“Never again!” we cry. After the Second World War. After Rwanda. After Bosnia. Then it happens again. And again.
According to the latest estimates, close to 70,000 people have died in Syria’s raging civil and proxy war, with more than four million Syrians needing humanitarian assistance, some two million internally displaced and perhaps as many as 1.5 million refugees outside the country. Unicef says those displaced include nearly three million children. Already, this is one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in recent times. If it’s not stopped, those numbers are expected to rise rapidly. Soon we’ll have Somalia on the Mediterranean.
The population of Syria when this conflict began in 2011 was roughly that of Yugoslavia when its wars began in 1991: some 23 million. Over the subsequent decade of the Yugoslav wars, more than 100,000 people died and some four million were displaced. In just two years, Syria is approaching the harvest of misery for which the former Yugoslavia needed 10.
So why isn’t the word “Syria” on all our lips? Twenty years ago, everyone was talking about Bosnia. Ten years ago, everyone was talking about Iraq. Meantime, we have a United Nations-sanctioned doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, in response to what happened in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. If the responsibility to protect does not apply to the man-made humanitarian catastrophe in Syria, where does it apply?
And then, prompted by the encouraging news about a deal between Serbia and Kosovo, painstakingly brokered by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, an unsettling thought intrudes: How different would things be if Syria were in Europe and Serbia in the Middle East?
At the most shameful, this would suggest that, for Europeans, an Arab life is not worth as much as a European one. Not to mention an African life: Even if the figure of 5.4 million dead since 1998 as a result of armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is an overestimate, all these other wars pale by comparison. Whether or not a kind of subconscious racism is in play, it clearly made a difference that the people dying in the former Yugoslavia were Europeans, while, in Iraq, many Western countries had their own soldiers on the ground.
A more honourable explanation of the asymmetry of concern between Serbia and Syria is that Europe, after plunging everyone else into two world wars, has defined itself as a continent of peace. So war and attempted genocide happening on European soil challenged its own core narrative and identity. The rest of Europe still allowed other Europeans to die and lose their homes in large numbers, while the so-called leaders pathetically intoned that “the hour of Europe has come” – but at least they cared.
Syria, to coin a phrase, is a faraway country of which we know nothing. Our own men and women are not dying there – except for some brave war correspondents and, as recently reported, a few European jihadis and adventure-seekers. But there’s another reason we aren’t swept up in the kind of passionate popular debate we had about Bosnia and Iraq: No one knows what to do about it.
In Bosnia, we tipped the scales of armed conflict between Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, then brought all the parties to negotiate a rough-and-ready settlement based on accepting ethnic division. In Kosovo, we applied direct force, by air and land, to secure a peace based on even more far-reaching ethnic division. Thirteen years on, the still embryonic rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo civilizes that division, European-style, helped by the large incentive of eventual EU membership.
Some, especially in America, Britain and France, are tempted by the notion that, if we allow the EU arms embargo on Syria to lapse in mid-May, we could tip the balance in favour of the rebels – correction: of the right rebels, not the nasty, al-Qaeda-connected ones. We could then broker a negotiated transition to a new, post-al Assad Syria.
Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations says this is unlikely. Not only will Bashar al-Assad continue to fight furiously. Not only will he have support from the countries’ Alawite, Christian, Shia and Druze minorities, against an opposition now overwhelmingly identified with Sunni Islam. Most important, he will have backing from outside powers – above all, Iran, which believes its own future is at stake. The war could probably be won for the rebels by a full aerial assault and foreign troops on the ground. But then “if you break it, you own it.” Up for a new Iraq, anyone?
Yet, the radical alternative that Mr. Barnes-Dacey has sketched out – a de-escalation negotiated between the external powers involved, who would agree to turn off the flow of arms, and urge all their protégés on the ground to negotiate a political compromise – seems equally unlikely to succeed.
I fear the truth is that Syria may be a harbinger of things to come. In the former Yugoslavia, there was the overwhelming presence of one set of like-minded powers: Europe and the West. Russia was a countervailing force, as was China to a lesser degree, but neither felt its vital national interests were at stake in Serbia – whereas many outside powers do in Syria. And still it took 10 years, more than 100,000 dead and millions uprooted, before we reached an untidy peace.
In a no-polar or G0 world, with multiple competing powers, both global and regional, having an interest in a fractured country, such civil and proxy wars become more difficult to stop. Starting a hundred years ago, with the Balkan wars that fed into the First World War, the 20th century became the bloodiest in human history. Unless we develop new ways of conflict resolution, strong enough to constrain this new world disorder, the 21st may be bloodier yet.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.