Syria: where our "best intentions" go to die.
First, we were told that President Assad was doomed. He would fall imminently. Five years on, and he's still there. Let's for argument's sake assume that prior to the Russian intervention last September that he was finally beginning to wobble. This was not due to those within Syria who have supported the government from the outset withdrawing their consent, and whom we chose to pretend didn't exist. It was down to attrition: territory gradually being taken by the rebels and Islamic State, supply routes being cut off, the displacement of millions, manpower shortages in the military, all of which you would expect after four years of brutal, often sectarian war.
Second, the claim that the rebels other than Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front are "moderates" of the kind we can work with, that some are even secular liberals who genuinely want democracy. Regardless of the beginnings of the uprising, as the revolution became civil war it turned viciously sectarian in very short order, unsurprisingly considering the support and funding that was soon provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Emirate statelets, with Iran following in to help the regime. Even now, when it could not be more apparent that the remains of the Free Syrian Army are allied with jihadist groups, whether they be the Saudi-backed Islamic Front or the Army of Conquest, the latter of which includes the al-Qaida aligned al-Nusra, we still hear of how terrible it is these moderates are being targeted without mercy by the Russians.
Third, that the Russian intervention was failing or would fail, that it was helping Islamic State, that it wasn't achieving anything. Suddenly, as soon it became clear from the shrieks of said moderate rebels that Aleppo was in danger of being encircled, starved, according to today's Guardian editorial being "exterminated", subject to a siege equivalent to that of Sarajevo, we've been getting articles either grudgingly respectful of Putin while still slandering him, or ones that remarkably have some relationship to what's been going on quietly for months.
The most obvious example being this fine summary by Jonathan Marcus for the BBC. He only really errs in saying many of the so-called moderate rebels are being "forced" into alliances with groups close to al-Qaida, when the truth is they've been fighting with them for months and in some cases years. The Russian goals in Syria have been simple, and make sense, agree with them or not: ensure Assad doesn't fall in the short-term, then build his forces up in the medium-term in order to support them in regaining the territory the government needs to survive long-term. In the process Putin has shown that Russia is still a military power to be reckoned with, displayed his new weaponry in the field to buyers around the world, and prevented a regional ally from potentially falling. Whether once these goals are achieved Russia will turn its attention fully to Islamic State or not, who knows. It doesn't matter so much as IS is relatively contained, if not in danger of losing as some of the more wishful thinkers imagine.
Meanwhile, just what has our policy been in Syria all these years? Has it made even the slightest sense? Has it looked like achieving our supposed goal, which is the end of the Assad regime and some sort of inclusive governmental system to replace his one-party rule? As Marcus says, essentially our policy for some time has been to ally with al-Qaida against both Assad and Islamic State, while pretending that in fact we're helping moderates. Has it worked? The Ba'ath certainly looked in danger of falling last year, but what would have replaced it? Something better, little different, or in fact worse? If your answer is anything other than one of the latter two, try again.
So here we are. Rather than say encourage genuine peace talks when it looked as though the rebels were in the ascendant, we preferred to allow them to make excuses about why they couldn't attend. We preferred to go along with the foreign policy objectives of our regional allies, the Saudis and the Turks, helping to fund and arm the rebels through their auspices, while knowing full well who their backing always goes to. We carried on doing this even as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled and came to Europe, as we still apparently believed that our side could win, whatever winning would look like. Even now, we talk about "stains" on "records", as though anything we've done in Syria has been about protecting civilians at any point. The more deranged talk about moral bankruptcy, and would it seem quite happily push the world to the brink of war to prove our "moral commitments" and "humanitarian objectives". Sorry, boys. You've been outfought, outplayed and outmanoeuvred. Time to admit it and cut our losses.
Except, of course, we won't.