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Syria - Doing the Right Thing?

06/09/2013 11:14 BST | Updated 05/11/2013 10:12 GMT

As the leaders of the world's twenty most powerful nations are flocking to St Petersburg, the UK's international development secretary, Justine Greening, made a valiant effort to reduce the toxic political fallout of her prime minister's fiasco over British policy vis-à-vis Syria this week - and perhaps also to save her own skin after failing to vote for the government's motion. In an op-ed published in The Guardian on 4 September, Greening drew attention to the unspeakable plight and suffering of millions of Syrian civilians directly affected by the brutal war between the Assad regime and the armed opposition, calling for a major international response to a relentlessly unfolding humanitarian disaster.

Kudos to Secretary Greening for raising this fundamental concern loudly and clearly - it has not figured anywhere near as much as it should have in the heated debates about the international response to the recent chemical weapons attack on civilians in Damascus.

However, Ms Greening ends her statement by saying 'our government will continue to make the case internationally for a robust response to the use of chemical weapons by the regime. We will do everything possible to work with international partners to bring all sides together to achieve the political solution that is needed to end the conflict. And we will spare no effort to ensure that the urgent humanitarian needs of the people of Syria are met'.

This looks like someone trying to square the circle and please everyone. Such an approach cannot work and carries the high risk of undermining any well-meaning response by the international development community to the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Presumably, the 'robust response' the secretary refers to is a military strike on Syrian regime positions along the lines proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron and Presidents Obama and Hollande. Yet the International Crisis Group, a global conflict prevention and resolution organization, convincingly warned in a recent statement on Syria, that there is a high likelihood that such a military response would make achieving a 'political solution' impossible and drag out or escalate the conflict.

'The principal question regarding the possible military strike', writes the Crisis Group, 'is whether diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict can be re-energised in its aftermath. Smart money says they will not: in the wake of an attack they condemn as illegal and illegitimate, the regime and its allies arguably will not be in a mood to negotiate with the U.S. Carefully calibrating the strike to hurt enough to change their calculations but not enough to prompt retaliation or impede diplomacy is appealing in theory. In practice, it almost certainly is not feasible'.

A military attack on the Assad regime could likely also lead to more suffering for civilians in Syria. It could 'trigger violent escalation within [the country] as the regime might exact revenge on rebels and rebel-held areas, while the opposition seeks to seize the opportunity to make its own gains'. And the major humanitarian response to the crisis in Syria Secretary Greening envisages could be severely jeopardised.

Hence, the Crisis Group's argument that 'the only exit is political' is compelling. This requires 'far-reaching concessions and a lowering of demands from all parties' and 'priority must be given to ensuring that no component of Syrian society is targeted for retaliation, discrimination or marginalization in the context of a negotiated settlement'. The international development community could support such a strategy by providing urgently needed humanitarian assistance to civilians in and outside Syria.

Beyond the immediate concerns about the 'right' international response to the chemical weapons attack and the massive human suffering Syria's brutal war has caused in the past eighteen months, there is another issue that Secretary Greening and the UK's Department for International Development should reflect on.

Trying to square the circle by (apparently) supporting military action while at the same time calling for a political solution and large-scale humanitarian intervention undermines the credibility of one of Europe's large international development agencies. Unfortunately, in our world of realpolitik tough policy choices have to be made, and international development organizations should be very clear about which of the options they are prepared to support, and which not.

Military action in a highly unpredictable and volatile context such as in Syria, even if it cannot be taken at present by the UK government itself, does not strike me as an option. Instead, all international development efforts by the UK and other countries should be focused on mitigating the humanitarian crisis and preparing for the arduous task of helping to rebuild Syria and guarantee the livelihoods of millions of Syrians once the armed conflict has come to an end - by political means.

Markus Schultze-Kraft is a Research Fellow and Team Leader of the Governance Team at the Institute of Development Studies.