Opinion… Syria: what do we do now? And, as importantly, why? (Part 3)

The experience of the war in Iraq rightly made us all more sceptical about involvement in the Middle East. But the underlying principle of ‘responsibility to protect’, that as human beings we have a duty to one another, remains as true as it has ever been. It is too late for there to be a good outcome in Syria, but there are ‘less bad’ alternatives we should aim for.

No one is considering sending in the army. There’s no support for it, scant evidence we could do it legally and little reason to think it would make things better rather than worse. Instituting a no-fly-zone would be difficult, still not easy to do legally, and would probably lead to mission creep. Bombing Syria’s airports might prevent the regime’s jets from attacking cities, and might slow the flow of weapons and military advisors coming in from Iran, so it’s worth considering. But it’s not a strategy on its own.

If we actually want the war to end, we should be prepared to support Syrians who want to – and can – win it. The opposition has inflicted stunning defeats upon the regime and continues to hold on in many parts of the country. As recently as last week rebels in the south were making gains in and around Damascus (putting into context Assad’s gains in and around Homs). If we (or rather, our allies) gave moderate rebel groups the weapons they need to defend the towns and suburbs that they control, we would see over time the organisations I mentioned in part 1 of this series develop and grow into the structures that would be needed to govern a post-Assad Syria – or negotiate with the regime.

We all know that the armed opposition consists of a great number of militias. Many of them form loose but identifiable alliances of interest or ideology. Most groups are rooted in the areas they grew up in. Many of them have Facebook pages, Youtube channels, offices, established leaders and designated spokespeople, and many of them have been around for quite a while. In other words, there are people we can ‘do business with’ should we choose to do so. There have been periods in which the more moderate rebel groups, with outside support, have been able to capture and hold large areas of territory independently of the jihadists – only to lose much of it again when the support has suddenly been withdrawn. There is no reason why support for the extremists wouldn’t drain away again if the moderate groups were able to defend the towns and suburbs under their control. We don’t even need to ‘pick winners’ as such.   Gradually scaling up support would allow us to see who was able to turn words into actions and deliver not just security but the basic services a civilian population needs in the areas they have secured. Support shouldn’t be limited to weapons: the opposition groups need food, fuel, medicines, vaccines, etc. too, and they should be judged on the use they make of all of it.

Without the weapons to defend the areas they control however, we do not give the moderate groups the opportunity to develop into the organisations we – and Syria – needs them to be if there is to be any hope of having some sort of system of government in a post-Assad Syria, or indeed, any realistic chance of peace talks succeeding.

This completes Jonathan Brown’s series of 3 articles. The first is here and the second  is here

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

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5 Comments

  • jenny barnes 29th Aug '13 - 9:36am

    I think it’s none of our business. But if you want to do something – http://tinyurl.com/pp8gmkk

  • Jonathan Brown 29th Aug '13 - 6:11pm

    Thanks for the link Jenny, I agree very much with the analysis in that article.

    As for it being none of our business, 2 years ago, I’d have a greed with you. But it has become in international conflict. A war that goes on for several more years and perhaps sees Lebanon, Iraq and even possibly southeastern Turkey in full civil war would very much affect us. Even if you don’t agree that the moral imperative to end the war justifies action of one kind or another.

  • Euan Davidson 30th Aug '13 - 8:02am

    This post completley ignores the brutal humans rights abuses many of these “Moderate” opposition groups have perpetrated on an almost daily basis

  • David White 30th Aug '13 - 6:28pm

    I almost (sorry, no more than almost) feel guilty when saying that the UK should keep out of foreign conflicts, particularly in those countries where we can’t tell, with any accuracy, who are the Goodies and which ones are the Baddies. Currently, in Syria, there is an unholy (literally!) mish-mash of Shia v Sunni, Allawite v Christian-ite, Iran v Saudi Arabia, Obama v Putin, Israel v everybody except the USA. Oh, and I nearly forgot, the Lebanon starting its next civil war.

    And even if you do feel that the UK should go to war in Syria, you might be wise to consider how many wars, post 1945, Our Brave Boys have won. Not many, if any!

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Aug '13 - 8:03pm

    @Euan – Almost by definition, people who go around slaughtering prisoners, attacking people on the basis of their religious identy etc. are not moderate. And this post is about supporting the moderates. There is plenty of news about extremists, but the point I’m making is that they are NOT the full picture. I should clarify that by ‘moderates’ I do not (just) mean secularists. I mean that there is a range of moderate opposition groups including Islamists, that we can work with if we want to. (And which we are, to an extent, in the South of Syria.) I haven’t talked about the abuses committed by some rebel groups, not because I’m denying that they exist and have taken place but because my arguement is that we should be supporting the rebel groups that have proven and continue to prove that they do not commit outrageous crimes.

    @David, the starting point for any liberal and/or democrat should be that we stay out of other people’s business. But as with most things in politics, this is never an absolute rule, and events can become so serious that other concerns (the protection of human life and the prevention of a civil war spilling out and becoming a regional war) can eventually overwhelm our instinct to mind our own business.

    There is an ‘unholy mish-mash’ in Syria, and I don’t deny that it’s complicated. I’d go so far as to say that anyone who thought that they understood it all is a deluded fool. But Quantum physics is complicated too, and yet people who study it can understand it. For personal as well as professional reasons I have followed events in Syria incredibly closely since before the uprising started, and am in contact with Sryians and non-Syrians who live and/or work in the country now. (And by the way, I have friends on both sides of the conflict.) My point is not that everyone should defer to my awesomeness but that as a country we and our allies have the capability to have a reasonably good understanding as to what is going on. It is possible to identify, support and monitor groups that we could work with, if we chose.

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