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The end game in Syria is still far from clear

October 2, 2015

By the time this year is out parliament will almost certainly be called upon to endorse military action in Syria. Many relatively disinterested observers may assume that in the seemingly endless diplomatic saga over our relations with Syria such a debate will be a re-run of the sensationally lost August 2013 vote. But it will be different in two key ways. First the regional refugee crisis which has so dramatically spilt over into Europe, has added urgency to the West carving out a lasting solution in the travails of the region. Secondly, in direct contrast to the parliamentary motion of two years or so ago, the government will seek support for action to destroy opponents of the Assad regime. How has it come to this?

Unpalatable as it may seem the key external player here is President Putin’s Russia. If there is to be a United Nations solution to the Syrian calamity the West will need – for now – to put aside our deep misgivings over events in Ukraine and the Baltic States and work alongside Russia. The Russian President believes that Anglo-French humanitarian action in Libya four years ago was essentially a proxy for regime change; as a consequence he has always opposed the UK government’s admirably principled insistence that Assad must have no future role once a military and diplomatic deal can be brokered in Syria.

Russia also has strong strategic ties to Syria, which would likely be undermined if Assad were toppled. The Russian state has a naval facility at Tartus; Syria is its only loyal ally in the region and has consistently been a trusted trading partner, not least in military hardware. Then there is the simmering threat of Islamic Fundamentalism on Russian soil which means the elimination of ISIL (Assad’s sworn enemies) is a key priority to Putin.

From its almost quaint beginnings in 2011 as an output of the so-called Arab Spring, the democratic uprising in Syria has developed into a bitter religious civil war. This involves Russian sponsorship of the Assad military regime, working alongside Iran’s Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, to defeat the “moderate” opposition forces. Meanwhile ISIL’s position has been enhanced by Saudi/Qatari funds, which has resulted in any secular opposition forces being utterly marginalised.

More recently still the Free Syrian Army, sponsored by the US, has been fighting Assad, but the main dynamic force of recent months, has been Sunni-backed rebel militia which as well as claiming substantial territory in a war that had seemed close to stalemate have also been responsible for attacking US-trained fighters. So it is not evident that even if the UN were able to muster the will and capacity to destroy ISIL within Syrian borders that this would assist in resolving the conflict there. Indeed for all the apocalyptic claims made about ISIL it is still the case that over two in three of the estimated 250,000 fatalities in Syria are down to the Assad regime, which has used chemical weapons and barrel bombs against its own population.

Back in 2013 there was consensus that Syria should remain intact. I have argued before that the unravelling of the Treaty of Sevres and the Sykes-Picot division of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East following the First World War may prove to be the end game here. However, before parliament commits to escalating our role in Syria we should have a clear idea of the desirability and impact of partition in the region. In particular, in ensuring that the Syrian Kurds become part of our coalition for action, what promises can safely – and deliverably – be made to them (and indeed their Iraqi Peshmerga friends) about their status in the post-conflict region?

Essentially, however, the key question that needs a clear answer is this: what is our primary objective in Syria – the destruction of ISIL or the removal of President Assad? Confusion has reigned at the highest counsels amongst Western allies over this. Meanwhile the impact of the refugee and migrant crisis close to home coupled with the ever-looming threat to domestic national security of terrorist action on home soil, I suspect, has helped subtly shift British public sentiment in recent months from fatalistic resignation to a mood generally more supportive of the UK government joining in decisive action in Syria.

The fundamental disagreement over Assad’s role in post-civil-war Syria was always a stumbling block between Russia and the Western Allies. Clearly it suits the Syrian President that the conflict in Syria is increasingly regarded by Western observers as a clash between Islamist jihadists and his regime. However, there must be a nagging doubt that continuing to prop up the Syrian Premier’s discredited regime will act only to recruit more young men and women from the region and beyond to violent Islamist militancy. It is also unclear whether the continued presence of Assad at the helm in what may become of Syria will help solve the refugee crisis.

Nevertheless of all world leaders, President Putin has shown himself passionately and strategically engaged in Syrian affairs. Working in tandem with Putin potentially opens the door to a legally watertight, wide-ranging UN solution to Syria’s dreadful plight. This will apply especially in the areas of humanitarian aid, community re-building and the establishment of institutional structures for its future.

Diplomacy of this sort requires painful compromise. As Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his US counterpart, John Kerry, have recently made clear Assad’s status might be the bargaining chip as part of the negotiations for settlement of this conflict.

Realpolitik of this sort rightly induces a certain queasiness. However, murderous dictators, like the rest of us, respond to incentives. If President Assad’s only other option is as a defendant at the UN International Criminal Court at The Hague, we should not be surprised if he chooses the utter annihilation of what is left of his Syrian homeland.

If there is to be an effective regional strategy for the Middle East we should recognise that the West will need to keep as many options open as possible.