In this series, Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, discusses issues and trends just over the horizon with renowned analysts and policy-makers.
You say international response to the Syrian crisis is out of sync with reality. Explain why.
The outside world, and in particular the West, has had a difficult time right from the very start of this conflict trying to understand what was unfolding in Syria. It came off the back of uprisings in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. There was a tendency to think that Syria would go the same way, that President [Bashar] al-Assad would fall like [President Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali of Tunisia or Colonel [Moammar] Gadhafi of Libya.
But tragically, what began as a mass uprising has turned into a truly devastating civil war that is now in its fifth year. Also the war in Syria, tragically, is not just about Syria any more. It's a proxy war between the main Sunni powerhouses in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Turkey, against Iran, which is backing President al-Assad and his regime.
Add to this toxic mix a new cold war between Moscow and Washington, and it becomes incredibly difficult for there to be a resolution to the great humanitarian crisis of our time.
Let's talk about the scale of the catastrophe: 200,000 dead, including 10,000 children. Four million refugees spilling out of Syria. Yet, our focus is on Islamic State in Syria. Why?
Yes, the Islamic State has absorbed a lot of our attention. It is the main target of the Western and Arab air strikes. And its trademark brutality has eclipsed what is undoubtedly the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War. Syria is a country where more than half of the population is either a refugee, in desperate circumstances or displaced inside the country, completely dependent on food aid. Syria, as we knew it, no longer exists, and this is a tragic comment on our times. Aid agencies are struggling to keep the world's attention, but the numbers become numbing. What does it mean when you have millions of refugees? What does it mean when there are millions of people injured and traumatized? I think people find all this very difficult to grasp.
Recently we have seen Islamic State making new conquests. Is the strategy of the international military coalition out of step with what's happening?
The contention – that, while air strikes alone could not win the war, they would stop the momentum of the Islamic State – has been shattered by the recent fall of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Air strikes have created some problems for Islamic State, but they are not stopping them on the ground, or from sending the message that they are a growing force to be reckoned with.
The reality is that the West and their Arab partners have been struggling from the start of this crisis to come up with a credible and coherent strategy. For the first years of the war, the strategy seemed to consist mostly of rhetoric by Western leaders saying Assad must go. Over time, these calls had the opposite effect: They reinforced the views of Assad's main allies – Iran, Russia, Hezbollah in Lebanon – that he was the man to back. And back Assad they did, tooth and nail, morally, militarily, financially; with forces on the ground – in ways that the West and Arab countries have not supported the Syrian opposition. In the first years of the war, there was training of the Free Syrian Army, and it had a presence on the battlefield. But with every year that passes, the presence of so-called moderate forces on the ground is being completely eclipsed by forces linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. The reality now is that there are very few, if any, Free Syrian Army or other opposition forces in key areas where they could help the West and Arab partners win this war.
Where does this conflict go from here?
Right now, if you look at Syria, the so-called Islamic State is in control of about half of the country, including large swaths of desert where there is no occupying power. The Syrian government seems to be concentrating its forces and attention to one-fourth of the country, an area encompassing Damascus and the lands along the Mediterranean coast, which is the ancestral homelands of President Assad and the Alawite clan.
There is a lot of debate recently that President Assad's regime is under its greatest strain since the start of the war. And this is undeniably correct. But it still doesn't mean he is going to fall soon. He still has a lot of supporters; Iran and Russia are making it absolutely clear that their greatest fear is regional chaos. They don't want Assad to implode, because they fear whatever comes next will be far worse.
What is happening to our ability to understand this conflict when entire swaths of the country are off-limits to journalists?
This is why I think the outside world continues to get Syria wrong. Almost all journalists, Western and Arab, will not go into northern Syria. Islamic State has made millions of dollars from taking hostage European aid workers and journalists.
So, there are large parts of Syria where we simply do not know what is happening. We depend on the statements of commanders, on activists and on whatever snippets of information we get from people able to slip in and out.
What are your thoughts on how the Islamic State has been able to turn the West's media into their weapon of war?
It's absolutely chilling. It's as if they have taken the best of Hollywood, in terms of cinematic effects, and the worst of shock techniques to blunt people's understanding of conflict. And sometimes, yes, the international media's coverage of the war gets reduced to waiting for one shocking video after the next. In no way does this deepen our understanding of the crisis. It just brings notoriety to the Islamic State and helps it in its campaign to terrorize people and recruit its next batch of foreign fighters.
What will be the enduring lesson of this conflict?
It's so hard to say now whether we aren't looking at a very long and a very destructive war, which is painful. Painful most of all for Syrians, but this crisis also has revealed that the international humanitarian system is utterly broken.
There are more than 190 countries in the world, so why are nations like Jordan, Turkey and Iraq taking in refugees at levels where they now make up 10 to 20 per cent of their populations? The Jordanian foreign minister said a few years ago, to Canada's foreign minister, it is as if all of Canada moved at the same time to the United States– 36 million people going to 325 million.
And since then, it has gotten even worse. Syria's neighbours cannot continue to bear the brunt. The rest of the world, even Western nations that have economic problems and where immigration is a hot-button issue, have to step up.
Unless we're willing to see more and more boats crashing on our shores, more and more young people joining Islamic State, the world has to take a very long breath and publicly acknowledge that tinkering is not going to work.
We have to look at a fundamental realignment of our global, humanitarian response. If we don't do something about it, this crisis is going to overwhelm us all.
This interview has been edited and condensed.