Garvan Walshe was national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
What do you call a peace agreement in which everybody but the Russians stop fighting? Though many wags have noted it was first negotiated at Munich, the true analogy isn’t Munich but Yalta.
If in 1945 the United States could reasonably claim to be exhausted, and Europe’s population, destroyed by six years of war could have been forgiven for its unwillingness to confront the Soviet Union in another war to protect Eastern Europe from communist domination. With the Red Army in control of the territory there was little that could be done.
Perhaps more importantly, even after Germany had been defeated, Russian cooperation appeared to be needed for the campaign against Japan. Before the atomic bombs had been perfected, military planning called for massive conventional aerial bombardment by US planes flying from bases in Eastern Russia. Failing to secure Russian cooperation could have set the war against Japan back years, and accepting Soviet demands for control over Poland was a price that the Western Allies could not have avoided paying.
If Yalta was a necessary compromise, in Syria the West has not only been weak, but managed the astonishing feat of being simultaneously cynical and naive. Weak by failing to intervene before the civil war broke out; failing to act to limit the destructiveness of Assad’s campaign against the rebels; or to prevent his use of chemical weapons; or even go much beyond verbal condemnation of indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population; and, finally failing to give non-extremist rebels the wherewithal to defend themselves and their population. Cynical in Washington’s attempt to trap Moscow and Tehran into a quagmire regardless of the consequences and naive in a refusal to understand that a narrow focus on ISIS reinforces Sunni extremism instead of addressing it.
We have now been comprehensively outmanoeuvred because we have failed to understand the situation. The cessation of hostilities that goes into force on Friday excludes terrorist groups. The problem: Russia has a rather more expansive definition of terrorist than we do, including within the category anyone fighting against the Assad regime – quite a few of whom the West’s diplomatic involvement is intended to protect. Were Russia supremely scrupulous when it comes to adhering to international agreements we could, I’m sure, be certain that they would only attack fighters affiliated with ISIS and the Nusra Front. It goes without saying that the Kremlin’s adherence to law is scarcely stronger than the international sphere than the domestic.
Put yourself in the position of a Syrian opponent of the regime. You rose up peacefully against your dictator in the name of democracy and freedom: values by which the West defines itself but which you think have a place in your country too. As he began to shoot demonstrators and torture their families, the West offered verbal condemnation and sanctions but little practical support. When he began to use chemical weapons, the West gave the appearance of wanting to intervene, but, obsessed with its own psychodrama after Iraq, declined to follow through. Insofar as it has helped to support rebel groups, it has done so in numbers too small to make any difference. Last year, it even cut back on the humanitarian aid funds supporting the refugees (driving more to risk their lives and cross to Turkey and Europe).
In the middle of the civil war, subject to indiscriminate shelling by the Damascus Regime, raids by Hezbollah and now bombardment by the Russian air force, Syrians need protection. The only people attempting to do this are Sunni extremist groups that receive funding and support from Sunni Arab powers. Like the Poles, in whose national myth Yalta is but one of a series of betrayals, Syrians will remember the promises we made and failed to keep for generations.