I first wrote about the ongoing conflict in Syria in July 2013. The torrent has been raging now for nearly five years and shows little sign of slowing. In the time since writing, the context has changed - most notably with Western powers now coming to face the fact that Bashar Al-Assad will likely be part of the solution to the crisis, if only for the time being.
The news that the United States and Russia may work together to back the authoritarian regime has caused its share of controversy, but this concert diplomacy is taking place in the context of what has repeatedly been called the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. As the sheer magnitude of the volume of refugees is becoming clearer, more and more in Europe are erecting baracades to keep assylum-seekers out. The question of how to deal with this influx was one of the major election issues during this fall's General Federal Election in Canada.
The political pressure of the refugee crisis is meeting up with the failure of the West to contain or eradicate ISIS. These two phenomena, though largely unrelated at the onset, have coalesced into a diplomatic nightmare that has required cooperation from the likes of France, the United States, Iran, and Russia. There has been much made of the United States working collaboratively with Russia in order to achieve peace in the region. Moreover, the idea of supporting a dictator who has been directly implicated in killing his own citizens has been viewed with, at the very least, scepticism.
Leaving aside the ethical questions of this quandry, it's worthwhile considering the practical consideration that the United States will be finding itself in another version of a situation from which it has failed to properly itself. The American withdrawl from Iraq is viewed as the principal cause for the rapid spread of ISIS - not to mention that Washington has redoubled its commitment in Afghanistan.
As someone who opposes foreign state intervention as a general rule (and as someone who believes in sovereignty), I view attempts to impose a solution with great disdain. However, as someone who also believes in the right to national self-determination, I have strong feelings that Assad is not a legitimate representation of power in Syria. The proposed solution, thus, fails both criteria: it imposes a decision from outside the country by backing a leader that does not represent Syrians. Even if the longer-term solution is to depose Assad, it's ethically flawed.
Unfortunately, there aren't many reasonable alternatives. Intervening unofficially by supporting various rebels has proven to only exacerbate tensions. Intermittent participation in the region is arbitrary and generates new power vacuums and radical political movements like ISIS. The development of a reasonable settlement will require various stakeholders to be able to negotiate together in good faith. However, as we've seen with other conflicts in the Middle East, this is not easily attainable. There are so many divergent groups - all with differing visions of a united Syria.
Instead of focusing on how to restructure Syria, we should be taking a harm reduction perspective, helping to resettle as many refugees as possible. If we are all truly moved by the image of the young Syrian boy who washed onto a beach in Turkey, we should be organising in a way that can make a serious difference. The international community does not have a legal obligation to fight Assad; it has a moral obligation to ease the suffering of ordinary Syrians, those who have uprooted themselves and made arduous journeys that meet never-ending obstacles. Making a difference is possible and actually quite feasible, but it's going to take a collective will to act.