Civil wars are always appalling, and the Syrian one is among the worst. The death toll has been such that we cannot prevent ourselves from asking what could have been done to prevent this catastrophe. This is a question that raises philosophical, moral and political issues.
I have not been “monitoring” the conflict as such, being content to talk about it with those involved and foreign diplomats, but of course I read the newspapers. In May 2011, I asked a well-known figure from the Syrian opposition whether the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad could hold out. His answer was that it could because of its extensive resources and its wide social base. But the opposition member said that “we have to try to topple it, as it is so barbaric.”
I remember this statement well, as when you are confronted with something really terrible you feel you have to do something about it. Being passive is being complicit. But of course there is a snag: You must be sure that anything you do does not end up worsening the situation. And you must be sure that you are ready for an escalation if others are as well.
During the whole of 2011 even people who should have known better were prisoners of the general euphoria: A new dawn, a new era, and the Arab peoples were finally entering the democratic age, many of them said. Many observers tended to think that compared to Al-Assad, Tunisian President Zine Al-Abedine ben Ali and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak were wise leaders, if not always wholly nice guys. However, they nevertheless lost their positions. Surely Al-Assad would also fall, observers said.
But things do not always work out this way. On the contrary, the more tyrannical you are, the more you cling to power and the more those who support you will have to pay for your crimes if you fall from power.
Either in June or September 2011 I heard a respected French scholar saying that the pro Al-Assad militias in Syria were targeting children and killing them on purpose out of deep feelings of hatred and rage. Sunni children are the symbol of their own plight, these militias seem to have thought. As long as Sunnis have so many children, non-Sunnis will remain insecure minorities in the country.
At the end of 2011, I attended a meeting on the development of the Arab Spring. I was struck by the pessimism of observers of the Turkish situation, with many saying that Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan had escalated things too quickly and in a way that had prevented any retreat. He was cornered, they said, and he was faced with the choice of either further escalation or humiliation.
In 2012 or early 2013, I ran into French journalist Christian Chesnot who told me that he along with a few others had been briefed by then French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on the situation in Syria. “Fabius seems to think that the regime is breathing its last and that it only has a few weeks left to live, though I do not know his sources,” Chesnot said.
Chesnot and fellow French journalist Georges Malbrunot later wrote a book on Franco-Syrian relations entitled “Les Chemins de Damas” (Roads to Damascus). It is full of astonishing revelations, as well as tragicomic episodes. The general theme is that there was no coordination between the different French authorities involved in handling Franco-Syrian relations and the result was disastrous.
I am not sure that the coordination was as bad as the two men say, however. Of course, a lot of episodes have been the direct result of ill-studied initiatives by one player or another doing things alone, but such things happen. The French are fond of holding meetings for coordination, planning, brainstorming, etc., so the coordination was probably fair, with some exceptions.
My explanation is that there was a mixture of blindness, hatred and euphoria in dealing with the situation. These were times in which many people still believed in the Arab Spring. There was no Arab exceptionalism, they said. The Arab peoples, like everybody else, wanted freedom and democracy. Arab young people were modern-minded, courageous, creative and dynamic, they felt.
The hatred targeted the Al-Assad regime, which had a knack for strong-arm tactics and merciless repression. A lot of political assassinations had been attributed to the Syrian authorities. The Syrian regime was considered to be the worst of all the Arab regimes at the time.
As far as blindness is concerned, it is difficult without the opening of the archives to know for sure what the Western capitals knew about the development of the crisis in Syria, but the signs indicate that their analysis was deeply flawed. Many Arab leaders warned many Western capitals against having any illusions. Even those who hated Al-Assad thought he would resist and had the resources and regional and international support to do so. But these were not times in which such opinions could be heard: The Arab leaders who were saying such things were themselves “autocrats” who had vested interests and were themselves largely responsible for the mess.
2013 was a “red line” year. This was crossed by Al-Assad when the regime was accused of using chemical weapons, and former US president Barack Obama opted for negotiation, dismantling, or so he thought, the Syrian arsenal of such weapons. The experts are still debating this decision, and I will not review it here. Suffice it to say that Obama’s credibility suffered terribly as a result. Russian President Vladimir Putin thought his American counterpart had no guts and poor political judgement, and he tried to maximise his gains though he might have overreached them. It became clear that the US under Obama would not go for a costly and uncertain military intervention in Syria.
In September 2014, I had a friendly chat with a Western diplomat. He pleaded for the toppling of Al-Assad. The regime was one of the worst on earth, and the repression was horrible and had reached new heights, he said. My question was obvious, however: How are you going to topple him? You do not want a military intervention, and those who are fighting Al-Assad are mainly jihadists. The diplomat replied that he had no solution and that he did not think anyone had a solution.
The man was sincere and was truly horrified by the suffering of the Syrian people. But since then I have often wondered why he kept on saying that Al-Assad had to go when he had no intention of doing anything to get rid of him. He was heightening expectations, when he should have been lowering them.
Things then started to move imperceptibly. Western diplomats started saying that Al-Assad was a “main player” in the process that was unfolding. He would have to leave at some point, they said, but not at the very beginning of the transition in Syria.
The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.