than simply accommodate and feed these millions of people; they need to provide them with sustainable livelihoods, education and other tools to ensure that they do not become permanently marginalised minorities. Resettling larger numbers of Syrian refugees in the prosperous West rather than in fragile states like Jordan and Lebanon will have to be part of the solution.


It is depressing to admit that after four and a half years of war and 250,000 deaths, there is no path to peace in sight. Whatever Putin said in New York, peace will not come to Syria because Russia has joined the fight, or because the rest of the world has given up trying to remove Assad; it will come when all the combatants are dead or tired of war. Meanwhile, if Europe is unwilling to bribe or coerce the parties to the negotiating table, its best course is to concentrate on helping their victims.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.