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Why Syria needs a strong Europe

September 11, 2015 8:10 AM
By John McHugo in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

The Syrians arriving in Europe are chiefly fleeing barrel bombs dropped by their own government, although the thuggery of the militias and warlords who now control much of their country provides another strong impetus.

The most notorious of these is Da'ish (better known as ISIS), which has managed to instil fear into us in the West. Dai'sh's destruction of Palmyra has also affected us directly because Palmyra is part of our own heritage, as well as that of Syria and the Arab world. Almost simultaneously, a photo of a drowned boy, who looked like a doll discarded at the seaside at the end of the family holiday, has finally aroused our compassion for the quarter of a million Syrian dead, and the ten million or more who have been displaced.

The refugees flooding into Europe are only a symptom of the barbarism that is taking place. The question is: how to bring that barbarism to an end and rebuild Syria (and its neighbours)? As any Palestinian can tell you, Western governments have long seen the region's troubles as problems to be "managed", rather than sorted out. This attitude has to change. Make no mistake: the Palestine tragedy which has lasted from 1947-9 to this day, the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 and the continuing instability in that country, the many crises affecting Iraq since the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Syria's decent into chaos since 2011 are all linked. I have no holistic solution to offer, but the most urgent of these is now Syria, so here are a few thoughts about that country.

What has happened in Syria is that a revolution has been frustrated as the government used violence against its own population in order to quell dissent. The government lost control of many areas, and violence was soon repaid with violence. Foreign powers began to intervene: Russia and Iran backing the government, and Sunni Arab states in the Gulf encouraging Syrians to rise up, and even promising them wages paid in dollars if they did so. Turkey played its own self-interested game. As time passed, the conflict became increasingly a proxy war, especially as the conflict stoked hatred between different sects, something that the Wahhabi ideology exported by Saudi Arabia encouraged. Syria also became a grisly playground for the identity politics of young Sunni Muslims from elsewhere, who dreamed of establishing a pure Islamic state on somebody else's soil.

Repressive, arbitrary and corrupt though the Syrian government is, its institutions remain strong in the areas it controls. It also retains a degree of soft power in the areas it has lost - it still pays the salaries of public sector workers there. Last November, when I visited Damascus (not as a guest of the government - nor with a government minder) the centre of the city was still calm. There was food in the shops and everything was surprisingly as usual, save for the thud of artillery fire on the besieged enclaves in the suburbs. There is no military solution to this conflict without appalling devastation.

The best way forward is therefore to do whatever we can to defuse the conflict and exert pressure to persuade the parties to negotiate. Before the revolution began, Syria had a strong state structure. That structure is still - just about- intact. If that is destroyed, it will be the Afghan-isation or Somali-isation of Syria.

It ought to be obvious to everyone that Britain can do little on its own, but we could offer much to a concerted EU effort. Step forward Federica Mogherini! A coordinated European policy on Syria is needed (and I don't mean merely on humanitarian and refugee issues). If Europe can pull together, it might have the diplomatic and economic muscle to persuade Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to stop making the problem even worse than it is. At some point, too, military action of some sort will be taken by someone. If the doctrine of humanitarian intervention could be pleaded in Kosovo in 1999, then it can be in Syria today. That is why I would back the British government having freedom to take military action. And to anyone who wants to dismember the EU (or the UK) I plead: please do not do so, for the sake of the Syrian people.

* John McHugo is a senior fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews and the author of Syria: A Recent History and A Concise History of the Arabs. He is the chair of the Lib Dem Friends of Palestine. He writes in a personal capacity.