Year in, year out, I am always unprepared for that first blast of Washington summer air, the one that hits you like a physical force in the moment between leaving the airplane and entering the transport bus at Dulles Airport in mid-July.
Those few, non-air-conditioned seconds always serve to remind me that I don’t need the sweater which seemed so necessary in northern Europe, that I’ve entered a new time zone, that it’s time to re-adapt to the customs and habits of my hometown.
This year, I was equally unprepared for a new Washington phenomenon: The flat, stifling strategy vacuum that hits you like a physical force when you enter a discussion about Syria. It’s not that nothing is happening here: On the contrary, various branches of the military-foreign policy and development complex are happy to tell you what they’re doing.
The State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilisation Operations has a programme to aid local councils, media and civic groups in the liberated regions of Syria. USAID is providing emergency assistance to Syrian refugees, about 1.6 million people. Just as I arrived in Washington, the nation’s most senior general published a memo on Syria, detailing several possible courses of action.
Yet all of it feels uncoordinated, reactive and far, far behind the curve. Can it really be possible that Congress is only now considering the use of “non-lethal forces to train and advise the opposition,” an option that Gen Martin Dempsey says carries risks that include “inadvertent association with war crimes due to vetting difficulties”?
Could it be true, as it seems to be, that the aid programmes haven’t yet been coordinated with other European governments, other than in some cases the British? As for the refugees, it’s nice that President Barack Obama promised more emergency money to them last month, but 1.6 million people will probably become 3.5 million people by the end of this year. Emergency humanitarian aid doesn’t seem like the right long-term answer to this problem at all.
Everywhere, the bureaucratic machine grinds at a glacial pace. Since last winter, I’ve been hearing about a German-Qatari effort to create a trust fund for Syria, a mechanism, used in other stateless societies, to coordinate humanitarian aid, build up the capacity of local organisations and develop confidence in western commitment at the same time.
But at a recent discussion of that very idea, I learned that the US “might” take part in such an initiative, although, after many months, it still isn’t sure who it would be working with on the ground. At the same discussion, I heard that diesel generators delivered to Syrian villages don’t work because the Turks won’t export diesel, while solar generators can’t be delivered because of US export regulations, and that 100,000 people have now died so shouldn’t we be doing more anyway.
In every instance, the timing is wrong. The moment to throw US support behind “peaceful activists” was right at the beginning, before most of them were dead or in prison. The moment to train fighters was soon after that, before the fighters were radicalised by years of violence and the assistance they’ve received from extremists.
I don’t know if there was a moment for military intervention, but it’s clear that, after two years of bitter, polarising and brutal conflict, there aren’t any good options for the Pentagon — if there ever were.
More to the point, I don’t hear anyone talking about what the ultimate goal of any intervention, military or peaceful, is actually supposed to be. Is the idea to defeat Bashar Al Assad and win the war? Or is the idea to end the conflict, enforce a ceasefire and create an inclusive government? It matters, because your goal in the future determines your actions — military, economic, diplomatic — in the present.
If you have no goal, on the other hand, then your actions will be random, uncoordinated and inconclusive. They won’t inspire others either. One hears that the French have delivered a suitcase of money to a local council, or that the British prime minister now wants to arm the opposition, or that the Japanese are concerned by the absence of international coordination in Syria, which they fear sets a bad precedent for their own part of the world.
But the European Union is divided on Syria and the UN is headed by its weakest leader in living memory. With the US on the sidelines, no one else seems able to create a “coalition of the willing” to engage, lethally or non-lethally, in helping to end the Syrian conflict.
It’s an odd thing: After the end of the Cold War, some thought we’d live in a unipolar world. Others thought we’d live in a multipolar world. Instead, we now live in a non-polar world — and it’s every bit as stifling as a bad week in a Washington summer.