The Vienna talks on Syria are a start. But we need a leap of imagination

Protesters at the Syria conference in Vienna on 14 November 2015. ‘This has to start somewhere. Politicians sitting quietly together in a room is a start.’ Photograph: Hans Punz/EPA
Protesters at the Syria conference in Vienna on 14 November 2015. ‘This has to start somewhere. Politicians sitting quietly together in a room is a start.’ Photograph: Hans Punz/EPA

To write about Syria is to drown slowly in moral quicksand. It is not just that the situation is complex. It is because we have seen over the last four years the collapse of a country, and more importantly a whole society, while the world has stood and watched: a protracted agony in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.

We have taken our lead from President Obama, whose inaction has been parsed by his supporters as masterly caution. As we watch the global order established in 1945 crumble, the terror threat from Islamic State spread and further waves of refugees and economic migrants wash on to Greek beaches never to return to the countries that desperately need them, we interpret our torpor as a rational response to the inevitable moral ambiguities of the Middle East.

This is the backdrop to the current political debate in the UK. Some say that Syria is the sort of catastrophe that is bound to happen. Decades of oppressive and authoritarian – not to say tyrannical – government produce their own reaction. In a region where the sociology of religion shapes political expression, the construction of extreme and sacralised identities drives Hobbesian political mobilisation and brutal civil conflicts. The Kantian certainties of the European dream are our protection. Our efforts to intervene in the past, most notably in Iraq, have been disastrous and self-interested. Sykes-Picot lies at the root of all this anyway.

Others say our primary target should be Isis and other radically Islamist groups. This is essentially a counter-terrorism issue. Let’s get over any delusion that we can change the world and try simply to make it safer – primarily for us. If this means preferring Bashar al-Assad to Baghdadi, then that’s the Faustian compact we make.

None of this suffices. The world has become more complicated than we imagine – or perhaps can imagine any more. I remember as ambassador to Damascus in 2006-7 having regular conversations with the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, and at least one with Assad, about the domestic risks of Syrian sponsorship of radicalised foreign fighters heading for Iraq. The Syrian objective was to prevent a US victory in Iraq. But if jihadism triumphed instead, the next target would be Syria. In such a world, borders meant little.

These transnational interconnections are now stronger and more numerous. So any policy designed seriously to address the disaster of Syria must also address the connectivity between Iraq, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and the Arab states of the Gulf. Isis has spread across the region. It is not invincible or particularly original. But its geographical metastasis – particularly across the great deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq and into north Africa – gives them a resilience and a global appeal we have not seen before.

Defeating Isis in the field is an absolute priority. But containment – which seems to be the general thrust of coalition policy at the moment – raises the question of who is containing whom.

The Iraqi security forces have been stuck outside Ramadi in Iraq for six months. There are few signs of a serious effort to reclaim Raqqa or Mosul. Meanwhile Isis flaunts its activities outside its core zone: murdering anti-Isis Syrian activists in Turkey, claiming to destroy an airliner, raiding across central Libya and launching spectaculars in the Sinai and Yemen, and now in Paris.

And you cannot simply target Isis. Al-Qaida in its various forms remains a serious threat, exploiting the same conditions as Isis but refusing to be as territorial. Both are given oxygen by the failure of inclusive politics in Iraq, the overwhelming brutality of the Assad regime and its Iranian, Lebanese and Russian allies in Syria and the collapse of Yemen and Libya.

Any genuine attempt to combat them must also seek to remedy the deformations – political and ideational – that in part at least gave rise to them and similar groups. That is why we need both a more coherent anti-Isis strategy and an associated effort to replace Assad with something better, to move more decisively to bolster those in Iraq who seek a non-confessional state unencumbered by Iranian-backed militias and to reach proper settlements in Libya and Yemen that do not simply surrender to extremists but promise enduring stability.

That is a massive task at a time when western and particularly US policy is weighed down by introspection, a sense of decline, bemusement at a region few even claim any longer to understand and gridlocked electoral politics. I genuinely believe David Cameron and his senior ministers would like to be ambitious. But after the fiasco of the aborted Syria vote in August 2013 – itself partly the product of the broken politics that emerged out of Tony Blair’s Iraq period, and with the Labour party deeply divided and introspective, his hands are tied.

And in the end we still need the US to convene politically (as they did at Dayton) and to mobilise the requisite military force that has to underpin the politics. It is the only state with the power to do both on a global scale. The Vienna talks on Syria are a start. I only wish they had not happened in response to Russian intervention but four years ago as part of a renewed US internationalism.

And I hope – rather desperately – that we might see in this the terms of a new internationally guaranteed security settlement for the region as a whole, an expanded version of the 1989 Taif agreement, which ended the war in Lebanon, not a reprise of the failure at Geneva in 2014. This has to start somewhere. Politicians sitting quietly together in a room is a start. There are signs that the Iraqi security forces are being strengthened by renewed US and other western intelligence and security forces support, that we may be moving towards the beginnings of a political settlement in Yemen and that policymakers are thinking harder about what a confederal rather than a fragmented Syria might look like.

To bring this all together into something that endures requires a leap of the imagination that we haven’t seen for decades. It also requires the states of the region themselves to assume responsibility not just for starting but for ending conflicts. That happened – partially – at Taif. It needs to happen again.

Sir John Jenkins was ambassador to Syria 2006-07; the Foreign Office’s director of Middle East and North Africa 2007-09; and ambassador to Iraq 2009-11. He is now executive director, International Institute for Strategic Studies – Middle East.

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