Feigning helplessness

Claims by Western diplomats that the Syria conflict can only be solved politically and not militarily are misleading. While the West foots the bill for the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the Assad regime, Russian President Putin creates a situation on the ground to further its interests. A commentary by Markus Bickel

By Markus Bickel

It was the third attempt – and it too ended in failure. Opposition and regime representatives held out together for less than 100 hours in Geneva. Then they repacked their bags without having moved even a centimetre closer to a diplomatic solution to the Syria conflict. The envoys of Bashar al Assad emerge as the point scorers from the short meeting, titled Geneva III: they can claim that the failure of these latest Syria talks was not down to them. After all, it was the opposition that broke off negotiations.

Assad's opponents had every reason to do this. Right at the start of the summit in Geneva, the Russian air force extended its attacks on opposition positions around Aleppo. Tens of thousands of people are now on the run, many of them entering nearby Turkey. The former business metropolis of Aleppo could have served as the capital for regime opponents – this at least was the hope just a few months ago. But then Putin intervened in the war and crushed this dream as well. After Hama and Homs, Aleppo might be the last nail in the coffin for the aspirations of the rebels. For there is no prospect of Russia relenting.

No support for the Syrian opposition

This is why claims by Western diplomats in Geneva that the conflict can only be solved politically and not militarily are also so misleading. In actual fact, this sentence was always just an excuse: at no point during the conflict have America or Europe been willing to provide decisive support to the opposition. When the freedom fighters called for a no-fly zone, they were rebuked and told that this was not militarily feasible. When Assad attacked them with chemical weapons, the regime was integrated into a large-scale chemical weapons disarmament programme – which turned the arsonist into the fire extinguisher.

Map showing Russian airstrikes in Syria (source: Deutsche Welle)
Putin and Assad's war at the expense of the Syrian civilian population: the positions of the Syrian state leadership – supported primarily by Russia and Iran – and its opponents are entrenched. The Syrian civil war has now been going on for almost five years, costing the lives of more than 260,000 people to date

Putin's intervention has ensured that this remains so. Assad's key ally has long become the kingmaker in Syria. Without his co-operation, there will be no way to end the war – and the Damascus dictator will remain in office.

This is why Kerry and Steinmeier will again be using all their powers of persuasion at the Munich security conference to press Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to put an end to the airstrikes. But this will only happen when Assad has achieved all his territorial goals. Aleppo is just the start.

From barrel bombs through torture to the starvation of entire cities

A few numbers are enough to show that the West absolutely has the means to square up to Russia's military approach: Washington has thus far spent almost six billion US dollars on the war against "Islamic State". Since August 2014, the US military has been spending 11 million US dollars every day on airstrikes against the jihadists, released by Assad from prison to weaken the moderate opposition. But to this day, the international "alliance against IS" has stood by and watched unmoved, as he continues to commit war crimes – from barrel bombs through torture to the starvation of entire cities.

Considered in this context, the numbers emerging from the London Syria conference appear much less impressive than Ban Ki Moon would have us believe: donors there last Thursday pledged nine billion euros by 2020, six of those to be transferred to the crisis region by the end of the year.

Everyone knows that this is a woefully inadequate sum to cope with the six million people on the run within Syria and the 4.5 million others in neighbouring countries. But funds are not lacking, as spending on the air campaign against IS shows: the Pentagon will again spend at least four billion US dollars this year on the bombing campaign against the terror militia. Of course, the donor conference nevertheless serves to appease the conscience.

The decisions made in London are likely to please Assad most of all, because from his point of view, this is an excellent distribution of labour: the West foots the bill for the humanitarian catastrophe he has caused and Putin creates a situation on the ground that serves his interests.

Markus Bickel

© Qantara.de 2016

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

The author has reported from Lebanon for "Spiegel Online", "Die Zeit" and the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung". From 2008 to 2012 he was editor of the F.A.Z. in Frankfurt, from 2012 to 2015 its Middle East correspondent in Cairo. Since the beginning of 2016 he has been working as an author and journalist in Berlin.