Looking beyond the Mosul tragedy


As the full horrors of what has happened in Mosul slowly begins to sink in, the question of how we might respond surfaces. This blog attempts to sketch out a first response.ISIS 2

Acknowledging the deep psychological trauma that has been inflicted on the affected families and communities would be a good place to start. At the moment they feel abandoned. Statements by religious leaders, ecumenical and interfaith bodies all help, as does the series of prayers released this week by the Archbishop of York.

It would be helpful if the British Government and others followed suit. It is pretty shocking that the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of Northern Iraq is happening in full sight with little if no condemnation. Last week, the situation featured as no more than an aside in a speech by the UK Ambassador to the UN. There has yet to be any official statement on the subject by the new Foreign Secretary. This silence merely reinforces the sense of abandonment and despair.

Acknowledging the trauma is one thing, but we need also to recognise the full-scale of the crisis. We shouldn’t allow our concern with the fate of the Christians of Mosul to blind us to the tragedy experienced by other minority groups – Shia, Shabaks, Turkmen Yazidi and others – who are being persecuted on the grounds of their religion and ethnicity.

Nor should we overlook the wider destruction caused by the conflict. I’m not just referring to the physical loss of ancient shrines and sites of worship, such as the Prophet Jonas Tomb and Mosque in Mosul – although that is a form of cultural vandalism that is truly shocking – but rather to the 1.2 million people, mostly minority members who have now fled the northwest of Iraq.

The Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka Beyani, noted this week: “This huge displacement is turning into a humanitarian crisis. History has shown that minority communities are particularly vulnerable to displacement. Special protection for them and other internally displaced people in Iraq is now vital.”

Let’s be clear here – if we don’t provide this protection, the displacement of religious and other minority groups from Iraq could well prove irreversible. UN Officials admit that the Government of Iraq’s and the Kurdistan Region Government’s capacity to adequately and rapidly respond to the increased needs of the affected populations has been quickly overwhelmed.

The UK has committed over £600 million to help those affected by the Syrian conflict. Given that this conflict has now drawn Iraq in to its centre some of this money now needs to be earmarked to assist with the resettlement of refugees and IDPs in north Iraq and in Kurdistan.

Iraq might not be as sexy or as profitable a crisis to respond to as Gaza, but agencies like Christian Aid, CAFOD and Islamic Relief need to look at ways in which they can respond to this crisis. It would be great if they could work together on this.

Hopefully the Government has learnt the lessons from last year’s mishandling of the resettlement of Syrian refugees here in the UK. Obviously, we must do everything to support those who want to remain in the region, but we must also be willing to use the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme to provide refuge to a fair share of those most at risk.

Engaging with the displaced families and communities is also vitally important if we are to document effectively their testimonies. ISIS and other armed groups stand accused of gross human rights abuses, some of which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Documenting alleged abuses now will help ensure prosecution at a later date, but it might also send a clear signal of intent to those who are committing such atrocities that at some point they will be held accountable for their actions.

Responding to the immediate situation is one thing, developing an effective strategy to counter the ISIS challenge is another thing entirely.

Sadly, we might need to accept that while the military advance of ISIS has been stopped, it will take a concerted effort by the Iraqi government, regional allies as well as the wider international community to reverse the territorial gains. Even if a reversal is possible – and it’s worth remembering here that Mosul hasn’t been under Baghdad’s rule since 2005 – any counter–terrorism strategy is going to take time to draw up and implement.

It is possible then that time might be the best solution to ISIS.

It’s difficult to see ISIS meeting the needs and aspirations of those that it governs. The relationship between ISIS and disenfranchised Sunnis looks like a marriage of convenience that could quickly end in divorce. There are already signs that Iraq’s moderate Sunnis are cooling to ISIS rule.

That’s not to say that Baghdad, Tehran, Brussels and Washington should sit back and do nothing. There is a lot that can be done to reinforce the national rather than sectarian identity of Iraq.

Developing a representative government in Bagdad that is capable and willing to govern for the common good would help to rebuild legitimacy and restore trust. Being open to a more consociational system of government might provide for greater regional autonomy while also helping to lessen the burden on Bagdad.

Religious leaders both in Iraq and further afield have a role to play not least by avoiding a sectarian response. We need to store up the moderate ground by encouraging religious leaders to speak out together against a cruelty that contravenes all sacred texts. The Vicar of Baghdad is doing some good work here.

There are some positive signs here which give grounds for hope. Following a meeting in Najaf on Thursday with His Eminence Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani, the UN General Secretary said:

In this time of crisis, when we see the shocking treatment of minorities by the Islamic State, His Eminence continues to preach peace, love and unity among all elements of Iraqi society. I encourage all religious authorities to follow that example and stand up for tolerance, mutual respect and non-violence. Such calls would help silence the voices of those who wish to advance their own violent and divisive agendas. Such appeals would contribute to the unity of the country.

It would be great if religious leaders and communities here in the West helped support this process by moving beyond talking about the atrocities experienced by their own communities to speaking up for the rights of others. The Al-Khoei Foundation has taken the lead here by focusing its official statements on the Christian community of Mosul rather than its own besieged Shia flock. It would be good to reciprocate.

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Gaza: a plague on all our houses


I’m not a pacifist, but the conflict in Gaza sickens me.

The indiscriminate military tactics of both sides dehumanises all parties. The shelling of innocents erodes rather than legitimiates the moral narratives both sides are frantically promoting over the airwaves. With both sides seemingly intent on the destruction of the other, it is inevitable that this conflict will escalate, inflicting yet more human misery and suffering.

We too are complicit in this horror.

The latest cycle of violence is so depressingly familiar and predictable that it merely underlines the paucity of our attempts over the decades to resolve this crisis. We might try to kid ourselves otherwise, but we know that when we say that all sides should show restraint and return to the negotiating table that the chances of actually resolving the crisis through existing diplomatic mechanisms are slight. This is both a failure of political will and human imagination.

The Middle East Peace Process has become a euphemism for conflict management rather than conflict resolution. It is a process that unwittingly legitimates the status quo. It has become a self-sustaining industry of peacenicks, lobbyists and envoys that drains rather than nourishes hope. Our dilemma however is that the status quo is no longer sustainable. With Hamas rockets now landing so deep into Israeli territory, Gaza can’t – nor should it – be managed as if it’s a cancerous boil in need of periodic lancing.

Whatever else, both sides need to be held accountable for their actions and we – the international community – need to take responsibility in making them do so.

The conflict should not be so exoticised that either side are excused of their human rights obligations. With everything that has happened over the last few weeks surely it is time for an international fact-finding mission to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel. By framing the conflict in human rights terms the international community might also find a new framework within which to recast the wider peace process.

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Cameron’s European Void


Travelling by train from London to Strasbourg this week gave me the rare opportunity to catch up on some long intentioned reading. My book of choice for the journey through the sun kissed French countryside was Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. This blog reviews the book and tests out some of the analysis on the recent European Parliamentary election.

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Ruling the Void is an extended and unfinished essay. It develops the analysis that Mair first put forward in an article in New Left Review where he documented the declining political participation across advanced democracies. Sadly, Mair’s untimely death in 2011 means Ruling the Void remained unfinished, but it has been edited to include previously unpublished material as well as a collection of his writings from the previous 6 years.

Ruling the Void makes the case that even if political parties remain, party democracy in advanced democracies has now passed. He argues that while citizens have disengaged from politics and retreated into their private lives, the parties that used to be embedded in civic life have become nothing more than appendages of the state (a governing class that seeks office rather than a chance to represent ideas and people.) Ruling the Void is about the space that has opened where traditional politics used to be.

Mair suggests that over the last 20 years we have witnessed a gradual shift from popular to constitutional democracy and the concomitant downgrading of politics and of electoral processes.
For Mair, this disengagement, or the widening gap between rulers and ruled, has facilitated the often strident populist anti-establishment challenge that is now a feature of many advanced European democracies. He also holds that it has led to the relocation of political decision making and policy making to non-majoritarian institutions such as the EU, the WTO and IMF.

This analysis is helpful when thinking through the recent European Parliamentary elections. The relief that the turnout was no worse than previous elections has also been tinged with political anxiety. Overall 57% of EU citizens didn’t vote, but in Slovakia this figure was as high as 87%, while in Poland – where the EU has a high popularity rating – 78% of the electorate didn’t vote. All this despite the doubling of the powers of the European Parliament over the last 20 years, and the decision by some to try and link the election to the selection of the new President of the European Commission.

What will worry many people in Brussels however is that the stabilisation in turnout was only achieved by the solid performance of populist and insurgent parties. It was the dispossessed who turned out to vote rather than the middle classes. Rather than voting for establishment parties the election returned an unprecedented number of populist and Eurosceptic representatives, from Denmark and Hungary to Germany and Greece, via the striking success of Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National.

Using Mair’s analogy it is insurgent populist parties like Syriza in Greece and the Dutch Party for Freedom that are filling the void that mainstream political parties have vacated. Drawing on Robert Dahl’s ‘Reflections on Opposition’ (1965) these movements represent an opposition of principle rather than of policy. They are obviously opposed to a range of EU policies, but more importantly they are opposed to the system of elite governance itself.

This opposition isn’t just EU centric; it is also directed at national institutions. After all, the process of Europeanization is such that it is difficult to separate out what is European and what is domestic. Similarly, the disengagement that has occurred at a national level has seen political elites retreat back into non-majoritarian institutions like the EU where they can govern consensually in a safe space free from the vagrancies of electoral politics.

As Mair writes:

“It is not so much that popular democracy needs to be established in the EU, but rather that the EU – along with various less significant non-majoritarian institutions – is actually a solution to the growing incapacity of popular democracy. In short, the EU is not conventionally democratic, for the simple reason that it has been constructed to provide an alternative to conventional democracy.”

This isn’t to say that the EU is anti-democratic – it’s not, it’s a constitutional democracy whose legitimacy is depended on effective policy outputs.

What is perhaps surprisingly however is that so much principled opposition has been directed at the European Parliament when it is national politicians who are responsible for giving shape to the EU polity. There are signs that this is changing as illustrated by the UKIP decision to contest this year’s local council elections and its commitment to field candidates in next year’s General Election. But UKIP is for the moment the exception rather than the norm.

The distinctiveness of UKIP’s electoral strategy does help to explain why David Cameron has felt so moved to contest the choice of Juncker as President of the European Commission. Yet, it is strangely ironic that in contesting the appointment, Cameron is also arguing that the appointment of the Commission President should reside fully with the Council rather than the Parliament. While stressing that the new Commission President must be responsive to the rise of anti-establishment parties, Cameron is also seeking to downgrade normal democratic processes. Here then is Cameron’s quandary. By trying to ride the anti-insurgent wave, he is advocating a form of decision making that UKIP and others find deeply distasteful. This might explain why despite his best efforts in Brussels this week, his strategy of opposing Juncker is not likely to give him any domestic political relief.

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Syria – preparing for a decade of conflict


Syria

Syria - a decade of conflictThere is a growing recognition that despite its brutality, the civil war in Syria is going to be with us for some time to come, maybe as long as a decade. This conclusion is based on both an understanding of the specifics of the conflict in Syria as well as a wider understanding of how civil wars end.

Although the frequency of civil wars has remained pretty constant over the last century, the length of civil wars has grown since the end of the Cold War. While the average civil war lasted 2 years in 1947, it lasted 15 years in 1999. Where rebels fight for secession or natural resources, and where they are funded by smuggled goods, it tends to be longer than in other cases. Civil wars have their own internal clocks which need to be properly understood.

It might offend our liberal sensitivities, but sadly, most civil wars end with the military victory of one side, while only 30% result in a negotiated settlement – a trend that has been somewhat reversed since the end of the Cold War, when international preference (and pressure) for negotiated solutions emerged.

The chances for negotiated settlements to succeed depend, essentially on 2 criteria.

First the leaderships of the parties involved must have the commitment and the capacity to execute what is agreed on (in a fragmented situation, the latter is not always the case). Second, all sides involved have to have realised that they cannot win militarily. Such realisation depends largely on perception: how a party in a civil war assesses the likelihood of victory is contingent on subjective as well as objective factors. The supply of weapons from outsiders, for instance, not only enhances the probability of a civil war but also increases the expectation of an eventual military victory.

As the hope of outright victory decrease with time, a negotiated solution is more likely the longer a conflict lasts. Outsiders can play an important role here, since the success of a settlement depends in part on a ‘guarantor’ who is both willing and able to enforce the agreed framework (e.g. NATO in Bosnia and UN in East Timor).

One option to end a civil war is a full scale military intervention. Statistics show that intervention on the government’s side tends to lengthen a war, while intervention on the rebels’ side shortens it. If both sides are assisted by outsiders, the conflict reaches a stalemate and is therefore prolonged – which explains why, on average, civil wars involving outsiders are both deadlier and more difficult to resolve. In addition, military intervention alone does not alter the conflict’s structure: if the political and economic causes underlying the war are not addressed simultaneously, then terrorism and/or insurgency against the outside forces will begin (eg Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983).

Sadly, Syria has all the characteristics of a long rather than a short civil war. All sides still believe that they can win militarily. In part this is due to the political and military support they are receiving from their backers (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah v Qatar, US, Saudi Arabia, UK and France). The intensity of the civil war might fluctuate, but until one or more sides recognises that they cannot win militarily the essential dynamics are unlikely to change.

The divisions and tensions between Russia and the US that grew out of the West’s regime change in Libya means there is limited coordinated international pressure and preference for a negotiated settlement. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the subsequent international response has fractured yet further the international community’s capacity and appetite to resolve this conflict.

The US, UK and France have shield away from military intervention in support of opposition groups in Syria. This has removed, perhaps, the one instrument that they had at their disposal to radically change the terms of the conflict. The subsequent supply of military assistance – both lethal and non-lethal – to rebel groups helps build their resilience and even guarantees their survival but it is insufficient to tip the scales militarily in their favour.

A further complication is that the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition group that has to date participated in the talks in Geneva, has little legitimacy with those opposition groups in Syria and therefore has limited capacity to execute anything that might be agreed upon. The sad reality is that Western governments have limited leverage with the regime players in Syria and they have limited traction with the myriad of opposition groups inside Syria.

All of this should help in explaining why the West’s policy towards Syria isn’t working and why it is in serious need of review. Three years on, West is still falling foul of simplistic meta narratives and is at risk of pursuing a multiplicity of goals not all of which are complementary.

The West needs to acknowledge both the complexity of this conflict and the lack of leverage that it has to affect positive change. In doing so it needs to learn the lessons from the wider literature on how civil wars end.

The West needs to refocus its efforts on joint humanitarian-political goals and look to a more transactional diplomacy. It needs to avoid backing winners and look instead to engage with a broader array of Syrian opposition and civil society groups regarding Syria’s future. These steps might not foreshorten the war but they won’t prolong it and they might just help to minimise the violence and ensure the continued territorial integrity of Syria.

Finally, even if the complex dynamics of this conflict prohibit a negotiated settlement over the short and medium term, the civil war will at some point come to an end. Western governments, especially those on the United Nations Security Council, need to start thinking through how security will be negotiated in any post-conflict Syria, as this is likely to be the key to any successful negotiated transition.

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Ukraine and the politics of discontent


ukraine 2In my last blog I looked at Russia’s annexation of Crimea and tried to unpack some of the reasons why Russia took the decisions that it did. I suggested that if we can look into Putin’s soul and fathom the complex and varied impulses behind his actions then Western governments will be better equipped to shape an appropriate response and to envisage how he might in turn react. I proposed that while the EU treated its European Partnership Programme as a technocratic exercise in state building, Russia saw it as a provocative exercise in high politics and geostrategy.

The recognition that we are often implicated in each other’s sins is not to excuse Russia’s actions or to legitimise the subsequent injustice that Russia has committed in the Crimea. Even if it is true that Russia’s actions in the Crimea were a response to the EU’s exercise in state building, it does not follow that such action constituted a justifiable response. Similarly, even if the EU’s autism made it somehow complicit in recent events, that does not mean that it should not oppose the annexation. This is an important distinction to make less the exercise in sympathy legitimates a wider injustice.

With pro-Russian separatists now seizing government buildings in the cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv, there is a risk that the Crimea scenario is now at play in eastern parts of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s silence means it is difficult to ascertain with any degree of accuracy whether this civil unrest is an intentional move for further territorial aggrandizement or the unavoidable destabilising effects of having such a massive build up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border.

If the former were to occur then we are likely to see a significant ratcheting up of the sanctions regime against Putin’s Russia and see Russia isolated in a way not seen since Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan. Even if the latter is true, it is entirely possible that Putin might prove reckless enough to exploit the tension. It will therefore be important to see whether Putin offer separatists in eastern Ukraine active support or mere rhetoric.

Either way, events in Donetsk and Khrakiv suggests that the instability in eastern Ukraine is likely to be permanent rather than temporary and one that Putin can play to his advantage whenever he so wishes. Such a state of affairs cannot but have a destabilising effect on Western and wider international efforts to assist Ukraine with its programme of economic and political reform.

Even if the EU and the US are right not to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea – to do so would make them complicit in a truly wicked act – it is clear that no one expects sanctions to result in a return to the status quo ante. With this in mind, at some point the EU and the US must sit down with the Ukrainian government and talk to Russia. Without such engagement, attempts to contain this crisis are likely to be frustrated by the whims of ethnic resentment and mutual suspicion in eastern Ukraine.

There is much in this crisis that smacks of the law of unintended consequences and misfortune. If this litany of unforeseen developments is not to continue unchecked we will need to find ways of re-structuring this conflict and containing the risks of destructive spillover. The existing sanctions response only gets us so far. We need a more imaginative response.

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Resolving the Crimean Standoff


In Musings of a Restless Bishop, the Bishop of Bradford, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, poses the million dollar question as to why Russia is doing what it is doing and why is it doing it now?

The question reminds us that Christian ethics is at heart an exercise in sympathy and self-reflection. To understand Russia’s actions in the Ukraine is not an exercise in apologetics or appeasement but rather critical engagement.

This process is also a critical element of effective statecraft. If we can look into Putin’s soul and fathom the complex and varied impulses behind his actions then Western governments will be better equipped to shape an appropriate response and to envisage how he might in turn react.

To do otherwise is to allow the narratives that we create to determine our play book. Narratives provide comfort at times of crisis, but their simplicity can lead to creaturely miscalculation by blinding us to the unavoidable fog of uncertainty that descends at times of international crisis.

The Bishop of Bradford suggests a number of framing grievances that have come together in Ukraine. Much has been made of the Crimea as part of Russia’s historic homeland and how this was threatened by the Maidan. But, to understand the depth of feeling here it is necessary to bring it into conversation with Putin’s rigidly legalistic understanding of world affairs.

Territorial integrity, state sovereignty and the non-interference in the internal affairs of other states have been key elements in Putin’s foreign policy. When seen in this context the decision to intervene in Crimea and to depart from these core guiding principles could not have been easy and suggests that something existential is at stake. This might explain why he’s gone further than many of us expected him to go, but it also warns that we have no real idea how far he might go.

Another constant in Putin’s foreign policy has been his opposition both to the easterly expansion of NATO and the EU. At the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 he told assembled leaders that “the emergence of a powerful military bloc at our borders will be seen as a direct threat to Russian security.” With regard to the EU, Putin has repeatedly said that he sees the EU’s European Partnership Agreement as the political and economic equivalent of NATO.

It is worth taking a closer look at the Eastern Partnership Programme as it provides the immediate background to the Ukraine crisis. Established in 2009 the Eastern Partnership programmes were intended to build regional stability and democratic institution building with six countries in Eastern Europe and the South Caucuses. It was launched after the EU’s enlargement in 2004 and 2007 to include 10 central and eastern states.

Russia has always seen the European Partnership Programme as an an attempt by the EU to carve out a new sphere of influence in its back yard. Russia’s response was the Eurasia Customs Union and it has sought to use its own incentives to draw these countries back into its orbit.

Since one of the main goals of the European Partnership Programme is to build gas pipelines bypassing Russian, it is perhaps not surprising that Moscow has perceived this project as a dire threat to its economic interests. The EU has played true to form and taken a somewhat technocratic approach to the various partnership agreements. It has been autistic to Russia’s concerns.

Each country obviously has a right to chart its own trajectory, but seen through Putin’s eyes the EU’s attempt to tether countries to itself is clearly provocative. Not surprisingly Russia”s Eurasia Customs Union leads to self-righteous indignation by the EU.
This cycle of mutually competitive behaviour reduces trust and increases suspicion. Western governments and Russia will need to find reciprocal confidence building measures if they are to break this cycle.

For one, the the EU needs to do much, much more to partner Russia in the region, rather than offering mutually exclusive trade deals to European Partnership Programme countries, which only fosters a sense of competition between Brussels and Moscow. What is worrying here is that Russia’s actions in the Crimea is intensifying discussion in some EU capitals that additional political reassurance needs to be offered to these same countries.

The risk here is that the Ukraine becomes the opening salvo in a much wider territorial game. The stand-off in the Crimea might be fuelling the current news cycle and monopolising our attention, but we should also be paying attention to what is going on in Moldova which is due to sign an Association Agreement with the EU later this year.

Against this background, I’m puzzled that Western governments are seriously considering abandoning the G8 in favour of the G7 and scrapping the EU-Russia Summit planned for later this year. The logic is understandable. It deprives Russia of international platforms that it thinks necessary to boost its own national prestige and standing.

Having being involved in the G8 Religious Leaders Dialogue for 10 years I remember the G8 St Petersberg Summit in 2006. As the first G8 Summit organized by Russia, this was a lavish, no expense spared affair designed to show that Russia had reclaimed its place at the top table. The Religious Leaders Summit was no different.To deprive Russia of platforms like this will hurt it, but there are consequential risks attached.

The decision to hold a G7 meeting in the margins of next week’s Nuclear Summit in the Netherlands has seen Putin boycott the main event. Putting aside the risk of allowing the crisis in Ukraine to infect other policy areas, the move risks reinforcing the emerging international division.

The legitimacy of bodies like the G8 is of course questionable, but they do provide a means to communicate national intentions more clearly. In this respect a return to the fireside chats of old might prove more effective than the mega phone diplomacy of recent weeks and might provide an opportunity to escape the unmistakable fog of uncertainty that has descended over Europe in recent months.

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#WithSyria


With SyriaLast week marked the 3rd anniversary to the conflict in Syria.

Over the course of the last 3 years the conflict has resulted in over 2.5 million refugees, 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in Syria and over 6.5 million Internally Displaced Persons. There are over twice as many Syrian refugees than there were Rwandan refugees during the 1994 genocide. The number of Syrian refugees also now exceeds the number of refugees during all the Yugoslav wars between 1991 and 1997.

The third anniversary of the Syrian conflict was marked with vigils around the world, with humanitarian and religious groups calling for an end to the bloodshed and humanitarian access to those most in need. I was really pleased that the Church of England decided to stand with Syria by being part of the global vigil. As the Bishop of Coventry, the Rt Revd Christopher Cocksworth, said in a statement last week:

How many more harrowing scenes of exhausted families crossing the borders from Syria must we bear witness to before world leaders take the necessary steps to resolve this conflict? For how long must we hear the heartbreaking stories of hungry crying children from besieged cities in Syria before we secure unfettered humanitarian access to those most in need? We can remain silent no more. The world can ill-afford another anniversary for Syria marked by bloodshed.

Despite all the encouraging tweets last week from diplomats, foreign ministers and Heads of State recommitting to resolve the crisis, it is difficult not to conclude that the international community’s policy towards Syria isn’t working and is in need of review.

Firstly, at current rates the deadline on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons will be missed – Syria has relinquished only 11%of its chemical weapons in three shipments and is on track to miss a politically-loaded mid-year deadline (30 June) to completely destroy the toxic stockpile.

Secondly, the fighting continues unabated in Syria –Cities and towns remain under siege. Cities are being bombed and starved into submission. The rules of war are being wilfully neglected by all sides.

Thirdly, despite the record amount of British aid (£600m) the humanitarian situation in Syria continues to worsen. The risk of contagion remains high and yet the UN Security Council has proved itself incapable of responding.

Fourthly, diplomatically, the Geneva 2 peace talks have reached an impasse. The second round of talks in Geneva (8-15 Feb) closed with an air of failure. There was no date set for a follow-up meeting, no constructive engagement to build, no trust.

Part of the explanation here is that governments, especially Western ones, continue to fall foul of simplistic meta-narratives and are at risk of pursuing a multiplicity of goals not all of which are complementary.

The West needs to acknowledge both the complexity of this conflict and the lack of leverage that it has to affect positive change. In doing so it needs to refocus its efforts on joint humanitarian-political goals and look to a more transactional diplomacy that looks to link Syria to other policy issues. It needs to avoid backing winners and look instead to engage with a broader array of Syrian opposition and civil society groups regarding Syria’s future.

These steps might not foreshorten the war but they might help to minimise the violence and ensure the continued territorial integrity of Syria. Whether such steps are now possible given the wider ramifications of the crisis in Ukraine is another matter. If not, there is a very real danger that we will witness yet another bloody anniversary in 2015.

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