Opinion… Syria: what do we do now? And as importantly, why? (Part 1)

There are no good options open to us. Our choices as a country are to jump from the top floor of the burning building where we currently stand or to turn and face the flames we’ve been fanning. I want us to take that leap – to make the effort to understand what outcome might be desirable and possible, and to work towards achieving it. While we’ve dithered, others have been working towards goals that should concern us: we have a stake in the outcome of this war.

This is the first of three articles, inspired not just by the chemical weapon attacks of last week, but by some of the opinions and questions that have been raised since then. I want to look at how this started and at who started it, critique our current, failing policy and finally set out a range of realistic goals we might hope to achieve if only we’d try.

I constantly hear variations of ‘they’re all as bad as each other’, ‘let them fight it out’, ‘we want both sides to lose’ or even ‘this is a fight between Sunnis and Shia’. This is simply not the case. Let’s return to the beginning of this crisis, when some school children were imprisoned and tortured by Assad’s secret police; when 12 year old Hamza Al-Khateeb was arrested for protesting, was tortured, murdered and his mutilated body finally returned to his parents. The protests spread, and within a few months hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Syrians were protesting peacefully, demanding – wait for it – ‘reform of the regime’. Not its fall, as Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans and Yemenis had called for: this was a rebellion of the reasonable, the cautious and the inclusive. The secular nature of the protests was emphasized: Syrians are proud of their history of coexistence.

Gradually, more and more conscripted soldiers went AWOL rather than fire upon unarmed protestors or be executed en masse for refusing to shoot. They abandoned their weapons, slipped away, and hid behind the civil uprising. Of course over time the rebellion become militarised, but it really shouldn’t be hard for democrats to know who we should be supporting in this war.

Western leaders and pundits are lining up to describe the opposition as either one indistinguishable mass that cannot be understood, trusted, reasoned with or helped, or as a collection of armed groups under the control of Islamist fundamentalist radicals allied with Al Qaida. Neither is (more than partially) true. There is still a large, unarmed opposition. Weekly demonstrations continue all over Syria (you owe it to yourself to Google the bittersweet artwork produced by the people of Kafr Nabel week after week). Citizen journalists continue to document the course of the war, civilian councils have been running towns and villages all over the ‘liberated’ north and teachers, doctors, farmers etc. continue their work in the most dangerous of circumstances. And of course there are the millions of refugees and internally displaced.

Where I’m going with this – and whether or not we can agree on what we should do about it – is that there is a side in this conflict we should be wanting to win.

The second part of this series will appear this evening and the final part first thing tomorrow morning.

* Jonathan Brown is the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate of the Chichester Party and founder of the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria.

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12 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 28th Aug '13 - 12:59pm

    One of the great failures of western foreign policy is that after having made so many mistakes in the region there is simply no large scale popular pro western movement there. This has been exploited by political extremists who even if they are not in themselves always popular, and often they are popular, they usually have the big advantage of being armed to the teeth by Saudi Arabia or Iran.
    Unfortunately that counts for a lot even if the peaceful majority do not support them in Syria. I believe Nick Clegg and others who say the bombing will be confined solely to destroying stocks of chemical weapons. However even if that actually happens it will not be believed

  • lloyd harris 28th Aug '13 - 1:04pm

    you can’t destroy stock of chemical weapons by bombing them! The chemicals will be released into the atmosphere!

  • So, for the sake of argument, we take action that somehow prevents the use of any further chemical attacks. Excellent. We then back off and allow Assad to carry on wiping out the opposition by conventional means? I just don’t understand why the means of killing people seems so critical in all of this. Action only make sense if the real intention is regime change which will, in turn, pose an existential threat to Hezbollah, so who knows where that will lead.

  • David Allen 28th Aug '13 - 1:39pm

    “there is a side in this conflict we should be wanting to win.”

    Yes true, but, if we favour one sub-set amongst the rebels, how can we help that sub-set? Only by massive intervention, and the risks such an intervention would create are horrendous.

  • Tony Harwood 28th Aug '13 - 1:53pm

    Another illegal military intervention, this time against the Syrian people, with the UK in its cheer-leader and bag-carrier role for the US. All part of a wider build-up for the coming onslaught against the west’s (and their pariah feudal / colonist regional allies) real target Iran.

    The hypocrisy of using unproven reports of the use of chemical agents is nauseating when one considers the rates of birth defects and cancers across the Middle East resulting from the west’s prolific use of depleted uranium munitions in their various recent neo-imperialist military interventions.

    As a Liberal Democrat I must state that the coming murderous, futile and irresponsible military intervention into a sectarian civil war, where the UK (alongside regional and other former colonial powers) is already fanning the flames of , is not in my name. The way to stop the Syrian bloodshed is through a step-change in levels of humanitarian support and local and regional peace negotiations (with no regime change pre-conditions) not cruise missiles and bunker busting bombs. The post colonial settlement created regional instability – so we and France have a moral (and practical) responsibility to try and fix it (but this will of course require a break from the US / Israel on Middle East policy).

  • “I just don’t understand why the means of killing people seems so critical in all of this.”

    Because that’s where Obama drew the red line in the sand (or whatever), apparently.

  • A Social Liberal 28th Aug '13 - 3:41pm

    There are two versions of what should happen.

    Version One
    This coalition government and the US go to the security council and – as is its want – Russia/China veto the resolution. The government then sits and watches as the death toll of innocents creeps up to and goes much further than the hundreds of thousands of innocents who died in Iraq.

    Version Two
    The government acts (in one of many ways)and our armed forces, as they did in Sierra Leone and in Kosovo, stops the further massacre of Syrian non combatants.

    Version one should happen because Liberal Democrats should be consistent in their stances and refuse to act to help those at risk when their own government threatens them. Version two should happen because it is the right thing to do.

    Did you know that Little Englander was a phrase attributed to Liberals who would rather we did nothing two centuries ago?

  • Simon Bamonte 28th Aug '13 - 4:26pm

    Good thing Western nations such as the US didn’t use chemical weapons against civilians in Vietnam. Or during the massacre of civilians in Fallujah in Iraq. Otherwise, our government would surely be drafting plans to bomb American stockpiles of these weapons.

    Right?

  • Jonathan Brown 28th Aug '13 - 6:28pm

    @Geoffrey – I agree.

    @Lloyd – I’m not an expert on this, although my understanding is that whilte there is a risk of contamination, it is possible to destroy stored chemical weapons.

    @OllyT – Excellent point. I don’t know whether or not you’ll agree with what I suggest, but parts 2 and 3 of my entry here will deal with this.

    @David Allen – there are things we can do that are not ‘massive intervention’ that could help tip the balance towards the moderates.

    @Tony Harwood – I share some of your concerns. I don’t think this is a prelude to an attack on Iran. One may be coming – I have no idea, but the US has clearly been trying to avoid outright military intervention in Syria for as long as possible. Although we should support regional ‘everything is on the table’ peace talks’, I don’t hold out any hope that them taking place would change anything in the current circumstances.

    I haven’t commented upon the use of air strikes in this article (and don’t in the following two) because I seem them as being pretty irrelevant. Either they’re a part of our essentially ‘do nothing’ strategy – and my assumption is that the regime is expecting and prepared for some bombing, and so there will be no significant reaction (as with the Israeli airstrikes a few months ago). Or the airstrikes – if they happen – will be the first step on the way to a radical change of policy. I see no evidence that such a change is being considered.

  • Peter Hayes 28th Aug '13 - 7:43pm

    The latest LDV survey of member was almost impossible to vote on. Too many yes/no/do not know. A scale of 1 to 5 from yes to no would have been marginally better. There are so many unknowns that a binary choice is impossible.

  • Jonathan, great article, I look forward to the next 2. Thanks for taking us back to the beginning and “clearing the brush”. I am in full agreement that there is one side we wish to win, and I hope this does not sound cheesy, but the Syrian people who wanted a reform of their regime, Syrians who have exhibited coexistence and a country that has allowed one of the very earliest Christian churches to co-exist within a multi-faceted predominantly Muslim country. Most of the worst atrocities from the rebel side have been perpetrated by foreigners operating in Syria, not Syrians themselves.

  • Re. attacking chemical weapons. Yes there are some risks, but (i) many are stored in binary form and are not extremely dangerous until combined (chemical reaction), (ii) explosion/fire will destroy many of the chemicals upon impact, (iii) gases naturally dissipate. Yes, no one would want to be nearby … the problem will be if Assad et al move the stocks and hide them in high density population areas, However, destroying chemical facilities and launch mechanisms (including air bases) would severely curtail future chemical weapon launch capabilities.

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