Five years of war in Syria: five lessons Western leaders haven’t learned

The ink had barely dried on the Munich ceasefire agreement announced on February 11 by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry when only a few days later Syrians and others were casting doubt that it could mitigate the fighting and suffering that Syria has endured for five years.

Why such skepticism? Shouldn’t the world be open to any initiative that world leaders suggest can help so grave a situation?

The problem, as I see it, is that these same leaders are ignoring four key lessons from the unrelenting war and destruction of the past five years.

Lesson number 1: Assad is the problem, not part of the solution

There is one reason for Syria’s dismal human situation: the Assad government’s response to peaceful protests in 2011.

Syria’s brutality has vastly outstripped the response of other Arab governments to the region-wide uprisings of the “Arab Spring.” Long-simmering anger at Assad’s repression turned into a full-scale civil war. The fact is that the regime’s trail of destruction has been unmatched by any other group, including the Islamic State, or ISIS.

A new report by a Syrian organization estimates that 470,000 Syrians have died since the conflict began in 2011. Another recent – and unusually blunt – report from the United Nations documents the Assad regime’s responsibility for systematic policies of torture, intimidation, killing and other violence.

But despite this clear connection between Assad and Syria’s violence, the primary motivation for Western policy efforts in Syria appears to be stopping ISIS.

The Munich ceasefire, for example, specifically excludes ISIS from any suspension of hostilities. This is understandable since US involvement in Syria has been focused on combating ISIS’ would-be caliphate, in the company of France and other countries,

The West’s focus on ISIS also helps explain how Russia’s recent military involvement has helped to revive the Syrian government’s political control. By some accounts, Washington’s heightened concern to fight ISIS may make it more tolerant of Assad staying in power so that a rump Syrian state could help contain the would-be-caliphate.

Countries like the U.S. may see ISIS as its prime enemy, as ISIS itself might wish.

But, for most Syrians, it’s the Assad government that deserves that dubious honor.

Lesson number 2: helping refugees doesn’t necessarily help Syria

World leaders are confronted with the critical challenge of what to do with over 4.5 million Syrians who have managed to escape the terrible conditions in their country.

This staggering number has strained the financial resources of the international refugee system. At the same time, the focus of existing refugee law – to allow a limited number of people to resettle in other countries, instead of being persecuted in their homelands – is not working.

The poignant photos of the dead toddler Alan Kurdi prompted some European countries to increase their intake of Syrian refugees. But this has been a small bright spot in a dark tapestry of suffering.

If the extent of the refugee crisis demands a more consistent and global response, the sheer number of Syrians driven from their country (about 20 percent of the country’s population) complicates the challenge of rebuilding the country.

At best, compassion and aid for refugees help the immediate problems of particular individuals and conveys a critical perspective to Syrians generally that Western countries and individuals are concerned for their plight.

But the refugee problem is a difficult, double-edged sword. Syrian refugees require the world’s help, but Syria will eventually need a significant number of refugees to return to rebuild the country once the war ends.

There are only two real – and related – answers to this problem.

One is for the international community to push harder for a settlement in Syria that puts Assad’s government’s brutal intimidation to a stop as soon as possible.

The second is to find mechanisms, such as significant improvement in the conditions of temporary housing in countries near the Syrian border, that allow Syrian refugees to live reasonable lives and, at the same time, provide incentives for them to return to Syria when this becomes possible.

We know, for example, and I have seen personally, that refugee camps can and should include educational and vocational options for young Syrians to build skills such as hairstyling and electronics repair that can help their chances to contribute to rebuilding their country.

Finding creative and well-funded strategies to turn refugee camps near Syria into innovative zones of empowerment for Syrian reconstruction may be a crucial global policy initiative to ameliorate the crisis, along with addressing Assad and the broader conflict.