Rethinking Syria


The horrifying images from central Europe of tens of thousands of Syrian and other refugees seeking new homes in the West underscore several conclusions about the human interest these days. One is the extent of the refugee crisis and the failure of the global community to respond to it over recent decades. That crisis long precedes today’s focus on Europe.  As I’ve noted before, we’re talking about 45 million people who are on the run, crossing international borders or fleeing to a safer part of their home country in search of a better life and freedom from violence.

A second conclusion, which applies universally, is that mass immigration spawns the ugliest sort of racism.  Potential host countries for refugees and migrants will say that they simply cannot accommodate so many new arrivals.  But we know better: White-run governments often don’t want dark-skinned, non-Christian others.  That’s the message that has been openly sent by Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s president.  Trump would simply deport people, no questions asked. Orban wrote for a German newspaper: “Those arriving have been raised in another religion and represent a radically different culture. Most of them are not Christians, but Muslims. This is an important question because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity.”  Is there any doubt that many other national leaders privately believe the same?

Third is the imperative of a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war. There is, after all, a limit to how many new arrivals from the Middle East can be accommodated by European Union countries.  The EU and others, including Russia and the U.S., must focus on Syria, from which an estimated 49 percent of the current mass exodus originates.  As one authority has put it, “The migrant crisis in Europe is essentially self-inflicted.” Lina Khatib, a research associate at the University of London and until recently the head of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut states, “Had European countries sought serious solutions to political conflicts like the one in Syria and dedicated enough time and resources to humanitarian assistance abroad, Europe would not be in this position today.”

The nuclear agreement with Iran may help in that regard by initiating a movement toward an international deal on Syria that would refocus the conflict there on ISIS.  Discussions that reportedly include Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. are considering how to consolidate the anti-Assad opposition and create a transitional government in order to present a unified front against ISIS, which already controls substantial territory in Syria and Iraq.

Sadly, the roadblocks to a cooperative approach to the Syrian civil war are many and formidable, including the future political role (if any) of Bashar al-Assad, the state of U.S.–Iran and U.S.–Russia relations, Russian aims in Syria (amidst reports of increased Russian military aid to the Assad regime), the extent and purposes of each party’s military operations in Syria, and the fractured and ineffective opposition to Assad.  How these roadblocks can be overcome in order to cobble together a legitimate new Syrian government is anyone’s guess, but the very fact of discussions about Syria’s future is one of the few hopeful signs in the Middle East.

Russia and Iran have been Assad’s principal backers and if any parties are going to convince Assad that he must loosen his iron grip on power it is they.  The alternative is seeing ISIS and its terrorist companion, the Nusra Front, continue to gain ground to the point where Syria shrinks to nothing more than greater Damascus.

Iran has made a proposal on Syria that I think is worth considering.  The plan calls for a cease-fire, formation of a national unity government, a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the rights of all ethnic and religious groups, and elections under international supervision.  How a cease-fire and eventual elections can be arranged are, of course, enormous challenges; but again, the fact that the Saudis and the Iranians, deadly adversaries on just about every other Middle East issue, are giving thought to a common position is striking.  Saudi Arabia and Russia are also in conversation, which adds substance to the possibility of cooperation against ISIS.

There was a time not long ago when the Syrian situation was all about getting rid of Assad by supporting the armed resistance.  That possibility is dead.  The resistance is divided and largely ineffective, despite U.S. arms and training of so-called moderates.  Meantime, ISIS grows stronger.  The only practical alternative to the U.S. eventually putting boots on the ground—an option no one other than Donald Trump dares mention—is a deal that would define Syria’s immediate political future and put the focus on stopping the advance of ISIS.  This does not amount to engaging Assad, but it would have to mean accepting a place for him in an initial period of political transition.  The current U.S. policy of simultaneously seeking to overthrow Assad and push back ISIS is simply unworkable.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.