The Sunday Magazine

Is there a solution to the crisis in Syria?

As the civil war grinds on, the humanitarian crisis grows. There are so many players, it's hard to keep up with who's fighting who. For a clear and passionate explanation of the Syrian tragedy, Michael turns to three guests: Father Nadim Nassar, the only Syrian priest in the Church of England, and co-founder of The Awareness Foundation, a charitable peace group that addresses religious violence; Barbara Slavin, author and acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington; and Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada.
Syrian volunteers carry an injured person on a stretcher following Syrian government forces airstrikes on the rebel held neighbourhood of Heluk in Aleppo, on September 30, 2016. Syrian regime forces advanced in the battleground city of Aleppo, backed by a Russian air campaign that a monitor said has killed more than 3,800 civilians in the past year. (THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)

World leaders say they have not given up on Syria, but no one seems able to find a path to peace. 

In the meantime, we are left with stories and images of devastation, as the bodies of children are pulled from under rubble, and schools, homes, hospitals and UN aid convoys are bombed.

Michael spoke to three observers about the complicated proxy war taking place in Syria, the fate of Aleppo and what, if anything, can be done to end the conflict.

Father Nadim Nassar is the only Syrian priest in the Church of England. He co-founded The Awareness Foundation, a charitable peace group that addresses religious violence. Father Nassar still travels to Syria and plans to return in about a week. Barbara Slavin is an author and acting director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the The Atlantic Council, an American think-tank for international affairs. Dr. Samantha Nutt is founder and executive director of War Child Canada.

A picture shows an anti-aircraft defence missile system on the Moskva cruiser in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Syria, on December 17, 2015. Russia began its air war in Syria on September 30, conducting air strikes against a range of anti-regime armed groups including US-backed rebels and jihadist groups. Moscow has said it is fighting "terrorist groups," but its campaign has come under fire by Western officials who accuse the Kremlin of seeking to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (MAX DELANY/AFP/Getty Images)


The conflict in Syria began as a civil war, but powerful outside players are now enmeshed, including Russia, the United States, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. 

"The Russians, the Iranians are determined that the current regime [led by Bashar al-Assad] will not only stay in power, but will recover," says Slavin. "Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, is trying, I think desperately, to make up for the dissolution of the Soviet Union by creating a new Russian superpower, or at least a major regional power...He wants to be seen as the man to go to determine the fate of the Middle East."

All the Syrians are aware that the war in Syria is a proxy war...the Syrians are not the ones who decide. They decide neither the present actions nor the future...The Americans and the Russians decided the ceasefire, not the Syrians. So we see that the Syrian players are almost marionettes.- Father Nadim Nassar

Nassar says Syria is has become the "battleground" for a complicated proxy war that pits world powers against each other — and against the hundreds of terrorist organizations, including ISIS, that currently operate within the country. 

He is frustrated that the power struggle between outside interests has all but eclipsed Syrian voices and Syrian-led solutions. 

"Every day we hear in the news that the Americans and the Russians failed to agree on Syria. What about the Syrians? Are we outside the game?" he asks. 

Syrian boys cry following Russian air strikes on the rebel-held Fardous neighbourhood of the northern embattled Syrian city of Aleppo on October 11, 2016. Regime ally Russia carried out its heaviest strikes in days on Syria's Aleppo, causing massive damage in several residential areas of the city's rebel-held east. (THAER MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images)


The UN special envoy for Syria has warned that all of eastern Aleppo could be destroyed by Christmas of this year. 

Slavin argues that the focus should now be on evacuating as many people as possible before the city falls. 

It's a horrible thing to contemplate, but I frankly don't see how Aleppo can be saved at this point. The focus should be on evacuating those people, on getting some kind of humanitarian relief to them, if it's possible, because otherwise we're going to be faced with a tragedy the likes of which we haven't seen since Rwanda or Srebrenica.- Barbara Slavin

Nassar says evacuating Aleppo is not a viable option. 

"You can't evacuate a whole city, which is the second largest city in Syria. What is needed is an immediate ceasefire and an immediate stop to military actions and military operations in the city," he says. 

Turkish soldiers stand in a Turkish army tank driving back to Turkey from the Syrian-Turkish border town of Jarabulus on September 2, 2016 in the Turkish-Syrian border town of Karkamis. Turkish military experts on September 1, 2016 cleared mines from the area of the Syrian town of Jarabulus captured from jihadists last week, using controlled explosions that sent clouds of dust and smoke into the sky, an AFP photographer said. Pro-Ankara Syrian rebels, backed by Turkish aviation and tanks, took Jarabulus from Islamic State (IS) fighters in a lightning operation and now enjoy full control of the town. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)


Nutt, Slavin and Nassar all agree that there is no military solution to the crisis in Syria. 

One of the lessons that should have been learned, particularly in the Iraqi context, but now in the Syrian context, is that once you start flooding a region with weapons, those weapons end up everywhere, and you have no more control over them... The only possibility for peace here is strong diplomacy, choking off the flow of arms and the flow of cash.- Dr. Samantha Nutt

But the search for a diplomatic solution is challenging and contentious. Many of the parties involved disagree about who should be allowed at the negotiating table. 

Nassar says negotiations must involve a wide range of Syrian politicians and representatives — including Assad. 

"The west resisted talking to the regime for years...The Foreign Office in Britain was vehemently against negotiating with Assad, and I said, 'There is no other way,'" he says.

One key challenge is that the regime "has a tendency to say one thing and do another," says Nutt. While the last round of talks was in progress, she says the Russians and the Assad regime were "rapidly trying to grab territory...and bombing civilians at the same time, to try to claim as much as they can — never mind before the ink is dry, before the pen is even put to paper."

The search for a diplomatic solution is further complicated by a deadlock at the UN, where Russia has repeatedly vetoed efforts by the Security Council to put an end to the bombing of Aleppo. 

Canada recently launched a new diplomatic effort to end the war, calling this week for a meeting of all 193 UN member states to "explore concerted action to apply pressure on the parties of the violence" — but it remains to be seen whether that effort will be successful. 

Russia Ambassador Vitaly Churkin is joined by Venezuelan Ambassador Rafael Ramirez as Russia vetoes a French-Spanish resolution on Syria at the UN headquarters, October 8, 2016, in New York City. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault on Saturday urged the UN Security Council to take immediate action to save the Syrian city of Aleppo from being destroyed by the Russia-backed Syrian bombing campaign. (DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

Nassar says efforts to bring the major players back to the negotiating table must continue, even when progress seems impossible.

"Every faction on the ground with weapons — they are acting barbarically. So not only the regime, and not only the opposition," he says. "But because they are both in the blood, you bring them both. Dialogue is not created for friends. Dialogue is created for enemies."

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