The butterfly effect teaches us that seemingly insignificant actions can have enormous future consequences. A tiny pair of fluttering wings can disturb the air in a way that helps trigger a hurricane halfway around the world.
Witness Syria, where the Arab Spring made its debut in 2011 in the form of a tame wave of political protests against the authoritarian regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s harsh crackdown escalated into a civil war and then into a monster of a crisis that has changed the course of history in many parts of the world.
There’s a lesson for national leaders, United Nations diplomats and others seeking to promote international peace and security: ignore the first movement of wings at your peril. In the conflict’s early years, Syria’s neighbors and the major world powers failed to fully commit to a plan to end the crisis. Instead, they chose to play up their own immediate interests while monitoring the crisis from the sidelines, and they ended up paying a big price.
Now, more than five years later, the conflict has killed more than 400,000 Syrians, driven five million from the country and another six million from their homes inside Syria. The wave of refugees seeking safe haven has fueled an extraordinary increase in anti-immigrant sentiment, strengthening far-right extremist parties across Eastern and Western Europe, bolstering the British vote to leave the European Union and helping Donald Trump line up the uneducated white voters he needed to win the United States presidency. International disdain for the refugee flood has inflamed Turkey’s struggling ties with Europe and dramatized Islamic State arguments that the rest of the world rejects Islam.
Syrian forces have inflicted heavy civilian casualties through barrel bombs, Russian fighter jets and even poison gas, the latter despite a “red line” that President Obama laid down against the use of chemical weapons but did not back up. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have sent soldiers, arms and planes to fight alongside Syrian government troops while Washington and allies have backed a constantly changing cast of antigovernment rebels as they took aim at Islamic militants in separate wars unfolding right around the corner.
In the latest tragic development in this violent morass, the UN Security Council, unable for years to agree on a way to stop the slaughter, approved on Dec. 19 a French resolution providing for UN observers to monitor the evacuation of survivors from eastern Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city, as it collapses under the relentless assault of government forces. After averting their eyes from years of killing, the international community is hoping to send observers to watch as those civilians still standing can escape. Not all have conceded yet that this is truly “too little, too late.”
Admittedly, the war in Syria has been an extremely complex global challenge, with no easy answers. Diplomats and scholars will be debating for years what was done, by whom, and what should have been done in Syria. Why would Washington — as a precondition for talks aimed at stopping the fighting — insist that Assad first step down even if it couldn’t identify a credible successor who would be an improvement? Why did Russia fail to flinch in its all-out support for Assad’s bloodbath? Why did China fail to back away from its support for Moscow, ensuring two vetoes for rescue plans in the Security Council?
During this long slog of a war, the principal challenge has been defined as choosing between a pair of polar opposites: should concerned governments intervene militarily with boots on the ground? Or recognize the war in Syria as posing no existential threat and take a step backward? Washington, for one, could never make up its mind and bumbled along somewhere in between, even as Russia remained steadfast in its support for its ally Syria.
But those choices impose too narrow a framework on the debate; international peacemakers have had other options. One of the most underappreciated aspects of UN-backed diplomacy is that even when a peace process fails to reach a successful conclusion, it has many tools at its disposal to help bring fighting to a halt, for years at a time, while the parties sort things out. This is what Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi tried to pursue as special UN and Arab League envoys. Their efforts fell apart when the big powers left Syria and the rebels to their own devices.
That is what the goal should have been all along: not reaching so much for an agreement from the start but all sides dropping the usual posturing and joining together to do all they can to end the craziness and get a semblance of peace back on the rails. The world is just too interconnected to stand by and let a crisis like this turn more and more serious.
It is unclear what Trump will bring to the table after his inauguration. During the campaign, he pledged both to obliterate America’s foes with overwhelming firepower and to keep out of fights in which he judged US interests as noncompelling.
Unfortunately, the diplomatic “weapons” available are expensive and would have to compete with other priorities: the appointment of special envoys and groups of “friends” — countries that are close to the belligerents; a UN-supervised cease-fire; a monitored pullback of weapons and troops; peacekeeping missions to keep the sides apart; creation of a hybrid or coalition government; programs to buy up combatants’ arms and provide civilian job training; the release of prisoners on all sides; the provision of food, clean water, shelter and other humanitarian aid; and the glimmer of a different future.
Fear the first fluttering of the wings or risk paying the huge bills that come due down the road. It’s complicated but also just that simple.