Successfully defending a Syrian safe area

On Thursday on Question Time Tim Farron spoke in favour of protecting Syrian people from the murder visited on them by Assad’s military.  I applaud Tim’s decision to do so, especially in the light of earlier Lib Dem votes against military action. However, in doing so I have to insert the caveat that a solution based on air power alone is in fact no solution at all.

To illustrate my argument I must take you all back before the Iraq war and to the North and South Iraq No Fly Zones. In the north the NFZ was a success, with very few civilian casualties caused by the Iraqi military. In the south however, it could not have been more different, with villages being decimated and the genocide of an entire people very nearly enabled.

So what was the difference between the Northern and Southern No Fly Zones? Quite simply, it was the Kurdish ground troops protecting their people from murder by Saddam’s security forces. There was no equivalent in the south and so the armed forces were able to act with impunity (albeit without the comfort of air cover), murdering their people and even re-routing the Euphrates in order to starve the Marsh Arabs.

The only way to protect Syrian civilians is by placing troops on the ground as well as by air, placing them in harm’s way. And mark my words, this will not only be from Assad’s troops and their Russian Allies, The Syrian rebel armed forces will want to make use of the protection afforded by a western imposed safe area and if we prevent them from doing so (as we must) it may well come to blows.

Then (unless we are talking about a no fly zone right up to the [very fluid] Forward Edge of the Fighting Area – the front line – we will have to organise the protected removal of any civilians from the combat area. Again this can only be done with ground forces, and not even bayonets – we will have to place huge numbers of logistic troops at the forefront.

In all, the UK will have to commit thousands (perhaps more than ten thousand) troops to properly support a Syrian safe area. Will the British people prefer to see continued Syrian prosecution of chemical warfare rather than have British troops embroiled in an action which might last as long as the Syrian civil war itself? Probably so, but in my opinion the government must ignore public opinion and do the right thing.

* Steve Walpole is a veteran of HM Armed Forces and is currently Vice Chair of Skipton and Ripon Lib Dems

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  • Steve Walpole has started to set out the difficulties in turning current Liberal Democrat policy in Syria – bombing Assad’s forces, bombing ISIS’s forces – into something ethical. To touch on three others: First how do you arrange the governance of the area you are defending? Secondly what happens when [some of] the people you are defending start turning against you [being a bit older than Steve I seem to recall that in the late sixties British troops were initially welcomed in the Catholic areas of Belfast but the honeymoon period did not last]? Thirdly what do you do if you are too successful. Let us assume that ten thousand British troops occupy a part of Syria making it secure and reasonably governed would this not then become a very attractive part of Syria for many Syrians to want to migrate to? Ten thousand British troops might provide adequate security for a population of two hundred thousand but what happens if the population should swell to one million? Another matter which needs to be addressed is the conflict with the UK government’s policy which supports the territorial integrity of Syria. A safe area would need to be protected against the Syrian government and ISIS and other armed factions in Syria. Having “enjoyed” UK government protection in this fashion what guarantee would there be that at some future point the inhabitants of the safe area would want to be reintegrated into the Syrian state? Steve Walpole sets out a better policy than the current Liberal Democrat policy for Syria but it is by no means one without problems.

  • Richard Lee 8th Apr '17 - 1:41pm

    So Lib Dems are following the Trump/May assumption that Assad did this? Even the British ex Ambassador to Syria has warned there is no firm reliable evidence. A false flag is more likely.

  • Nom de Plume 8th Apr '17 - 6:09pm

    It is bold plan with many potential problems and unanswered questions. Assad is opposed, as, I guess, would be the Russians. My biggest concern is that they (UK/US) would screw it up.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Apr '17 - 6:52pm

    Fascinating but can’t we have a “no bomb zone” instead? This means we simply retaliate for every bomb in a civilian area, rather than actively shoot the planes from the ground before they hit, which seems to require more ground troops to protect the weapons.

    America’s cruise missiles seem good. When the Russian’s last used theirs they didn’t seem very accurate, but these look accurate.

  • @ Eddie Sammon: Were American missiles all that good and accurate?
    Besides the 6 Syrian soldiers who died in the American attack, on the Syrian Air Force base, some 9 civilians- of which 4 were children- were also killed. Or was that intended?

    Not sure how many of the 70 people killed in the Khan Shaykhun munitions store bombing by the Syrian Air Force were ‘rebels’ . The particular ‘rebels’ who run Khan Shaykhun are formerly known as ‘Al-Nusra’ i.e. franchise of Al-Qaeda.

    Eddie, would your idea of a ‘No bombing” of Jihadist controlled areas only apply to the Syrian govt & Russians, or also include the Americans etc, who last month were bombing the same “rebel” group? (you may recall the incident where several dozen were killed including children, with conflicting reports of it being a mosque or not)

    Btw – what are people’s views of the use of white phosphorus, as reportedly used by US forces on ISIS-controlled areas of Raqqa province- a chemical warfare or a positioning flare device with collateral damage on persons nearby?

  • A Social Liberal 9th Apr '17 - 12:10am

    I will try and take on the points raised as soon as possible, but it might take a couple of days as I am and have been rather busy. First though I would like to address the ‘false flag’ conspiracy theory.

    Because of the military technology brought into play by the Americans, they will know exactly which aircraft dropped the chemical ordnance onto Khan Sheikhun. This technology will include ground radar in Turkey, Iraq and Israel, seaborn radar on the Mediterranian Fleet and airborne radar from the E4 aircraft in theatre. The US will be employing these means because knowing which aircraft are where is all part of keeping American pilots safe whilst they are in enemy airspace.

    At the same time the NSA and military intelligence will be listening in to both verbal and non verbal radio transmissions In order that they are not surprised by either friend or foe.

    Taking all the various intelligence together, the Americans will definately know the airfield the guilty aircraft came from, the type of aircraft which dropped the bombs and in all probability the names of the pilots who committed the war crimes. Even if the guilty pilots were to damp all their non verbal transmissions, which I doubt, the very fact that aircraft had taken off ‘silent’ would have set alarm bells ringing and those aircraft would have been watched very closely indeed.

    If foreign aircraft (as in not US, Syrian, Russian or one of the nations bombing ISIS) had flown into Syrian airspace without IFF transponders activated and flightplans logged with the authorities then they would have been intercepted by one of the nations listed above – just so that those nations pilots were protected. The days of aircraft sneaking about are well past.

    Given the above, false flag attacks where superpowers such as the US and Russia are operating should be written off.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Apr '17 - 12:14am

    Thomas H-J, the Syrian regime is a proven liar, so I doubt any claims they make. They have lost the support of Syria and only maintain power with brutal use of force. Aid agencies stopped giving co-ordinates of their medical facilities because they believed they were being deliberately targeted.

    End of debate for me.

  • A Social Liberal 9th Apr '17 - 12:28am

    On to Eddies point. Bomb for bomb intervention.

    This is not viable for several reasons which are tied to the type of war fighting taking place in Syria.

    First, what used to be called the forward edge of the battle area – FEBA – is extremely fluid and as such civilians will be caught up in the fighting and many will become innocent casualties of ordnance targeted in what the Syrians honestly considered to be combat areas. Not that all Syrian targets are in combat zones, Khan Sheikhun was as far as I know well to the rear. Also, combatants have a duty to remove – wherever possible – civilians from areas which will become combat areas. Whilst Free Syrian Army has done its best to comply with these conventions, more militant rebels have forced civilians to stay in situ.

    Second, the Syrians and Russians will not take kindly to their military capability being degraded in this way.

    Third, such a strategy is reactive rather than proactive and so will do little for the safety of innocents.

  • The US missile attack 3 weeks ago that killed at least 42 civilians in Al Qaeda “rebel” controlled Al Jineh town (border of Aleppo & Idlib provinces) was the mosque/not mosque story that had a flutter of coverage – see the BBC link here:,
    The “White Helmets” (affiliated to the rebel groups but with good Western PR company links) disputed the US military account.

  • Eddie Sammon 9th Apr '17 - 9:42am

    Thanks A Social Liberal. It doesn’t need to be literally bomb for bomb, but just something a bit more aggressive to tip the balance. What about the idea from senior Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham of taking Assad’s air-force capabilities out? They would only have the Russians then and would they really start doing all the bombing instead? They might come to the negotiating table then.

  • Omar Hegazi 9th Apr '17 - 10:53am

    The entire discussion of a safe area is largely pointless unless broad-based international coalition can be formed to guarantee it. Unilateral military action will cause provocation and escalation. It is not a rational option, and I must remind the writer that during the 1990 Gulf War, US and Soviet Union policy was aligned. This is clearly not the case now, so the solutions applied back then cannot be copied and pasted.

    With respect to the comment by A Social Liberal, I would say that it is unfair to dismiss the false flag argument as merely a ‘conspiracy theory’ on the basis that there is actually no verified official account of what happened on the ground. There is international consensus that a chemical attack took place, and the likelihood is that the Americans linked this to aircraft movements. Assuming the timing of the aircraft movements corresponded to the incident, then it was either Assad or a sophisticated false flag actor. If the aircraft movements did not corroborate the ‘Assad did it’ account, then there would have been a very embarrassing situation whereby Western policy in Syria would have looked even more ridiculous than it already does. In all three cases, Trump’s missile strike response was the most proportionate and rational course of action.

    Regarding the practicalities of executing a false flag attack, I should remind the overconfident hawks among us who are “completely sure” that it was not one that this is a very dirty and messy proxy war. There are at least five non-Western foreign powers covertly involved who have the means to facilitate such an event. Their sociopathic Al Qaeda affiliate partners on the ground, like al-Nusra Front, are suitably amoral, and their incentive to engage in such action is far greater than that for Assad. It is perfectly possible to discharge chemical weapons from the ground – the Ghouta sarin attack in 2013 was delivered using surface-to-surface rockets –and there is no shortage of regime airstrikes if one can be bothered to synchronise such a deployment with aircraft movements. Either way, this is a no-holds barred conflict. It is hard to mourn the loss of a regime airbase, but we should think very carefully as a nation before escalating our own involvement.

    Academic Sources: James Bond: The Living Daylights (1987), Rambo III (1988) – where the Taliban were the good guys!

  • @Eddie Sammon: “The Syrian regime is a proven liar” On what basis, what our media and govt tell you?
    “They have lost the support of Syria and only maintain power with brutal use of force”
    Who says- you and western govts and some commentators who have always been enemies of the Syrian govt? Because it’s NOT what Syrian overall opinion says in Syria and neighbouring country refugee camps in July 2015, which found:
    Assad govt influence: 47% positive, 49% negative
    FSA: 36% positive, 63% negative
    Syrian Opposition Coalition (in West) 26% Pos, 72% Neg
    Gulf countries (Saudi, Qatar) 37% Pos, 55% Neg
    Iran 43% Pos, 55% Neg
    Al Nusra front (run Kan Shaykhun town) 35% Pos, 63% Neg
    ISIS 21% Pos, 76% Neg
    Syrians on the whole are pretty evenly split on whether the Assad govt is good or bad, but they’re a heck of a lot more popular than any of the other options.

    But many of us in the West like to ignore facts like this, and the US bombing of the exact same rebel group killing a similar number of civilians & militia a few weeks ago, as these facts challenge a simplistic narrative that our govts are benign towards Syrians and know what’s best for them.

  • Very much concur with Omar Hegazi’s comments, particularly on the “Rebel” groups formerly known known as AL Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate.

    Sarin is documented to have been transported from Turkey into rebel areas in mid 2013- cue the Turkish opposition MP and Turkish journalists who were arrested in Turkey for reporting on this.

  • A Social Liberal 10th Apr '17 - 4:47pm


    Can you tell me which ‘five, non western foreign powers which have the knowledge, equipment and ability to fool the combined ISTAR capabilities of the UK, US, Russia and Turkey – all but Russia sharing their intelligence? Can you put forward a scenario as to how they pulled off such an attack?

    As to the attack using ‘surface to surface rockets’ – can you name such weapons which have the stealth capabilities to fool the ground, seaborne and airborne radars of the countries in the area; that has the range to reach out from the launch site to deliver the chemical agent and that has the payload to cause the numbers of casualties we have seen?

    Thomas H-J, can you please link the source for your assertions that Sarin was smuggled into Syria – but articles that are not from conspiracy sites which use single, usually anonymous, sources.

  • Omar Hegazi 11th Apr '17 - 8:48pm

    A Social Liberal

    These are great questions which we should definitely be asking before making brash assertions that we should put British lives at risk in order to establish and police a no-fly zone without broad-based UN support. The issue is serious, because we are effectively talking about condemning members of our armed forces to a possible fate of death, injury or amputation based on genuinely questionable facts. I am sure you recognize that Syria is a tragedy, but even if you only care about winning elections, you should recognize that at least nobody died of tuition fees!

    With respect to the five non-western foreign powers, it would be unfair t to name names, but I think you can come to your own conclusions concerning which potential actors have the combination of a history of covert involvement, the financial means, a vested interest, and the access to weaponry required to have supplied their proxies in Syria with sarin or its precursors.

    Regarding the operational details, stealth capabilities would not be necessary. Even the most basic artillery shells and rockets are small and fast. They can only be detected using short-range counter-battery radars, and the very best of these will operate with meaningful accuracy at a range of 30-50km. Reliable detection, if at all possible in warzone skies crowded with other nefarious projectiles, would therefore require a ground presence deep inside Syrian territory. A land-based attack would most likely have been invisible to NATO forces in Cyprus and Turkey, and very generic howitzer – ancient technology – could have delivered it.

  • Omar Hegazi 11th Apr '17 - 9:10pm

    Without wishing to speak for Thomas H-J, I would also like to remind A Social Liberal that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is behind much of what makes its way into the mainstream press on Syria, routinely puts stories out that are based on the word of single, anonymous and unverified sources.

  • @George Kendall

    You make some valid points, but I feel you have misunderstood my argument.

    My opinion is not that it is wrong to come to any sort of conclusion in the face of imperfect information. Indeed, the quality of a decision seldom correlates with the degree of conviction with which it was made. In the real world, Cartesian doubt is usually unworkable, but I am saying that the choice of action always should factor in the extent of the gaps in our knowledge. In stressful situations when there is no time to ask questions, binary certainty can be a valuable survival mechanism – think “fight or flight”. Many people here obviously care about the plight of Syrian civilians and are frustrated by the helplessness of their situation. Emotions run high, and suddenly, what is a decidedly complicated multi-level proxy war becomes a black and white issue of good versus evil. Remarkably, we see internationalist liberals who fought tooth and nail for Britain to remain in the European Union argue whole heartedly that it should sidestep the UN and work unilaterally with Donald Trump if so called upon. Should we not instead be the first to call for a full and open UN investigation? A monstrous crime was perpetrated in Khan Shaykhun, but given the scale on which the Anglo Saxon “World Police” business model has failed us in the past, is it really so outrageous to call for due process? I hear what you are saying about the existing checks and balances on Western governments, but their record on Syria, along with that of the rest of the international community, leaves much to be desired. Due to the dearth of evidence, each state will naturally report what suits it politically. It ends up being one country’s word against another’s, and at any point, each of them might be interpolating most of their so called facts. Because of the murderous nature of the belligerents in Syria, the press has no presence and is even worse off. It therefore typically has little with which to hold either side credibly to account.

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