As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, US Secretary of State John Kerry has resorted to a questionable idea in an attempt to relieve the diplomatic stalemate – involving Basher al-Assad in negotiations. But bargaining with Assad sends a dangerous message that tyranny and human rights abuses can be forgiven for the sake of diplomatic convenience. Assad was part of the problem, but he cannot be part of the solution. The international community needs to focus on addressing the developing humanitarian emergency, empower the millions of refugees, and look elsewhere for the future leadership of Syria.
The UNHCR has declared Syria the biggest humanitarian emergency of our time. The death toll has passed 220,000, over four million people have been displaced and average life expectancy has dropped by 22 years since the conflict began. About 60% of the population currently lives below the poverty line, and specialists estimate that infrastructural damage will set the economy back by 30 years. Diplomatic relations have reached a stalemate, donor fatigue has led to a severe lack of humanitarian funding, the Assad regime has persistently committed atrocities against its own people and, perhaps most importantly, the conflict has been put on the back burner by the international community to address the imminent threat of the Islamic State. This lack of progress has prompted claims that the world has failed Syria.
Meanwhile, Assad is resolute, refusing to relinquish power as he watches his country crumble. As the conflict intensified, so did his use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs and death by torture. Just days after Kerry announced his proposal to re-open negotiations with Assad, a deadly chlorine gas attack hit Idlib. This injustice sparked a widespread Twitter response with #KerryNoNegoWithKiller, condemning the possibility of allowing the man responsible for Syria’s collapse to have a role in its re-building.
Attempts at conflict-resolution (or even management) have so far failed. With staunch support from Iran and Russia for the Assad regime, and the dictator’s own intransigence, little progress can be made diplomatically. Rather than attempting to negotiate with Assad, more needs to be done to address the developing humanitarian crisis. The funds successfully collected often do not reach those most in need – internally displaced people living in remote areas and war zones in Syria. Those who don’t perish as casualties in the war are dying from adverse weather conditions, lack of access to clean water and food shortages. Although prospects for peace are currently looking slim, there should at least be scope for humanitarian relief.
Syrian civilians are not only bearing the brunt of the damage caused by the conflict – they are also marginalized and stripped of agency in the future of their country. The lack of education and opportunities for development for the refugees and displaced people has become a critical issue. The country has effectively fallen and it will take years to rebuild its society and infrastructure. More should be done to empower the potential leadership which might emerge from the ashes of Syria as we know it in 2015: a leadership with no place for the tyrant Assad.