“Tolerating the Intolerable: Syria Four Years On”

Nov. 16, 2015

Former UK Ambassador to Lebanon, Tom Fletcher, and BBC war correspondent, Paul Wood, participated in a conversation on Syria moderated by Future of Diplomacy Project Executive Director, Cathryn Clüver, titled “Tolerating the Intolerable: Syria Four Years On” on September 30.

Mistakes made

Ambassador Tom Fletcher opened the discussion by reflecting personally on his emotions about Syria while in office as UK Ambassador to Lebanon. "The three emotions that I felt were “humility,” “rage,” and “shame." Ambassador Fletcher argued that the turning point in the conflict was when President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron's decided not to bomb Syria in August 2013. Identifying two areas in which the US and its allies made errors early in the Syria crisis, Ambassador Fletcher stated, "in 2012, we made a mistake by saying that Assad should go before we have political talks; we should have built in some flexibility. Secondly, we should have allowed Iran into the issue."

Failure to act earlier

Referring to the specific instance of President Obama's botched "red line" ultimatum, Ambassador Fletcher insisted that by far "the biggest mistake was making a threat that wasn’t seen through." "[This] was a game-changer: it allowed a lot of space for those defending Assad and a lot of confidence to the Russians.” The ambassador further criticized the way in which the US and UK "over-estimated the coherence of our allies; we under-estimated how far Assad would go; we under-estimated how far Russia and Iran would go. We over-estimated our own patience and courage and creativity in all of this.”

Former BBC war correspondent, Paul Wood, inserted that if the US had been a player earlier on in the conflict it would have perhaps had more latitude and bandwidth to resolve the conflict. “Henry Kissinger said something very sensible: superpowers can make their own reality on the ground. If America had been a player earlier, people would have reacted differently, maybe it would have been different," he stated.

A new form of war coverage

As a war correspondent covering conflicts such as Kosovo before the internet age, Paul Wood reflected on how social media and the internet have radically changed news and journalism. "Syria is the first Twitter and Facebook war," described Wood, citing the flood of images as a key differentiator in the public consumption of war news. Wood described how so-called "citizen journalists" have, in some instances, muddied the integrity of the news by simply "making things up," citing examples of citizen journalists setting fire to tires and documenting it as a "violent attack."

A journalist's perspective of war from the ground up

As a war journalist reporting on 12 conflicts over a span of 20 years of daily coverage, Paul Wood agreed with Fletcher's asssessment of 2013 as a critical turning point in the Syria conflict. Wood added that this juncture also symbolized the last opportunity that the US and its allies had for cooperation with certain Syrian groups: "the last slivers of secular opposition, people with whom we might have done business, disappeared and the only people that are left are hardliners...Now, I am not so sure that the international community and Western powers have any friends on the ground," declared Wood, adding that the "[Syrian] people took to crime...and began looking elsewhere, to people like ISIS."

Nevertheless, Wood expressed the view that “Western governments and public shouldn’t put too much blame on themselves" because any meaningful partnership on the ground in Syria would have been hampered by a fundamental disconnect in values and goals. "The rebels didn’t really understand democracy," insisted Wood, speaking from his experience spending time with Syrian rebels on the ground such as the al-Nusra Front. “They were fighting for sharia, they were fighting for Islam; nobody else said for freedom or for democracy. [Therefore], we would have ended up funding Islamists of some stripe.”

Constraints on foreign policy-making

“Democracy is a constraint on the freedom of foreign policy-making,” Ambassador Fletcher boldly declared, citing the example of when his own country's parliament refused to join in the fight in Syria. Ambassador Fletcher critically assessed how oftentimes "24/7 media cycle and [focus on] the cons almost dictate the policy." "You’re thinking about the soundbite, the tweet, before you even hit the policy," added the ambassador. He added that democratic institutions can often enable foreign countries to see through a country's foreign policy constraints, arguing that the Russian President Vladimir Putin is able see "our democracy very transparently" and use that knowledge to his advantage.

The "migrant crisis"

Ambassador Fletcher qualified the contemporary refugee crisis as a series of "society-changing moments" that have produced "an extraordinary strain on the three neighbors: Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.” Ambassador Fletcher added that while the UK should do more to help house and shelter refugees, it can be more effective by obviating the heavy transaction costs of the current system and giving aid directly to neighboring countries "because the $200 million goes further in Lebanon, Jordan, and in the region than in Britain and is much better to help them in the region than inside Europe.” He stressed that the UK should also design a way to "deal with stability in host countries" that are already experiencing enormous internal pressure. One solution, the ambassador suggested was to "to give aid to the most vulnerable - the Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians - across the board [in those countries]."

Russian intervention

“I think the Russian military intervention is this year’s must significant game-changer in Syria," declared the former ambassador. Both Ambassador Fletcher and Mr. Wood expressed deep apprehension about the Russian intervention. Ambassador Fletcher was concerned that it would push more people to ISIS. “We have to find forces that are not this barrel-bombing tyrant or ISIL," said Ambassador Fletcher, "but that is very difficult."

Mr. Wood provided an interesting perspective on how the Syria conflict has exploded into a conflict driven by disparate and diverse violent groups where "it [has become] profitable to be a military general" and there is "no incentive to stop" the violence. "Assad and the Russians have always wanted this to be about a state - authoritarian it may be - against states" insisted Mr. Wood, expressing concern that Russian intervention will make things yet more "complicated," forcing the US and UK to "back this awful thuggish dictator against ISIL" because they fear the increasing violence and uncertainty fuelled by uncohesive radical actors.

What kind of war is this?

"I’m still not sure about the essential character of the revolution," asserted Mr. Wood, maintaining the difficulty in determing "the nature of the Syrian war." Referencing the many groups at play in the conflict that all perceive the conflict very differently, the veteran war correspondent expressed fears that the near collapse of the Assad regime might lead to "a genocide like Rwanda." Mr. Wood insisted that determing the nature of the war will be crucial to implementing a feasible resolution strategy.

Digital diplomacy

"They’re “fleet-footed” with social media and [implement] a “drive-by” use of social media like their warfare style," said Ambassador Fletcher with regards to ISIS' social media campaigns. "Our No. 1 strategic priority is to reduce the talismanic effect of ISIS on our communities and societies. It’s a debate that has to be led within the [Islamic] communities but it is important that we have a strong sense of the values we want to protect," asserted the ambassador. Mr. Wood further underlined that ISIS "appeal[s] to young alienated second-generation muslims in European countries” and that work needs to be done there to address homegrown radicalism directly.

In spite of the pessimistic tone of discussion, Ambassador Fletcher concluded the conversation by expressing faith in the current generation's use of digital diplomacy tools: "this generation has the ability to be diplomacy's greatest generation because of the smartphone and technology," he said.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Future of Diplomacy Project
For Academic Citation:“Tolerating the Intolerable: Syria Four Years On”.” News, , November 16, 2015.