World

International system has failed Syria

Syrian refugee girls in the Zaatari camp in Jordan Image copyright PA
Image caption Many Syrians have fled the country

Today the tourists come to view the magnificent ceramics. There is a special section devoted to the treasures of Mesopotamia.

But the visitor will find no evidence of the moment which made the museum at Sevres briefly famous.

It was one of those times in history where separate events became inextricably and tragically linked.

On 10 August 1920 the victorious Allied powers formally abolished the Ottoman empire with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres outside Paris.

It would be superseded by other treaties. But it was the international document in which the territories that are now Syria, Iraq and Palestine would be carved up and controlled by outside powers.

Negotiators from Britain and France had already drawn the frontiers of the territories they coveted.

Just eight months previously, also in Paris, the League of Nations - the forerunner to the United Nations - was founded with the aim of preserving international peace.

Greatest challenge

Ninety-five years later it is the unfolding horror in the old Ottoman lands that provides the United Nations with the greatest peacemaking challenge of our time.

I have followed the stories of Syrians forced from their homes since the beginning of the conflict.

In the early days they would express the hope of going home.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Martti Ahtisaari says the international system has failed criminally

But as seasons of war accumulated, as foreign powers poured weapons and money into Syria, as extremists gained in strength, the possibility of return ebbed away.

Now, nearly five years after the conflict began, the UN is preparing to sponsor peace talks.

But could the existing international structures of peacemaking have saved the country from disaster?


Treaty of Sevres:

Pact between the victorious allies from World War One and the representatives of the government of Ottoman Turkey signed on 10 August 1920

Abolished the Ottoman Empire and obliged Turkey to renounce all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa

Britain effectively took possession of Palestine, while France took over Syria, Lebanon and land in southern Anatolia

Britain also took over Iraq

The Kingdom of Hejaz, part of modern day Saudi Arabia, was given formal recognition as an independent kingdom

Armenia was recognised as a separate sovereign state


One of the UN's leading diplomats, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, told me there had been a "criminal" failure on the part of the international community.

"It is a disgrace...and I am ashamed that the international community has allowed the Syrians to keep on killing each other."

Ahtisaari is a veteran of peacebuilding in Namibia, the Balkans, Iraq and Indonesia. He is now a member of the "Elders", a group of eminent statesmen and women who devote their energies to resolving conflict.

They are part of a global movement which emerged in the wake of the tragedies of Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s when the international community was seen to have dramatically failed vulnerable civilians.

Ahtisaari welcomes the forthcoming Syrian talks and insists "there are no conflicts which cannot be resolved".

Chance missed

But he believes a chance for peace was missed back in early 2012 and that the European refugee crisis might not have happened had the West taken up Russian suggestions that President Assad be allowed an "elegant" way out.

"It could have been avoided. It was an opportunity lost because now at least talks are taking place...[but] millions have had to leave their homes and save their families and become refugees."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption President Assad "should have been given a way out"

There is no way of knowing how sincere that offer was, or whether negotiations then would have achieved an end to the conflict.

But according to Ahtisaari the UN envoys eventually realised they were getting no support from the major powers on the Security Council.

The disunity on the Security Council reflects changed world realities.

Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, and the chaos they engendered, drained public support for Middle Eastern entanglements and contributed to the divisions at the UN.

One of the founders of the aid agency Medecins San Frontieres, Rony Brauman, has observed numerous conflicts and points to interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo as positive examples.

But interventionism demands extreme caution he says.

"We can't just say interventions are worth nothing. This is not entirely true. In some cases, yes, it is worth something.

"But in most cases it produced more harm than good...so let's be aware of intervention as a political solution."

Russian intervention

Russia by contrast is now in strong interventionist mode in Syria and increasingly confrontational elsewhere.

Vladimir Putin's Russia has annexed Crimea from Ukraine and sponsored a war in the country's eastern Donbass region.

His forces are directly involved in fighting on the side of the Assad regime.

In contrast to Western inconsistency and incoherence he has appeared to be dictating the agenda on Syria. So far.

Image copyright AP
Image caption President Putin has taken the initiative on Syria

With no unity of approach on the Security Council the conflict spiralled out of control. Regional forces were free to use Syria as a proxy battleground.

Sectarian divisions deepened and extremist forces gathered strength. And all the time civilians continued to be bombed, tortured, uprooted and driven into exile.

There is now the appearance of concerted action by the international community.

But this has only come about because of the threat of terrorism from the so-called Islamic State, and the arrival of large numbers of refugees in Europe.

Pragmatic considerations provide the impetus for these peace talks. And the obstacles to a settlement remain formidable.

The future of President Assad has been ignored, at least for now.

All of this infuriates Orabi Hamdan. I met him at a refugee reception centre in Stockholm.

He comes from Deraa, where the first anti-regime demonstrations began, and is waiting to be re-united with his wife who is living in another centre.

He feels he and his family are pawns of the big powers.

"They play and we pay. It is a game. But a bad game and a bloody game. Our children play. You see every day a lot of kids killed without any reasons. You find the kids as pieces without legs, without heads, without arms...why?"

The Syrian talks may produce a settlement that allows Orabi to go home.

But the conflict stands as a testament to the failure of the international system.

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