There are many actors to blame for the humanitarian disaster that has befallen Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, starting, of course, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose brutal response to the rebellion against his rule precipitated the crisis. The problem has been multiplied, though, by the cynical interventions of global and regional powers – especially the US. In an interview given to Russia Today on Thursday, Assad laid down the gauntlet to the US calling on it to immediately withdraw its military presence in the country. This is something that the US should do regardless of whether it is demanded by Assad since its constant bombing of the country has done nothing to weaken Assad but has only caused a massive loss of lives and empowered militant groups like the IS. Assad did hint that he is considering opening negotiations with the Syrian Democratic Forces – a US-backed Kurdish group that is one of the few rebels to still occupy significant territory. A negotiated settlement or even a temporary ceasefire would be the ideal solution to at least bring a pause to this ruinous war – although past experiences tell us that no side in this multi-faceted war is open to compromise.
The situation in Syria is complicated further by the military presence of Russia and Iran. The decisive shift in favour of Assad in the civil war can be traced to the intervention of Russia and it is considering expanding its footprint in the country even further. A meeting between the defence ministers of Russia and Iran, which was followed by a phone conversation between Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu, led to a Russian proposal to deploy Russian military police in areas close to the Israeli border. Israel’s hope is to prevent Iran – which is its public enemy – from entrenching itself further in Syria. There are also fears that having Russia and the US on opposite sides in the civil war could spark a conflict between the two largest nuclear powers in the world – something Assad alluded to in his interview. There are no easy solutions in Syria, especially when all the countries involved are willing to allow tens of thousands more to die in the pursuit of power. But any settlement must begin by reducing foreign intervention in a country that has been destroyed by power politics.