‘Iraq 2’. Why the Lib Dem’s Syria conflict position in parliament is militarily and politically unwise

On Tuesday, Tim Farron expressed the party’s position on the coming ‘Syria conflict’ vote in parliament in a letter to PM David Cameron.

It set out five conditions for Lib Dem support for an escalation of British involvement in Syria. It will no doubt be taken by the UK government as conditions for Lib Dem support for a general major escalation.

The first ‘condition’ was that military action against Islamic State in Syria should follow international law. The letter expressed acceptance of UN Resolution 2249. This UN resolution however does not authorise actions against IS, nor does it provide a legal basis for the use of force generally against IS in Syria or in Iraq. It only supports states in doing what they are already doing under existing international laws, specifically on IS-held territory. As such this supports existing Russian and Iranian military involvement as much as existing Western involvement.

For the UK to attack Syria, whether fighting the Assad regime or IS, it still needs compliance, such as the invoking of Article 5 of the NATO treaty (ie protecting a UK ally, France). France has not invoked Article 5.

The second condition includes UK support for the Vienna peace talks, but perhaps naively and certainly unwisely calls for the UK government to support a ‘no-bomb’ zone for ‘civilian protection’.

In reality however, a ‘no-bomb’ zone means a no-fly zone, militarily enforced against Syrian and Russian fighter planes and against any ground weapons in and around the zone that can shoot down Western planes. Almost certainly this will precipitate two new wars; one between Turkey and a united Kurdish force, and the other between Western forces and Syria-plus-Russia…

This zone, in NW Syria bordering Turkey, was proposed by President Erdogan of Turkey, whose motives are undoubtedly to remove advancing Kurdish forces from the Syrian side of the border. In addition, enforcing this zone would bring anti-Assad forces closer to the Russian bases and Assad’s Alawite stronghold. Russia will oppose it militarily, especially given that Erdogan’s language has implied it would be a Turkish annexation of part of Syria, likely including the Turkish-speaking Syrian areas.

The third condition calls for more assistance from Gulf states in defeating IS. This is euphemistic at best.

After it became clear that the Obama’s rapprochement with Iran was going to succeed, and after the US became self-sufficient in oil, some Gulf states feared loss of influence. To balance, they sought ‘defeat’ of Iran’s allies in Syria (the Assad regime) and elsewhere. One result of this was the formation of IS; to topple Assad and strengthen ‘pro-Saudi’ Sunni areas in Iraq. Turkey played a role too. A blind eye was turned by key parts of the US government. The result was a policy was to contain IS, especially preventing IS from going too far away from the cradle and defeating Kurdish forces in the North of Iraq. Little effort was made, for example, to halt the sale of IS oil through Turkey (until the Russian air force intervened).

Thus, the first three Lib Dem conditions misfire, and consequently the fourth (post-IS politics), and the fifth (protecting Europe from IS) are ill-founded.

There does need to be military action however; cutting off IS supply lines through Saudi and up the Euphrates River into Syria and lines through Turkey. Thirdly, action to help the Kurds and Iraqi Government in Baghdad cut IS lines to Mosul. This cannot be done successfully however without brutal diplomatic pressure on Gulf states, Turkey, and Russia. This is better than a general 10-year (partially fake) war with IS, with one eye to removing Assad, and two big wars resultant from Erdogan’s ‘no-bomb’ zone.

In the end the West will have to do a deal with Russia over Assad, as I have argued since 2011, when we were in a stronger position to do so. The Russians quietly accept that Assad must go. But without a negotiated settlement there will be no peace or development; just chaos and more terrorism, as in Libya.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Tsar Nicholas 26th Nov '15 - 10:15am

    Great analysis. My big fear is that Cameron will send the RAF after Assad and that there will be a confrontation with Russia.

    In addition, I don’t think we should be associated with ISIS, which we will be by virtue of supporting the Turks who are clearly in the driving seat so far as ISIS are concerned.

  • Paul Reynolds 26th Nov '15 - 10:16am

    For further information and ‘recommendations’ from Aug 2012 and Sept 2015 please see…



    In both articles the aim is to bring democracy and peace to Syria and the elimination of the scope for Syria to be a haven for non-state military actors such as IS.

  • “Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations”.

    It would be helpful if we had full information on what and who these “multilateral organisations” are.

  • This is indeed excellent analysis. Tim Farron needs to find better advisers if we are to survive in these dangerous waters.

    The French have now concluded that the best plan is to stop ISIS’s access to Turkey by closing off the 60 mile or so wide gap between Kurdish held territories strung along the northern border of Syria. Closing this gap will stop the flow of oil northwards (which the Russians may have done anyway by taking out the road tanker fleet), weapons southwards and terrorists in both directions.

    It’s no coincidence that this gap is precisely where Erdogan wanted to locate the ‘no-bomb’ zone (= ‘no-fly’ zone as Paul says). Other, more populous, areas were not proposed as ‘no-bomb’ zones. In other words this proposal was always and only about keeping the gap open for ISIS-related traffic in both directions and the rhetoric about protecting civilians was just a cover story.

    Just two years ago Cameron was gung-ho for an attack on Assad, now he want to attack the other side although the issues on the ground in Syria haven’t really changed. Clearly we are being lied to again just as in the Gulf War; we shouldn’t buy the lie.

    I’m amazed that Cameron can survive this flip-flopping. Any decent opposition would make political mincemeat of him. Sadly, a proper opposition is missing in action.

  • Jenny barnes 26th Nov '15 - 12:56pm

    A proper opposition – was that the 46 mps lost by the lds in the recent election?

  • Denis Loretto 26th Nov '15 - 1:16pm

    I have just watched virtually all today’s debate on Syria and not for the first time was impressed with the breadth and depth of many of the contributions made. I still find it difficult to decide how I would vote in the forthcoming decision-making debate but I cannot deny that the issue is being comprehensively and seriously examined by the House of Commons. But where were the Lib Dems? I could not see any of our members present (I cannot be certain of this) other than Tim Farron. As a keen supporter of Tim I have to admit I thought he showed poor judgement in opening his intervention with a reference to “knee-jerk reaction” . I don’t think he was directly accusing Cameron of such a reaction but his use of the phrase seemed to submerge the rest of what he said.

    However my main point is that in various debates in the Commons – including the spending review yesterday – the Lib Dem MPs are becoming prominent by their absence. With only 8 members they need more than ever to be seen punching above their weight.

  • Has everyone forgotten the mess, death and destruction you caused in Libya or are you trying to forget it? Supported by Clegg and co. The same arguments about protecting us from terrorism is the propaganda used by Blair. All Cameron wants is to defeat Assad and Russia which is why the West and the Gulf States have supported the rebel groups including ISIS. The same for Iraq, the same for Libya. The great propaganda machine rolls on and on. We are at the end of days unless the West pulls back.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Nov '15 - 2:15pm

    Cameron had the right idea months ago: strike Daesh in Syria. Then people started over complicating it saying “you can’t do that unless you have a peace plan” – so now Cameron has gone away and tried to come up with a peace plan and obviously there is going to be a lot of doubts because the local political situation is so complicated and sensitive.

    I find it embarrassing. We should have been doing what France and the United States have been doing. They didn’t overcomplicate it and say “we can’t attack them unless we have a peace plan to settle hundreds of years of rivalry”.

  • @ Denis Loretto

    Agree with your comments on LD attendance – particularly in debates which get national coverage in television as per yesterday and today. The Leader should always expect a full bench with everyone there in support when he speaks.

    By contrast the SNP seem to have this matter sorted out.

  • Mick Taylor 26th Nov '15 - 4:22pm

    Spot on Paul. War mongers beware. Ifs you succeed in getting your way ISIL would get a further flood of recruits and the UK will be a target for bombers and killers. And it will make matters far worse in Syria not better. Just look at Libya and Afghanistan.
    When will the war party ever learn?
    No. The only way forward is diplomatic. It’s not a fast track, it will take time and patience and the first task will be stopping the financing of ISIL by middle east states and by countries buying oil from ISIL and by stopping the flow of arms into the conflict zone.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Nov '15 - 6:38pm

    France has written an article appealing directly for our help in the Guardian. History and our allies will judge us badly if we let them down. I’ve also written to Chatham House to explain my concerns about their consistent refusal to support airstrikes against Daesh in Syria over the past several months.

    A liberal party should support our liberal allies and sometimes that means militarily:


  • The Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn is asking some very pertinent questions…. we should be dealing with these points…

    ” British planes may soon be bombing Isis in Syria as well as Iraq, but so far the British Government has produced a picture of political conditions in both countries that hovers somewhere between wishful thinking and fantasy. ”

    Britain must learn from past mistakes

    Is there any hope of military success?

  • Cameron has also promised ‘oodles’ (at least £1 billion) of our new found cash to rebuild Syria’s infrastructure after ISIS and Assad have ‘vanished’…
    Would this be the same David Cameron who twice visited post Gaddafi Libya and promised all the help needed to rebuild their infrastructure…What happened?.

    There may well be a weak opposition but there is even less investigative journalism…

  • “In the end the West will have to do a deal with Russia over Assad….” Quite agree Paul. It is so much easier to take the moral high ground of “this is terrible, something must be done” than take the more nuanced, and informed, view that terrible things may indeed be happening but taking precipitate action will only make them worse. Hence you were right about trying to involve Russia in 2011 rather than following the West’s hype about the ‘Arab Spring’, and the last thing that we should be doing now is ratcheting up the violence. IS will be defeated when it is starved of funds from the sale of oil, and when the West makes it clear to its Gulf State and Saudi backers that their actions are unacceptable and that we are prepared to turn our backs on them whatever the short-term consequences to our economy if they do not change their behaviour.

  • Graham Jones 27th Nov '15 - 11:24am

    Excellent analysis by Paul. On my one visit to Syria I witnessed corruption and ineptitude. The barrel bombs would be enough to land Assad in The Hague. Against that I weigh the comments made to me from young Syrians from minority groups: essentially that minorities, including Christians, felt safe under Assad, himself from a minority; they wanted reform but not revolution. There must surely be room for a deal, with Russian support, under which Assad stays while Syria’s territorial integrity is regained, in return for a ceasefire with the non-ISIS opposition, his observation of the Geneva Conventions, and his acceptance of advice and material support for rebuilding the nation and the introduction of principles of good governance, which include, eventually, free and fair elections.

  • I can only endorse all the comments made. This was an excellent, well nuanced piece. It was an accurate critique of the LibDem 5 point plan and as good an analysis of the complex nature of the conflict as I have read.
    The LibDem contribution to the debate in the house was weak to the point of embarrassment. While I appreciate Tim is trying to promote the caring, compassionate side of LibDem philosophy, I fear that LibDem foreign policy is out of touch with reality and out of step with the public mood.

  • Gordon & Anne….I couldn’t agree more…..We are being fed half truths and lies….Where in our mainstream media is there any REAL reporting of Putin’s comments on the ISIS/Turkey oil links….(“The motorcade of refueling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon,” He compared the convoy to gas and oil pipeline systems, “They go out full and come back empty”)…..

    If the Russians found them, and destroyed them within days of entering the region,why have the US ‘missed’ such targets…The US have bases in Turkey and would far rather turn a blind eye to such goings on than antagonise a NATO ‘ally’…

    Starving ISIS of funds, men and material will do far more to end this conflict than adding a few more planes to the already congested skies over Syria….


  • I agree with Mick Taylor. Get rid of their funding and arms supply and they have nothing left. No more civilians need to be bombed or to be forced to become refugees. Without money and support, they terrorists have nothing,

  • David Allen 27th Nov '15 - 8:08pm

    Let’s just remember that territory isn’t everything. We didn’t defeat Bin Laden simply by driving the Taliban out of government in Afghanistan, and we probably won’t have seen the last of Daesh even if they lose the territory of their caliphate. Terrorism can continue from bases in lawless lands and in places like Molenbeek.

    Military action in the Middle East has therefore to be judged in terms of whether it truly weakens Daesh or whether it only encourages radical Islamism to flourish. Increasing disorder, by bombing in support of a disorganised cluster of guerillas and bandits who cannot possibly provide a stable alternative to Daesh, may only serve to bring further discredit on the West.

  • David Pollard 28th Nov '15 - 11:18am

    I agree with Paul. We should concentrate on getting ISIS out of Iraq and confine them to Syria. Arguing about whether we should send 3(?) planes to kill innocent civilians in Syria is so STUPID when there is so much else we could be concentrating on.

  • David Pollard 28th Nov '15 - 11:20am

    And everyone seems to have forgotten that Cameron has so denuded the military, we need help from our allies to search for a Russian submarine off Scotland. And he has so cut back on our security services that he had to admit we are 1900 people short to defend ourselves.

  • David Pollard 28th Nov '15 - 11:21am

    I desperately want the LibDems in parliament to vote AGAINST Cameron’s motion if it includes bombing Syria.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 28th Nov '15 - 12:51pm

    Air strikes against Syria would inevitably mean civilian casualties. If we start to argue that some civilian casualties are a necessary evil – that “the end justifies the means” – then how can we continue to regard ourselves as morally superior to the terrorists, who probably used similar arguments to justify the atrocities in Paris. The death of even one child should be a price that we, as a supposedly civilized nation, are not prepared to pay.

  • @Catherine Jane Crosland
    “Air strikes against Syria would inevitably mean civilian casualties…”

    While this is indisputably true, we have to consider that a war is already raging there, civilian casualties and all, and will continue to do so whether we get involved or not. There might be a moral case for joining in if we are confident that we can bring the war to a quicker and less bloody conclusion. It’s not an easy calculation to make – which is why we have dithered over it for years now.

    I’m not convinced either way just yet. I think Islamic State need to be defeated militarily but would much prefer somebody else doing it. Nobody else will though. While David Allen has a point about further Western involvement enraging the jihadis all the more, on the other hand we might have long since reached the point where these people are going to have a murderous hatred for the West whatever we do. Many Liberals like to snuggle up under their self-blaming comfort blanket with “It’s all because of Iraq” printed on it – somewhat overlooking the fact that 9/11, and numerous other things that were going on at the time, predated Iraq by years. Obviously we can’t re-run history, but I suspect that even if we’d run the most saintly foreign policy imaginable for the past 25 years, we’d still be in a mess right now.

  • Andrew McCaig 28th Nov '15 - 1:49pm

    I agree with David Pollard

  • Sadie Smith 1st Dec '15 - 12:00pm

    I,too hope there is a vote against.
    I am sure it is more complex than Cameron believes. I had hoped for a bit more time to assess what the UK could do best rather than take a fairly simplistic vote, however that might feel..
    It still looks high risk and not likely to achieve the objective.
    Alliances have already changed and will change again.
    It is possible to do better, but not if there is an apparent rush to ‘bomb’ someone, even if this is in a slightly wider context than before. We want to be pretty sure it will not make things worse.

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