Next moves on Syria

No one can win the war. The priority should be stopping it, argues Robert Guest

In a fancy office block in Moscow, dozens of bright young Russians are designing artwork to glorify Vladimir Putin. One poster asks: "What does Superman dream of?" It shows the Man of Steel asleep wearing Putin pyjamas.

Russian propaganda is as good a guide as any to Mr Putin's aims. To distract his people from their shrinking economy at home, Russia's president is staging a series of macho spectacles: the annexation of Crimea, the carving up of Ukraine and more recently the bombing of Syria. Mr Putin is the most disruptive force in geopolitics. Syria is the most messed-up nation on Earth. In 2016 the world will see how the two interact.

Mr Putin says he wants to fight Islamic State (IS), but his bombs and missiles have rained down on other rebel groups. His more likely goals are to prop up Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian despot who is Russia's last client in the Middle East, and to earn a seat at the table when the world decides what to do about Syria.

Cynics say Mr Putin could hardly make Syria worse. Some 250,000 people have already died in its civil war. Half the population have fled their homes, flooding into neighbouring states and causing a refugee crisis in Europe. Mr Assad may be bad, some say, but his overthrow would lead to something even worse: Libyan-style chaos, a massacre of Alawites (Mr Assad's people) by wrathful Sunni Arabs, and a strengthening of IS.

But Mr Putin can make things worse in Syria. He cannot win the war, but in the absence of more forceful American engagement, he can stop Mr Assad from losing it. America needs to end the power vacuum. Had Barack Obama intervened at the beginning of the war, Syria might not now be in such a mess. Telling Mr Assad that using chemical weapons on his people would be a "red line", and then doing nothing when he crossed it, was one of Mr Obama's worst foreign-policy errors, since it advertised the superpower's lack of resolve.

After nearly five years of civil war, Syria is now much harder to unscramble. Two of the strongest rebel groups are as bad as Mr Assad's regime: IS and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate. To call the other rebels divided would be an understatement: they are split into some 7,000 groups. America has tried to create a new force of moderate rebels, with risible results. By late 2015 there were only half a dozen American-trained rebels actually fighting in Syria - barely enough to man a checkpoint. America has rightly decided to give up and support the least-awful rebel groups that have actually shown some progress on the ground.

The diplomatic compromises necessary for

a lasting peace will be ugly

All the options in Syria in 2016 are bad. The priority for the West should be to stop the war. To do that, Nato will have to be more assertive. A bolder American president would long ago have established a no-bombing zone over Syria and created havens for displaced Syrians. America should anyway beef up its support for the less-extreme rebel groups, including not just the ones fighting against IS but also those that want to defend their communities against Mr Assad.

Having created new facts on the ground, America will be in a better position to negotiate an end to the war. That means engaging with all the outside powers with a stake in the conflict, including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. To bring Russia to the table, America may have to defer the question of when Mr Assad will go.

Give peace a chance

Every country wants to see IS defeated, but for most this is the second objective. Having seen how much trouble America's army had in northern Iraq, no one wants to wade in, drive IS out of its strongholds there and end up occupying the same unruly patch of Sunni territory.

So the most plausible basis for a negotiated peace is as follows. First, outside powers should recognize that they cannot win everything they want on the battlefield. Second, they need to understand that the longer the fighting in Syria drags on, the more it will fuel the extremism they fear.

As in Bosnia in the 1990s, pressure from America and its allies can ultimately force most combatants to agree to a ceasefire. The diplomatic compromises necessary for a lasting peace will be ugly: the post-Assad government will not be liberal and will not control all of Syria. But Syria cannot hope for better than this. And once the all-against-all civil war subsides, the long, slow task of isolating and undermining IS can begin.

Robert Guest: foreign editor, The Economist


The war on the war on drugs

International drug laws are dud. More countries will simply break them, says Tom Wainwright

"A drug-free world: we can do it." So ran the optimistic slogan of the UN  General Assembly's last special session (UNGASS) on drug policy, in 1998. Eighteen years on, the world is further than ever from being drug-free. Cannabis and cocaine consumption have risen by half, opiate use has nearly trebled, and a bewildering number of synthetic drugs are getting people high in new and dangerous ways.

In 2016 many countries will meet again in New York for a new UNGASS on drugs, the first since 1998. The tone will be more realistic: a growing minority of countries is openly challenging the failed system of prohibition. Yet this conference will prove to be just as big a failure as the last one.

Altered states

Back in 1998, the world was all but united in its determination to drive drugs out of existence. Only the Netherlands, with its exotic cannabis "coffee shops", provided any real dissent. The gathering in 2016, by contrast, will hear of radical new approaches from all corners. Portugal has decriminalized the use of all drugs. In Latin America, Uruguay  has legalized cannabis and Bolivia has set up a market for coca leaf, while Colombia and Mexico have loudly called for alternatives to prohibition.

And the United States-—the arch-enforcer of prohibition in 1998—is now overseeing booming legal markets in cannabis, the world's favourite banned drug. Four states have legalized it; more will follow in 2016, with half a dozen planned ballot initiatives on recreational weed, including one in California. That could trigger change in Mexico, which would balk at enforcing the prohibition of pot in Tijuana if the stuff were freely available a few miles over the border in San Diego. Meanwhile, Canada's new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, will press ahead with plans to legalize cannabis.

Russia has

taken on

America's old

role as drug-


All this frustration will hit a brick wall in April at the UNGASS. Changing the conventions that ban drugs requires unanimity among the 200-odd parties. Yet Russia has taken on America's old role as drug-warrior-in-chief, backed by allies including China and Iran, which execute hundreds of drug offenders each year. Japan remains conservative; most of Africa unpersuaded; parts of Europe, notably Sweden, unmoved. The main outcome of the talks will be promises of yet more talks.

So countries wanting saner drug policies—from recreational cannabis to heroin on prescription—will increasingly set their sights not on changing the UN conventions but on finding ways to subvert them. William Brownfield America's assistant secretary of state for drugs, has performed ever more elaborate legal and linguistic gymnastics to reconcile America's support for prohibition with its commercialization and taxation of cannabis. Countries such as Jamaica, which partially legalized ganja in 2015, would once have received a blast of indignation from the State Department. They now get a confused shrug.

Bolivia has performed some creative legal manoeuvres of its own, withdrawing from the conventions and then rejoining them with a special opt-out for coca leaf. The Netherlands maintains the fiction that the supply of cannabis to its cafes is illegal, but turns a blind eye. Decriminalization along Portuguese lines is justified by a clause in the UN conventions maintaining that a country should criminalize drug offences "subject to its constitutional principles and the basic concepts of its legal system", a loophole big enough for a lorry-load of heroin. In many rich countries police officers choose not to "prioritize" cannabis offenders, though in theory they remain criminals. A group of British MPs has suggested that because the UN conventions allow for drugs to be used for "scientific" purposes, a legal market could perhaps be defended as a sort of social-science experiment.

It is desperate stuff. The future will be a legal Wild West in which countries remain party to the conventions on prohibition while enacting policies that fly in its face. The last UNGASS was characterized by denial; 2016's will be defined by hypocrisy. 

Tom Wainwright: Britain editor, The Economist, and author of "Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel"