The fall of Aleppo crystallises the sense of horror that many in the West have long felt about the war in Syria. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recent attacks on Aleppo probably constitute war crimes. There have been reports of civilians killed in cold blood, and hospitals have been repeatedly targeted during the Russian-backed offensive. All this on top of the routine use of indiscriminate attacks in a densely populated city. As these atrocities unfold – and they are only the latest chapter in a war that President Assad has waged with consistent brutality – the European Union and the United States are essentially bystanders.
The Syrian catastrophe seems to mock the idea that the world has learned from past failures and made progress in developing a better international response to mass atrocities. Syria is unquestionably a grave crisis for the architecture of humanitarianism that was put in place in the years after the Cold War. The core elements of that system – the regime of justice and accountability centred on the International Criminal Court, and the doctrine of a responsibility to protect individuals against mass atrocity – have proved powerless in the face of the prolonged slaughter of the Syrian conflict. And the assault on Aleppo, which seems like a decisive moment in the war, has led many people to decry the world’s failure to live up to its promises and to portray the outcome as a failure of political will, or even as a failure of our sense of humanity.
But this is an inaccurate picture. The West has not been indifferent to Syria. The country’s crisis has consumed a huge amount of time and effort in European foreign ministries – reinforced by the domestic impact of the flow of refugees – without, however, producing any solutions. This was not Rwanda or Srebrenica, where a modest application of military power could have prevented the killing of thousands of people, and a lack of will or a failure to recognise the nature of what was happening were the main obstacles.
To say this is not to let our countries off the hook, but we should be precise about the real question raised by the Syrian catastrophe. The issue is not whether the West’s ineffective response represented a failure of humanity – a grand-sounding charge that fails to engage with the real drivers of Western policy – but whether it represented a failure of vision. The Western response to Syria has been marked by the feeling that there were few good options, and without a clear commitment to any single policy, it has vacillated between a rhetorical demand that President Assad step down, the call for a political settlement, attempts to provide humanitarian assistance, and selective, low-level support for rebel fighters.
Early on, a majority of European policymakers decided that there was little place for direct military action in either preventing atrocities or altering the course of the conflict; where countries like France and the United Kingdom were inclined to act, they were held back by a lack of support from the United States or their own public. The prevailing view was that the conflict was too complicated, and the investment of the parties and other outside powers too high, to allow the West to have a decisive impact on its military course. The Western response was first developed against a background of assuming that Assad would at some point be forced to resign, and later on the basis that Assad’s foreign backers would counter-escalate in response to any Western action. US support for the rebels was always tentative, held back by a concern not to strengthen the jihadist element that became increasingly dominant on the insurgent side.
The Western judgement, in essence, was that there was no way to do more militarily without provoking a further escalation in the conflict and strengthening extremist groups. As pursued, this approach clearly failed to prevent Syria’s descent into a bloodbath – and it did not lead to the political settlement that Western policy always proclaimed as its goal. Now that the war is moving to a different phase, it is time to reflect on the lessons of what happened – both as a debt to the victims and as a foundation for future policymaking.
There are two questions that we could try to think about, to focus our reflection: with our knowledge of how the conflict has proceeded, can we now identify any moment when it would have been better to have taken a more active military approach? Or, conversely, if we had been more realistic and resigned ourselves to Assad’s survival from the outset, would European countries have been able to encourage the rebels to accept a viable settlement and avoid the bloodshed that followed?
It is beyond the scope of this commentary to answer these questions in full, but I would go into such a review exercise believing that it was right to be cautious about what military force could achieve in Syria – especially given the reluctance of Western publics to countenance the use of ground forces. Similarly, a political agreement would always have been a difficult challenge, given what was at stake for the parties to the conflict and the involvement of other outside powers.
If this is the case, we may be left with a sobering realisation – that the crushing of the rebellion by the regime, using whatever methods it chose to employ, was in retrospect an unavoidable outcome.
This does not mean that our hopes for a greater international commitment to preventing and punishing those responsible for atrocities are completely futile. But it does suggest that we failed to acknowledge how politically contingent the pillars of the new humanitarian system always were. In the next period of international politics, we may need to lower our expectations and recognise the inherent limitations and trade-offs of seeking to reduce atrocities overseas, if we want to keep alive, in a chastened form, the humanitarian goals and institutions that a more optimistic period bequeathed us.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.