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Charles Lister: The West Thought Syria was Other People’s Concern

It is never too late to pursue determined efforts to secure some semblance of justice and accountability. The Syrian Observer sits with Charles Lister.
Charles Lister: The West Thought Syria was Other People’s Concern

In an article in Politico, Washington-based British writer Charles Lister wrote: “The U.S. must also acknowledge that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came within an age of impunity that resulted from years of unchallenged authoritarianism and criminal aggression.” He drew a number of similarities between Putin’s war on Ukraine and his continuous war in Syria. He argues that as the West considers how to contain Russia, and how to counter the next offensive, we need to understand the signals Moscow has already sent and draw the most useful lessons we can from its tragic, deadly seven-years-long engagement in Syria.

Charles Lister is a senior fellow and the Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. His work focuses primarily on all-things related to Syria and on issues of terrorism and insurgency across the Levant. Prior to joining MEI, Lister was a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Qatar and a Senior Consultant to the multinationally-backed Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative, in which he managed nearly three years of intensive face-to-face engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups.

The Syrian Observer’s editor-in-chief, Wael Sawah, had a long conversation with Lister – on WhatsApp and via emails – on his article, but also on his visions about the political spectrum of both Syria and Ukraine in terms of justice and accountability as an introduction to peace.

Below is Lister’s insight on these issues.

The Syrian Observer: Has the West shot itself in the foot when it ignored Putin’s policies and ambitions in Syria?

I don’t think there’s any question that the West’s meek response to Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 and to the extensive list of war crimes it’s committed and defended in on Syrian soil ever since served to create a perception of impunity within the Kremlin. How could it not? But the issue goes beyond impunity and perceived Western weakness. I think Putin has also learned that since the Iraq War (and arguably even before that) the West has developed a consistent track record of risk aversion and short attention spans. In Putin’s calculations, even when the West has piled on the pressure, that too has eventually subsided when such pressure became unpopular back at home, or when Western politicians simply lost interest and moved onto something else.

So yes, absolutely, the West’s record for weakness and inconsistency served to directly undermine our own credibility – even when we were genuinely seeking to be serious and assertive. There’s no doubt that our collective response to the invasion of Ukraine has been extraordinary, and the effect on the battlefield has been clear for all to see. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the truth: our strong and consistent warnings against an invasion still comprehensively failed to deter Putin’s order to invade in the first place. And despite our aggressive response since, the costs of that invasion are immense: tens of thousands dead, entire cities and towns turned into rubble, and the world is now entering a period of acute food insecurity and economic strife – when those global crises were bad enough already.

The Syrian Observer: So what lessons can one learn from that?

Ultimately, this ought now to have underlined one clear lesson: global norms and red lines don’t mean anything unless they’re consistently enforced and underlined. We pick and choose to defend these principles not just at the risk of our own credibility and domestic stability, but at the risk of international security.

The Syrian Observer: In this case, would you think that their position was due to ignorance or deferring the risk till later because at that time, it did not affect the western hemisphere.

To be frank, I think there was probably a bit of everything at play, but ultimately it was primarily the result of several interlinked – and false – assumptions: (1) that Syria just doesn’t matter; (2) that we can isolate ourselves from Syria’s instability; and (3) what’s happening in Syria is, when push comes to shove, other people’s problem more than it is, or should be ours.

The world is a dangerous, unstable place. The United States cannot be the world’s policeman – and if it tried, we would facilitate our own downfall. But Syria always contained all the necessary ingredients to become something so much more destabilizing – given its geographic location, in the heart of the Middle East; as the jewel in the crown of Iran’s regional ambitions; as a zone of acute Turkish and Israeli security concerns, in close proximity to Europe; and as a theater of long-term jihadist activity. The idea that a crisis in Syria would always remain self-contained, or that treating its symptoms would represent a sustainable containment strategy was always a misnomer. And eventually, we were guaranteed to bear at least some of the costs of leaving it to fester, or spiral.

The Syrian Observer: How about now? Is there a chance to learn from our mistakes and hold Putin accountable not only for his war crime in Ukraine but also in Syria and elsewhere?

I don’t think it’s ever too late to pursue determined efforts to secure some semblance of justice and accountability, but it’s certainly unfortunate that we needed to wait until 2022 and a Russian invasion of Ukraine to “realize” Putin’s Russia required a determined pushback. For reasons we can all imagine – but which should leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths – the war in Ukraine has precipitated a far more concerted and aggressive response from the international community than Syria ever did. Whether in terms of our willingness to take in Ukrainian refugees or to determinedly empower those confronting Russian aggression, there’s just no comparing the Syria and Ukrainian cases.

But Ukrainians have clearly identified in solidarity with Syrians who’ve borne the brunt of Putin’s aggression for more than a decade – and vice versa. I think partnerships like this, and a sharing of experience, lessons learned, and evidence of crimes committed will ultimately empower efforts to pursue justice and accountability more than if these cases were being dealt with separately, in isolation from each other. Putin’s Russia cannot be shamed into concessions, that much we know, but perhaps a determined and well-resourced international legal effort can help add to the pressure we know is already being felt within parts of the Russian elite over this war in Ukraine.

In short, there’s a real opportunity now to take advantage of the global outcry, and that should not be missed. I personally know prominent politicians who wanted nothing whatsoever to do with proposals to help Syria who having now watched events play out in Ukraine, are suddenly all ‘gung-ho’ about confronting Russian crimes. It’s appalling that we had to wait for this to act as a wake-up call, but we ought to take advantage of that now, while it’s still there.

The Syrian Observer: In your article in Politico, What’s Putin’s Next Move? Look to Syria, you write, “To the international community, the prospect for calm after years of bloody chaos, as well the purported guarantee of an influx of humanitarian aid into areas beset by years of intense conflict was an attractive proposition.” Do you think the ‘international community’ knew that that was not a truly lasting solution and nevertheless opted to go with it?

This was a reference to the international community’s welcoming of Russia’s “de-escalation zone” proposal in Syria back in 2017. I know for a fact that Western policymakers – including some involved in negotiating in person the southern de-escalation zone agreement – knew that the deals were deeply disadvantageous to the opposition and would create conditions in which the opposition and its civilian communities would end up ceding territory to the regime. There were literally maps where all of this was scoped out. And yet we welcomed the Russian proposals with open arms.

Why? Because the West had chosen its priority by then, and that was countering ISIS. There’s no doubt that ISIS was a serious concern at that point in time and it should unquestionably have been an issue of continued significant effort. But what policymakers have consistently refused to acknowledge is that ISIS is simply a symptom of Syria’s crisis, not a cause. We can combat, confront, roll back and “defeat” ISIS all we want, but the Syrian crisis will still be there, and the ingredients necessary for long-term, intractable instability will persist and grow even deeper.

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In Washington though, the counter-ISIS campaign was the only real priority of the time, and policymakers working on Syria had grown deeply skeptical of Syria’s opposition and saw continued investment in them as a waste of their time and American taxpayer’s money. A philosophy of ‘Syria is always going to be unstable, no matter what we do’ had become a standard working assumption, and so had a largely unsaid cynicism of the Arab-majority opposition movement – either labeled as corrupt, extreme or incompetent, depending on the time of the month. In that sense, being presented with an opportunity to let go of opposition responsibilities and allow Russia to shoulder the burden of what came next was perceived as a ‘good enough’ or ‘best of a bad bunch of options’ policy.

It was always a recipe for disaster — some of us knew it at the time and said so in no uncertain terms to the policymakers in question – but the call had been made.

The Syrian Observer: What do you say to those Syrian refugees who feel bitter when they compare themselves to the Ukrainian refugees?

As a matter of principle, refugees should be given the same treatment, no matter their ethnicity, religion or gender. But the difference between Syria and Ukraine has been stark and shocking. You deserved so much better.

The Syrian Observer: You are the director of the Syria program at the MEI, which areas do you focus more on them. How much do you think are the U.S. policymakers interested in and receptive to your work?

MEI’s Syria Program is going from strength to strength. We’ve got nearly 20 dedicated experts based in the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East, half of them Syrians. At a time when getting Syria on the public agenda at all is a big ask, I’m proud of what we’re accomplishing in terms of work and impact within policymaking circles.

There’s no doubt that attention is largely focused elsewhere these days. Even before Ukraine, few policymakers were particularly keen to talk about Syria – it was either an old story, no longer important, or a lost cause. But I do think Ukraine has re-awakened many eyes to Syria, its suffering, and to be frank, our policy failures there and how to make up for at least some of them. I try to be optimistic, but the outlook for Syria is grim and nobody has a magical solution.

Nevertheless, we’re definitely still keeping policymakers informed, and helping to guide their thinking in useful ways. Whether on combating normalization or encouraging a strategic shift from emergency assistance to targeted investment and stabilization across northern Syria, we’ve managed to input ourselves into the conversation in helpful ways in recent months – or at least I hope so.

Personally, I’d also like to think Russia’s decision to place me under sanctions and issue me a lifetime ban might have had something to do with continuing to do the right things on Syria!

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