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After the fighting – the future of the Levant

March 19, 2016

Mark attended the third Conservative & Reformists Summit in Antalya, Turkey, which brought together centre-right figures from the Muslim world to bolster moderate conservatism in North Africa and the Middle East and oppose religious extremism. He was asked to speak in a panel discussion about the future of the Levant once fighting in Syria has ceased. These are his notes:

  • CONTEXT

The British and Western response to the Syrian crisis has been one of confusion and an absence of will that is ultimately underpinned by deep public weariness and scepticism about our getting further embroiled in the Middle East.

After the euphoric end to the Cold War, the humanitarian interventions of the 1990s made way for a miserable series of intractable conflicts in the Middle East from the 2000s that have ensured Western electorates are dubious about overseas military adventures. We live in a brave new, potentially multipolar, world in which all actors are grappling for their role and where the policy prescriptions of nations like Turkey, Russia and Iran are as relevant to solving regional tensions as the West’s.

This leaves uncertainty about the UK’s power to assist and its likely influence in a situation in which so many interests are being played out. There is also an overwhelming sense that solutions must this time come from regional actors rather than from the West.

Nonetheless, Britons are also mindful of the consequences of Western inaction – the resurgence of Russia, instability across Europe and Turkey, the flight of our own young people from the UK to join terror groups in the Levant and beyond. There is a sense that we have some historical responsibility to get more deeply involved following our support for US intervention in Iraq, the naïve enthusiasm towards the Arab Spring and even our role in drawing up the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. There is also a strong belief in our humanitarian duty to ‘do more’ to assist refugees without, to be candid, any consequent support for additional military involvement or the taking in of many more Syrian refugees.

So there are many competing sentiments and concerns in the UK about our duty to get involved in Syria, our likely influence in the conflict and our ability to play a leading role in shaping the region once the war has come to an end.

Military intervention

A reminder of the UK’s military response to the Syrian crisis…

We in the UK parliament were first asked to consider military action against the Assad regime back in August 2013 after the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people. Admittedly I was very reluctant to support such action since I feared that the notion of a swift, surgical strike against Assad risked the worst of all worlds – unlikely to dislodge him, it would simply draw in the UK as an additional player without a clear goal or exit strategy. As it happened, the government was not able to get any motion for action through the House of Commons.

Two further years passed and the Syrian conflict raged on but had now become even more complex with the emergence of ISIS and the refugee crisis. The impact of these developments, alongside the growing threat of terrorist action on home soil, helped subtly shift British public sentiment to a mood generally more supportive of decisive action in Syria. The problem of Western involvement, however, was always that unlike President Putin, we were never clear about whether our primary objective in Syria was the destruction of ISIS or the removal of President Assad.

Nonetheless, with a UN Security Council resolution and international coalition in place for action against ISIS, and the costs of inaction becoming ever clearer, many parliamentarians, myself included, were content to approve raids on the terror group, particularly now Assad had the explicit protection of his Russian sponsor.

  • After the fighting – the West’s response.

Military action has only ever been a component of the UK approach to Syria, and once fighting has ceased, I think we will start to see much more of the joined-up, aid focused, patient work from Western forces that is already underway, and a whole series of ad hoc deals, whether between the EU and Turkey on migrant numbers or trade deals with Jordan to stimulate that economy, in order to tackle specific aspects of the crisis.

With our historical relationships, military and aid resource, and cultural and economic clout, the UK is uniquely placed to articulate this kind of patient, reform-minded and flexible approach to international affairs. This will involve the UK utilising the resource of our Armed Forces, Foreign Office and Department for International Development in a much more coordinated way but also the skills and expertise of our many and varied professionals – lawyers, financiers, tech experts and educators who will all be able to assist in rebuilding Syria.

As we know, the absence of jobs and decent education for Syrian refugees is one of the key drivers pushing people towards Europe. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister launched a plan to use market forces to boost the economy in Jordan, where to date around 1.3 million Syrians have been displaced. By removing trade tariffs for exports to the EU, and creating special economic zones with donor-funded wage subsidies and tax advantages, it is hoped international investment and new jobs for refugees will follow. This must happen rapidly to deter even more professional and talented Syrians from giving up hope and moving outside the region.

British expertise can also be put to use undermining ISIS’s financial clout, drawing on lessons from Northern Ireland where the systematic and patient unravelling of the IRA’s financial infrastructure helped force terrorists to the negotiating table. Far from ideological obsessives, many of the young men fighting for ISIS are making a painful economic calculation based on the high wages they receive from their terror paymasters. One of the reasons ISIS have suffered strategic losses in recent months is that they have been forced to slash fighters’ wages, thus increasing defections and desertions.

Similarly, our legal professionals, construction managers and engineers can assist with the reconstruction of Syria’s cities in the hope of avoiding Beirut’s fate where after the civil war rebuilding projects were used as a new source of money and power by corrupt politicians or former militia, often reinforcing sectarian division.

  • The politics. We need to understand that the way in which we resolve the Syrian crisis will have a potential impact on future conflicts in the Levant, whether that be our handling of Assad or any redrawing of borders that takes place as part of a political settlement. It is clear to me that the speed with which the West abandoned Gaddafi and Mubarak in Libya and Egypt respectively, helped convince Assad that he needed to fight to the bitter end to avoid a similar, grisly fate. 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. We need somehow to offer him a way out now that Russia has concluded its operations.
  • I fear that what we now see being played out in Iraq and Syria, with territory carved off by ISIS, official opposition fighters, Kurds and government forces, will lead eventually to a divided Syria post-conflict, with some of its long-standing population being permanently displaced. 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. The Syrian government, if it does emerge the strongest party, is still not going to be strong enough to regain control in Kurdish regions, especially without foreign backing.
  • If ISIS are driven out of Syria, there is plenty of scope for their re-emergence either elsewhere in the Levant or beyond, particularly in the ungoverned or poorly governed spaces of Africa where they are currently engaged in a fierce rivalry with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This is going to prove an ongoing challenge for governments across the region, which will need to remain ever vigilant to a threat that is breathtakingly adaptable and fast-moving. The havoc that these modern terror groups are able to wreak will embolden domestic forces in European states who are eager to withdraw from the world and do away with the international integration and cooperation of recent decades. Balancing those forces with the pressing need for states to work even more closely together will be an ongoing tension. See EU-Turkey deal.
  • Finally, we must worry about what Russia’s end game is in all of this. Of all world leaders, President Putin has shown himself passionately and strategically engaged in Syrian affairs. Working in tandem with him is likely the only way to open the door to a legally watertight, wide-ranging UN solution to Syria’s dreadful plight. But there will be a cost to this. The Russian bases at Tartus and Latakia will be bolstered, providing a stronger presence on the Mediterranean. Putin has also again shown the institutional architecture for international cooperation –NATO, the EU or the UN – up as clumsy, irrelevant and insufficiently backed up by political support. That doesn’t bode well for the future of such institutions should fresh challenges emerge to their authority.