The plight of the people of eastern Aleppo could hardly be more appalling.
After months of unimaginable suffering under the bombardment of their own government and its Russian allies, the wretched citizens of that destroyed city have glimpsed respite. A negotiated ceasefire allowed a few thousand to be evacuated from the rubble before it broke down. Tens of thousands are left trapped. Whether the ceasefire can be re-established let alone sustained remains to be seen. But one thing is clear. The salvation of these people owes nothing to the West which has for so long been wringing its hands at the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria but has done next to nothing to bring it to an end. The end, when it comes, will be due to Russia, Iran and Turkey. Does it matter that the West has proved so impotent? Can it, and should it, regain its old activism in future?
The ceasefire in eastern Aleppo broke down almost before it began. Once underway it soon broke down again. In the brief interim it allowed six thousand people, both civilians and defeated rebels in the previously rebel-held part of the city, to be evacuated either to hospitals in government-controlled western Aleppo or to the still rebel-held area of western Syria. Fifty thousand others wait to see if the ceasefire can be restored for long enough to get them out too. No one believes the Assad regime’s victory in taking control of the whole of the city marks the end of the five-year-old civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, but for the suffering Syrians, any respite must surely be a godsend.
The deal to establish the ceasefire and organise the evacuation once the rebels had lost control of eastern Aleppo was brokered by the patrons of each side in the civil war. Russia, which (along with Iran) is the chief backer of the Assad regime, negotiated it with Turkey, the supporter of the Sunni rebels. It was their uprising against the Assad regime that sparked the murderous civil war in 2011. But despite its deep historical ties to the region, its outrage at the humanitarian catastrophe and its alarm at the prospect of millions of refugees flooding towards its borders, the West has been a mere bystander.
It is exactly a hundred years since Britain and France, eyeing the opportunities created by the gradual collapse of the Ottoman Empire, carved up this bit of the Middle East between them: Britain took what is now Iraq, and France took Syria. Despite the eventual end of their colonial rule, both countries continued to take a deep interest in the region. So too, of course, did their senior partner, the United States, for whom the Middle East has long been of central strategic interest. America’s readiness to intervene in the region was taken to be a fact of geopolitical life, confirmed most recently by its invasion of Iraq (with British help) in 2003. It is therefore all the more astonishing to many that the West has allowed itself to be brushed to the margins as the Syrian civil war has unfolded.
It is not for a lack of attention. From the beginning, western governments were united in arguing that the civil war could be halted and the suffering of the Syrian people brought to an end only by the removal of President Assad’s regime and the negotiation of a new political order in which the Sunni majority of the country had a substantial say. Assad had to go. And President Obama warned that if Assad crossed a ‘red line’ and started to use chemical weapons against his own citizens, America would intervene to make sure he did.
Yet Assad did use chemical weapons and President Obama did not send in the bombers or the troops. Instead he accepted an offer by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to lean on Assad to surrender his stocks of chemical weapons in return for staying in power, something it was in Russia’s interests for him to be able to do. Obama was seen as ‘bottling it’. So too was Britain. In 2013 the coalition government wanted to use air strikes against the Assad regime but the House of Commons narrowly voted the idea down, a decision which the chancellor of the time, George Osborne, described as one of the worst ever taken by Parliament.
It is not hard to see why the West stopped at the brink. The aftermath of the Iraq war left western voters deeply suspicious about military adventures that could create hideous political consequences. And politicians became sceptical about plans offered them by the military. A year before the Commons vote Lord Richards, then the British Chief of the Defence Staff, offered the government what he subsequently called a ‘credible military/political plan’ to get rid of Assad and establish a new order that he said would require a year to execute. But he was told a year was not available.
Whether any western military involvement could have brought a swifter and more palatable end to the civil war is, of course, unknowable. But what Mr Osborne this week called the ‘vacuum of Western and British leadership’ led both to the continuation of the suffering of the Syrian people and to what Lord Richards called the West’s being ‘outsmarted’ by Russia.
Hence influence over the war has been left in the hands of Russia and Iran, countries seen as antagonists of the West, and Turkey, a country with an increasingly strained relationship with the West.
The growing alliance between Russia and Turkey is of particular concern to many in the West. Although supporting opposite sides in the civil war and almost coming into conflict with each other when Turkey shot down a Russian jet it accused of infringing its airspace when in action on behalf of the Assad regime, an increasingly warm relationship has been developing between President Putin and President Erdogan of Turkey. Each seems to admire the other’s authoritarian style. As Turkey has become increasingly alienated from the West, which attacks his human rights record and endlessly postpones dealing with Turkey’s application to join the EU, President Erdogan has looked more towards Moscow. Although Turkey remains a member of NATO it has been reported this week that Erdogan has replaced officers and diplomats engaged in the western alliance with pro-Russian figures. Turkey seems to many no longer of the West.
So has the West given up, not only in trying to exert influence in the Middle East but more widely? Some argue that the West’s current apparent impotence is due largely to President Obama’s passivity and unwillingness to embroil America in yet more military action abroad. But will President Trump prove any different?
For those who want a more robust West the signs are not encouraging. Mr Trump opposed the Iraq War and campaigned on a markedly isolationist platform, questioning America’s role as the world’s policeman. He is also an admirer of Vladimir Putin. To many the implication of all this is that the West will lose American leadership in championing western values and that authoritarian governments will be left free to pursue their interests unchallenged. Mr Osborne said in the Commons this week: ‘If you don’t shape the world, you will be shaped by it.’
What do we want? Do we want to step back from involvement in the world’s affairs with consequences such as we see in Syria today, or do we want to take the risks of engagement, including military engagement, even when there are no guarantees that the outcome will be what we seek?
What’s your view? Let us know.