Ceasefires and humanitarian corridors are only temporary fixes to the plight of Syrias civilians. To make a difference, the west must engage on the ground
The atrocities being committed on the ground in Aleppo by Iranian proxies fighting alongside the Syrian regime, and from the skies by Russian planes, as horrifying as they are, should come as no surprise. Aleppo has been under siege for many months; its population has been brutally and indiscriminately attacked into submission and the scorched-earth policy adopted by the Assad regime, Russia and Iran comes as the international community has been focusing its attention on the US elections and the ongoing war with Isis.
Where does Syria go from here? The summary killings currently taking place, the rounding up of any male of fighting age and the oppression of the civilian population more generally was wholly predictable. These atrocities will continue. Some have suggested a ceasefire that can allow for an evacuation of the civilian population, like the one that was negotiated yesterday by Turkey and Russia but that seems to be falling apart already.
Generally, ceasefires can bring respite and allow humanitarian actors to go into conflict areas and do their job. However, whether it is in Syria or other conflict zones, it is often counterintuitive to aim for a ceasefire without the leverage that can force belligerents into accepting its terms, that can help change the political and security environment so that it enables respect for human rights, and that can pressure (and penalise) the belligerents.
As multiple other ceasefires in Syria have shown, dictators and armed groups do not envisage a post-conflict scenario that views the rule of law, human rights monitors and humanitarian organisations playing a dominant role. Syrias post-conflict environment will be dominated by sectarian militias, the secret police and death squads, who will kill and torture in prison cells and far-flung compounds and who will do so away from the eyes and ears of the outside world.
The irony is that many of the Shia militias propping up the Assad regime will be all too familiar with the dynamics of the war in Syria. Many of them are Iraqi Shia militias that come from the generation of young and destitute Shias who suffered Baath party oppression in the 1990s. The 1991 Shia uprising in Iraq was also ignored by the international community, which effectively provided Saddam Hussein with carte blanche to indiscriminately kill and torture more than a 100,000 Shias after the Gulf war.
Saddam lost control of the Kurdish north after 1991 as a result of the wests no-fly zone and he was weakened and left without an effective military in the rest of the country. However, his brutal grip and repression of the Shias and other sections of the Iraqi population continued by way of sub-state actors such as tribes and paramilitary forces. These actors often had differences with the Baath regime, but were either coerced or played off against one another to prevent another insurgency from materialising.
In Assads Syria, it is also localised armed groups and militias who will continue to shape the political and security environment, and provide the Assad regime with an efficient and potentially cost-effective means of reorganising and consolidating its authority over the country. However, that process could take many years to implement successfully, meaning there will be gaps and opportunities for the west to exploit. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, the nexus that connects the Assad regime, Iran and Russia (along with Shia militia groups) is not irresistible and only a recently emerged alliance that is vulnerable on multiple fronts.
Unlike Husseins Iraq, Syria is firmly on the radar of the international community. Opposition groups will not be short of arms and financial resources any time soon. The Assad regime will have to contend with insurgencies for many years. That also means there is an opportunity to direct the way these resources are being invested, so that it is the moderate rebel groups that are empowered in a war that will continue for some time to come.
Moderate actors still exist, but have so far been dependent on, and sidelined by, jihadi groups. The Arab world and Turkey have been in disarray and can no longer be relied upon to achieve this task. They have been unable to match the discipline and organisation of the Assad regimes backers, Iran and Russia.
The new US administration and its European allies can remedy past wrongs by creating the leverage that does not exist right now. It would take merely a fraction of the armed forces the west has at its disposal to start enabling a political and security environment that can help alleviate the plight of the civilian population in Aleppo and that can help prevent similar atrocities elsewhere as the conflict develops.
Beyond adding a coercive element to the strategy, it is a combination of conviction and leadership that can alleviate the plight of Syrias civilian population. Temporary fixes like ceasefires or humanitarian corridors only provide political cover for, and distract attention away from, further atrocities and human rights abuses. Calls for a no-fly zone have been dismissed in the past, as have other measures seen as having the potential to escalate the conflict; but we mustnt forget that it is the wests averseness to risk that the Assad regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran thrive on. Where the international community disengages, dictators and armed gangs fill the vacuum.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/15/assad-syria-turkey-russia-west-must-engage-ceasefire