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Syrian conflict: Assad and the mirage of a diplomatic solution

December 1, 2015 7:24 PM
By Jonathan Brown in Liberal Democrat Voice

Such is the scale of our political failure concerning the Syrian conflict that the only options left open to us are terrible ones. Though I think much of the opposition to the air strikes is mistaken, it is with a heavy heart that I speak out in opposition to air strikes on ISIS in Syria too.

ISIS will clearly only be defeated militarily, and I'm happy that the UK should be part of that. Air strikes were almost certainly essential in enabling the Kurds in Syria and Iraq to survive ISIS' sudden onslaught in August 2014.

And as Syrian community representatives in the UK make clear:

We want more than anyone to be freed of ISIL and so we welcome international commitment to rid the world of this disease.

But they go on to say that

selectively bombing ISIL from the air will not win the support of those on the ground who want to defeat it … The only way to defeat ISIL is by stopping the Assad regime's indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, including areas controlled by moderate rebel groups. Once this happens, Syrians will be freed up to drive out ISIL themselves, as they have proved themselves capable of doing.

Air strikes against ISIS are to be opposed because

ISIL wants to persuade Syrians that countries like the UK are turning a blind eye to the horrors of the Assad regime and are instead choosing to attack them because this is a wider clash of civilisations. Bombing ISIL while ignoring the much greater violence of the Assad regime would feed this narrative.

This isn't a call to do nothing, or even simply to ramp up support for refugees. Tim Farron set out 5 conditions for Lib Dem support of British bombing of ISIS in Syria. They are sensible, and highly unlikely to be met, not least because of the requirement for there to be a credible diplomatic strategy for bringing the wider war in Syria to an end.

As the conflict resolution organisation, the International Crisis Group, states:

The U.S. finds it much easier, politically and militarily, to focus on "degrading" IS rather than on seriously pursuing its other stated goal of achieving a transition from the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The problem, however, is that the former is practically impossible without the latter, for two reasons: First, Assad's dependence upon brutal collective punishment tactics and sectarian militias is a key factor driving radicalisation in Syria, and thus jihadi recruitment. Second, taking and holding significant territory from IS requires credible local ground forces - in Sunni Arab areas, that means Sunni Arab forces. There are plenty of anti-IS rebel groups up to the job, but they cannot afford to dedicate sufficient resources toward IS so long as the regime is killing them and their families in far higher numbers, and most will not focus on IS exclusively unless they see Assad on his way out the door.

Cameron claims that he wants to work with 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters against ISIS but fails to explain how he will persuade these fighters to ignore the attacks by the Assad regime upon the civilian populations these fighters are fighting for. (And yes, they do exist).

A no-bombing zone is an essential part of any anti-ISIS strategy. This means issuing an ultimatum stating that if the Assad regime does not comply with "UN Security Council Resolution 2139's demand to "immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment" then the UK and/or our allies will enforce the demand by striking Assad regime military assets (air bases, for example) complicit in breaching Resolution 2139. This would not require widespread attacks on Syrian air defences as some have suggested, nor would it require the use of ground forces, as enforcement strikes can be carried out with precision weapons launched from beyond Syrian air space.

It is easy to say that there needs to be a diplomatic solution to the conflict, but it's time for some good old community politics. We need to listen to what Syrians are actually saying. The opposition will not, indeed cannot stop fighting against a regime that has already destroyed their country and would carry out merciless reprisals if it won. The Syrian population cannot simply be expected to abandon their aspirations simply because we want to ally with a tyrant against a bunch of terrorist gangsters and aren't willing to use our own troops. The opposition are not even represented at the talks in Vienna. If we want to defeat ISIS we'll need to work with the Syrian opposition and that will mean confronting some of the issues we've spent the last several years ignoring.

* Jonathan Brown is an activist from Chichester, an executive committee member of the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats and the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine and a Syrian rights campaigner. He is writing here in a personal capacity.