Two days ago, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon announced that he was inviting the Iranian government to send representatives to the preliminary rounds of the peace conference in Geneva, dubbed 'Geneva II' which has been organised to try and find a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria. The surprise move was met with condemnation from the United States and with the threat of a walkout of the Syrian opposition, who only very recently managed to agree among themselves to actually attend the conference. The controversy is symptom of a deeper problem with the Geneva talks. The different sides in the talks, the rebels, the USA, the Russians and the government of Bashir al Assad all have different and conflicting agendas and goals. Fundamentally however, the problem is one of aspirations not matching reality for the Western powers and their allies among the Syrian rebels.
The West and the Syrian National Council (SNC) are going into these talks determined to find a future for Syria that does not involve Assad, Iran or Hezbollah, to say nothing of the more radical elements among the Syrian rebels linked to Al Qaeda. Assad, and his backers in Tehran, Moscow, Beirut and probably Baghdad know that his regime is going to stay in place no matter what is agreed at the conference. Assad has a loyal army, Russian and Iranian money and weapons and a large number of Hezbollah fighters on his side. The SNC and its affiliated armed groups are too busy fighting their more radical colleagues and are too outmatched by Assad's firepower to change this dynamic. The West has rightly agreed not to get involved in the conflict, as this would only accomplish the death of more Syrians and possibly draw in Iran and maybe even Russia to the conflict. Armed intervention is a truly woeful idea on all fronts. And yet western governments persist in fanning the flames of opinion that "Assad must go". Assad is going nowhere, and the military and strategic calculus is in his favour.
For some, this is reason to up western military aid and get dug into the conflict in order to change this balance. This is insanity. Far from "failing" the people of Syria by not getting involved, by staying out the West is helping to prevent bloodshed on a greater scale. The obvious comparison to make is to America's entry into World War II. But Assad, for all his brutality is not even in the same universe as Adolf Hitler. There is no justification for unleashing the incredible power and appalling destructive force of America's military in Syria. The collateral damage would far outweigh the benefits of toppling Assad, and that's assuming the Russians and Iranians don't get involved.
A far better comparison is to America's involvement in Europe after the end of the second world war. Through the Marshall Plan, America helped to rebuild Europe's shattered nations and peoples. Instead of the all too common historical precedent of violence, we should look to America's unique and wonderful contribution to a broken continent. Through aid and economic assistance of many different kinds, and through the sheer act of stepping in to help, America helped to rebuild Europe, house its refugees, feed its hungry and make it prosper again. The same needs to be done for Syria. Two million Syrians are currently refugees in neighbouring countries. In many cases these neighbours are under incredible strain to help the new arrivals. It is here that the West can most effectively help Syria. These refugees, whose numbers will only continue to grow as the conflict drags on, are the future of Syria. When this war is over they will be the ones who will return to Syria, to rebuild their homes and their country. The West will play an important role then as well, but the refugees need help now. They need clean water, food, hospitals, schools, durable shelter and housing. Their host countries need help keeping basic amenities and services going for both the refugees and their own people.
This is a real, concrete way of helping Syria. Better by far that the Syrians currently fled from their homes should return in good health, maybe even with education and skills that they can use to help rebuild. Better that instability stemming from a huge influx of people does not destabilise other countries in the region. All this can be accomplished without recourse to violence. And equally important are the internally displaced people within Syria itself. Helping them is a far riskier prospect, but it is a task being undertaken with great courage by many different people and agencies. These groups need help to carry out their task. They need supplies, well stocked bases in neighbouring countries to operate from and adequate transportation in and out of Syria. Again, no force is needed or called for, just aid. Simple, human aid. A helping hand, not a gun. Whatever happens in Geneva, and it is unlikely to be heartwarming, the world can start to build a better future for Syria now, by helping some of her most vulnerable people. This is a worthy goal that everyone can support. We can only hope that it is the goal the West chooses to pursue.