Billionaire George Soros devoted his annual media dinner at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday to what he called “a humanitarian crisis of the first order” in Syria. He said he hoped the assembled print and broadcast journalists would “inform the world” of the plight of ordinary Syrians trapped in a lawless civil war.
The main takeaway from the dinner, though, is that the situation in Syria is incredibly complicated, and outsiders can’t agree on what should be done. Speakers that include former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino, Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, and billionaire Ayman Asfari, a Syrian-born British business executive, argued over how and where to focus pressure to bring an end to the suffering.
Should the rest of the world pour in humanitarian aid? Yes, but government forces and rebels alike have withheld donated food from civilians in a tactic that Annan called “starve or surrender.” So then is the answer to negotiate an end to the conflict so the fighting stops and people can eat again and return to their homes? Good idea, but the combatants show no sign of settling with each other, notwithstanding an attempt to start peace talks in Montreux, Switzerland, this week.
It was widely agreed that the Syrian conflict has become a proxy war that has the potential to trigger a “much wider conflagration,” in the words of the evening’s discussion leader, International Crisis Group Co-Chair Mark Malloch-Brown. But the Shiite government of Iran, which has backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shows no sign of backing down. Nor does Saudi Arabia, which finances the mostly Sunni rebels.
Malloch-Brown suggested getting Russia, which has influence over Assad, to organize a ceasefire timed to the Sochi Winter Olympics. Italy’s Bonino said the answer is to hold Iran responsible. Amnesty International’s Shetty said Europe should take in more Syrian refugees. And so it went around the room.
Annan, clearly frustrated, said the international community had “failed miserably” in Syria and called for a people’s movement. “When leaders fail to lead,” he said, “the people can make them follow.”
Good luck with that. Lebanese-born Ghassan Salame, dean of the Paris School of International Affairs, told the night’s only joke, and it was bitter. The saying in Syria, he said, is, “Shias have Russia, Sunnis have the rest of the region, and atheists have only God.”