How the West miscalculated in Syria

How the West miscalculated in Syria

By Claude Salhani -Trend:

Since the start of the Syrian civil war three years ago, few among the legions of so-called experts seem to have a clear understanding of the regime and its operational procedures. Nikolaos van Dam, a well seasoned former Dutch diplomat who served his country as ambassador to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia, is one of those.

Ambassador van Dam is also the author of "The Struggle for Political Power in Syria", and ranks among the voices of those who understand the political and social fabric that makes Syria tick.

In a speech delivered in Berlin on May 20, the former diplomat explained the harsh realities of the devastating war that in now entering its fourth year. Edged on by the Western powers the opposition found the courage to raise their voices and guns against the regime. More than three year and 162,000 dead later, they have little to show for their sacrifices, other than devastated cities and towns.

Operating with only a wishful thinking policy, the West mistook their desires for realities and began to believe their own rhetoric.

"Assad never had any intention to leave. On the contrary, he intends to overcome the revolution and win the battle for Syria, whatever the costs. And the higher the costs, the more there is a will to continue the struggle, if only to prevent all the victims from having died in vain," said van Dam.

A ceasefire followed by reconciliation talks could have worked in the early days of the war but at this stage it seems very unlikely that the two sides could agree to even meet, given the bad blood that has collected.

For all sides fighting in the conflict it appears that there can be no solution other than one obtained through the gun.

"So long as there is no war fatigue," says van Dam, the war will continue. Time plays both in favor of, and against the Assad regime. The more the threat of Islamists looms the more the Western powers re-think their support of the opposition and the stronger the Assad regime becomes.

"The worse the situation becomes, the more the Assad regime starts to be seen as an option to be preferred over the radical Islamic state that the Islamist forces want to establish," said the former Dutch diplomat.

The dilemma or at least one of them is that if the regime wins the war the violence is very likely to continue. "...Sooner or later there will be a reckoning against the Assad regime and its crimes against humanity," said van Dam.

"We should not expect any mercy in the way Assad's regime deals with its opponents: there will be no pardon for the massive armed revolutionary opposition groups that are trying to topple the regime. It is to kill or be killed. A compromise has, as of yet, not really come in sight because a real compromise between the opposition and the regime, with real power sharing and substantial political reforms could be the prelude to the fall of the Ba'th regime later on," said van Dam.

Similarly, the opposition, if they win, they are unlikely to show much mercy to Assad and his followers.

Many Western countries broke off diplomat diplomatic relations with Syria and regarded President Assad's rule as illegitimate. Indeed, this may have been the right thing to do from a moral point of view. Yet, as explains the former diplomat, it prematurely cut off any opportunity to play a constructive role in helping find a political solution to the crisis. This, adds the Dutch ambassador, was not something that Assad was about to loose any sleep over.

Three years into the conflict and as casualties began to mount the Western powers realized that Assad was not about to leave anytime soon, especially in light of the Iranians and Hezbollah who jumped in to help militarily. The West pushed for dialogue and twisted some arms until both sides agreed to convene in Geneva. But here again the Western powers committed a mistake they have committed in the past and failed to draw lessons from it.

The mistake was to exclude Iran from the talks, the only country that might have the capacity to exert some pressure on the Syrians.

Again, as the Dutchman points out, this same error of judgment was made when the Palestine Liberation Organization was excluded from talks on settling the Arab-Israeli dispute. As was Hamas and Hezbollah in other talks.

"It is a grave mistake to exclude main players in a conflict from dialogue aimed at solving it," said van Dam. Such actions achieve nothing and only help prolong the conflict.

Furthermore, although Iran is a strong supporter of Bashar Assad, the ruling mullahs in Tehran and Qom may take a more down to earth approach to solving the conflict than Assad and his gang.

"We have no great love for Bashar," confided a high-ranking Iranian official to Trend Agency during a private meeting in Astana last month. "We are only protecting our flank," added the Iranian official.

Furthermore excluding Iran from the peace talks offered a double negative as since the closing of Western embassies in Damascus the Western powers had lost all means of direct communications with the leadership in Damascus. Once again the West was assuming that Assad would cave in under pressure and concede. What they failed to consider is that as van Dam clearly states, "dictators do not follow the rules of democratic accountability and decency."

The West was to find out the hard way.

(This is the second of two articles on the war in Syria based on the speech by Ambassador van Dam which was reprinted on

Claude Salhani is senior editor at Trend Agency in Baku and a political analyst specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and terrorism. You can follow him on Twitter @claudesalhani

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