Agreeing on Fundamentals in Syria

The Syrian crisis has become the next global “great game,” in which many of the world’s major powers are pursuing very different outcomes. The presence of outside powers complicates resolving the conflict, as every Syrian party must reconcile its goals with those of its patrons.

The case of Syria highlights issues pertaining to that nation and to terrorism – but above all else it clarifies the need for international agreement on first principals during conflict.

Regarding Syria, by far the top near-term goal is to save civilian lives. The UN, the US and Russia, and multilateral efforts have all failed to make real progress toward that end. The international community must urgently reinvigorate efforts to establish a ceasefire, especially in Aleppo. Outside powers must then facilitate, indeed enforce, the supply of humanitarian aid to besieged populations. Current conditions in Aleppo clearly violate international norms, and the carnage must stop.

The crisis in Syria is hardly just about terrorism – it’s also about bringing legitimate, stable, and eventually democratic governance to that nation. Outside powers must put the interests of the Syrian people first. They should adopt more flexible positions on leadership, a transition, elections, and federalization.

But the presence of al-Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham), an al-Qauda affiliate, and ISIS in Syria underscores the extent to which terrorism is a global scourge. It has scarred Western Europe and the US, and indeed poses a dagger toward Eurasia. The nations of Central Asia are of significant concern. A history of radical terrorism exists in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and to a lesser extent, Kazakhstan. A significant number of Central Asian fighters have joined cause with ISIS. As the “caliphate” loses more territory in next year, possibly including Mosul and Raqqa, many of these fighters will return home. Dynamics in Uzbekistan are especially important. Interim President Shavkat Mirziyoyev will almost surely ascend to the presidency in December. He will preside over a potential witch’s brew of returned fighters, a traditionally unstable Fergana Valley, and the process of consolidating power.

This trend will also pose a strong challenge to Russia, where fighters will return to the North Caucasus and increase risk to the Russian Federation.

In conclusion, the Syrian tragedy makes clear the need for adoption of new international norms of conflict. Terrorism can be defined as “the use of violence against civilians to achieve political goals.” As a first principal, all nations must foreswear that behavior. The international community must also agree not to use any form of WMD, ever. Nations must ensure that innocent civilians always have access to food and medicine. Other fundamental principles must surely be included. Many of these strictures are already included in international conventions. But Syria clearly demonstrates that leadership by example is needed, not more international documents. The president of every outside power involved in Syria should declare his or her allegiance to first principals of conflict.

Cliff Kupchan is Chairman, Eurasia Group.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.