Syrian conflict: Assad and the mirage of a diplomatic solution

Photo by Kafranbel Syrian Revolution

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 the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate of the Chichester Party and founder of the Liberal Democrats for Free Syria.

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  • This ignore Russia and the fact that it’s highly dubious if the rebels actual are moderate. We were told exactly this kind of thing in Libya and Iraq. I don’t like the Assad regime but this kind of thinking led us to where we are in the first place. Husain kills is own people, he used chemical weapons, there’s loads of moderates, We need regime change. Result failed state. Gadhafi indiscriminately kills his own people and the rebels are moderate. Result failed state. The arab spring is going to change the ME. Result, Failure after failure. And these moderates we backed turned out to be ISIL and various other religious fruitcakes. Meanwhile in Afghanistan the Taliban came back very quickly and the new head of Al Qaeda lives quite openly in Pakistan. The main reason for not bombing ISIL is that we keep interfering and making everything worse, create failed states and hand over countries to various warlords.
    The truth is US as followed variation on this kind of thinking all over the world since WWII and it has failed miserably virtually every single time in South America, in Vietnam, In Cambodia, in Haiti, and now in the Middle East.
    Honestly, we should just pull out and say enough is enough. We don’t even have the excuse that we are combating communist anymore because actually we’re more than happy to deal with Communist China but capitalist Russia is still the Evil Empire.

  • None of the hawks are sending their own children to fight.

  • Eddie Sammon 30th Nov '15 - 4:20pm

    I agree with Obama and Cameron about the practical difficulties of a no-fly zone. My own mind wonders how big this zone will be? Which city? How do we transport people to that city? Or are we talking about the whole of Syria?

    Of course it should be on the table, but to make it essential might mean we do nothing until we get something that looks quite difficult and will definitely be difficult to achieve without a significant confrontation with Russia.

    The strongest argument for us bombing Assad is that then the local fighters will focus on ISIS. Or at least we can test that theory and the moderates should at least. This is how the UK public thinks too – it’s got to be on the basis of mutual interests for Syria and the UK for us to support military action against Assad.

    I think airstrikes against Daesh should go ahead as long as Cameron isn’t given a “blank cheque”, which could well backfire.

  • Peter Hellyer 30th Nov '15 - 4:55pm

    @Jonathan Brown
    As noted elsewhere,
    Farron’s Condition 4 cannot be achieved – saying that the Government should be “absolutely clear on what Syria and Iraq will look like post-ISIL.” Even the states & peoples in the region cannot tell you that!

    Jonathan argues:
    ” 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.”

    Any such ultimatum would need Russian support, when Russia is bombing on behalf of Assad. What’s the point of issuing it? It’s unenforceable.

    As for this:

    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.

    Agreed, but action against ISIS now can still be taken. That doesn’t preclude UK involvement in the search for a diplomatic solution. ISIS, which rejects existing state borders and seeks the elimination of minority communities, as well as imposing an ideology that most Sunni Arabs roundly reject, cannot be any part of such a solution. Nor can one be achieved while it survives.

    Once ISIS is defeated (in terms of territorial control), then a diplomatic solution must become the key objective, although ISIS-linked terrorism will continue, in Europe as well as the Middle East.. That defeat will require more than military activity, the air and on the ground, that activity being fraught with risks. It’s still necessary, however.

    As a long-term resident of the region, with numerous relatives trapped in Syria or, now, refugees, I’ve come to the view that many horrendous years of suffering lie ahead. But action against ISIS in Syria now? Yes, please. Perhaps at least the process of rolling back this part of the nightmare can be stepped up.

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Nov '15 - 5:38pm

    @Peter – as I hope I made clear, I am torn on this, as I do think ISIS need to be confronted militarily. My opposition to joining in the bombing is mainly based on feedback from Syrians. I don’t have relatives in Syria, but I do have many friends there as I lived there once myself. If by bombing ISIS in Syria while allowing the regime and Russia to bomb civilians elsewhere with impunity then we will make achieving any kind of peaceful settlement harder, not easier.

    I agree that Tim Farron’s objectives are almost impossible to meet, given what is being discussed by Cameron.

    @Eddie Sammon – I think trying to enforce a no-fly or no-bombing zone over the whole of Syria is too ambitious. The ICG propose one over the south of Syria, where it would be easier to do, run less risk of colliding with other outside actors and where the moderate opposition is more demonstrably moderate. I personally think the case for a no-bombing zone of northern Syria (at the very least north of Aleppo and east to the Euphrates) is achievable and desriable too, but have a read of their article:

    @Glenn – you make some reasonable points. My article was long enough already, but I’ll try to reply in brief:
    – the article I linked to makes some reference to what ‘moderate’ means. Although I am including various armed groups in this, there are also non-violent opposition groups such as the Local Coordination Committees which deserver our support too:
    – Intervention by the West has certainly made things worse on many occasion, but sometimes it’s been positive. Throwing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, for example. The question is whether acting now carries more risks than continuing not to act. I think what Cameron is proposing is on balance more likely to cause harm than good, but I’m not opposed to the principle of intervention. Indeed, I think if we’d acted in 2013 things wouldn’t be anywhere near as bad as they have become. And things can still get an awful lot worse.

  • Peter Hellyer 30th Nov '15 - 6:05pm

    Yes – if we & allies extend our bombing of ISIS into Syria while Assad and Putin bomb other opposition elements (including other jihadis, like Jebhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s local franchise)and Ahrar Al Sham, that does add difficulties vis-a-vis achieving a peaceful settlement
    But Assad and Putin will carry on bombing anyway …
    And wait till Turkey starts attacking the Kobani Kurds !
    The anti-ISIS coalition (or the non-Arab parts of it) are pretty much powerless, in my view, away from ISIS areas and from southern Syria, near Jordan, where some REAL ‘moderate’ forces survive. Elsewhere, the non-ISIS elements, apart from the Kurds, are mainly jihadis of one kind or another.
    Complex? Oh Yes !

  • Jonathan Brown……The link you post comes with the caveat……” Consequently, what follows should be seen as little more than informed speculation based on limited and potentially unreliable evidence.”…In other words; ‘a guess’…

    As with other pro-bombing posts (Nick Thornsby) you selectively quote only the ‘facts’ that agree with your position…

    Many of us have pleaded the moral/effective/long term case against air strikes …Let’s examine the practical reasons against….
    US planes are coming back from patrol with unused missiles; because they couldn’t find a suitable target…

    Reading the latest MOD figures, each mission (two Tornado planes/Brimstone missiles) will cost a little over £1 million….
    Using these to’ take out’ a Toyota van with four ISIS fighters will not degrade ISIS much….coming back without using weaponry will not be good PR and will cost about £500,000….I’m glad we’ve such a strong economy

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Nov '15 - 6:33pm

    @Expats – I’m well aware that the link included a caveat. I think anyone sensible venturing an opinion should do so with a multitude of caveats, and I make no apology for doing so. If you are able to link me to an article the absolutely, definitely has all the answers to this incredibly complex situation, please send it to me! Anyway, including a caveat does not make something useless, and certainly not in the absence of anything better.

    I agree that bombing ISIS can achieve very little – certainly unless it is in support of ground forces, so I’m not disagreeing with you here.

    @Cllr Mark Wright – I’m not sure why you think it’s ironic. Syrians want protection for civilians. I think it’s fair to say that opinion is divide on what kind of action they would like the West to take, and not unreasonable to be opposed to bombing that they think is likely to undermine moderate forces, strengthen Assad and do very little to ISIS.

    @Peter Hellyer – yes, it’s complex indeed! I’d be interested to chat further with you via email if you’d be willing. Could you email me at LDjabpol [at] ?

  • onathan Brown 30th Nov ’15 – 6:33pm………@Expats – I’m well aware that the link included a caveat. I think anyone sensible venturing an opinion should do so with a multitude of caveats, and I make no apology for doing so. If you are able to link me to an article the absolutely, definitely has all the answers to this incredibly complex situation, please send it to me! Anyway, including a caveat does not make something useless, and certainly not in the absence of anything better…………………I agree that bombing ISIS can achieve very little – certainly unless it is in support of ground forces, so I’m not disagreeing with you here…………………

    I can’t link you to any ‘definite’ answer…there isn’t one. There are too many variables, the most important of which is, “Will bombing work”?…. Your answer appears to be NO!…. That is my argument…

  • Jonathan Brown 30th Nov '15 - 10:40pm

    @expats – I agree there isn’t a definite answer. Which is why it’s worth considering the caveated advice of someone with a lot of expertise on the subject.

    I don’t think that bombing will work – if the goal is to defeat ISIS (and if it’s not, then what exactly are we playing at?). That doesn’t mean there aren’t circumstances in which it would be a useful tool. It very likely saved many lives and massive disruption when ISIS attacked Erbil, for example, and very likely enabled the Kurds to defeat ISIS at Kobane. In both cases of course, air strikes were conducted in support of ground troops and a clear and achievable plan.

  • Jonathan.
    thank you for the reply. Personally, since the main aim of the 2013 plan was regime change, I suspect ISIL or Al Nusra or another organisation very like them would now be on the coast of the Mediterranean. They are not just a Syrian problem and have a strong presence in Libya and Iraq. The first Gulf war the result of an attack by one sovereign nation on another and was a conventional conflict with very clearly defined aims as a very clear plan of exit. Regime change is an entirely different nebulas enterprise which clearly backfired in the later actions in Iraq and Libya, so why would anyone think it would work in Syria.

  • The so-called moderate groups are not moderates. The 70,000 malitiamen that Cameron mentions will not leave their own enclaves to fight Da’esh unless Da’esh becomes a direct military threat to their own tribal territories. The only boots capable and willing to fight Da’esh would be the Syrian national army, but they are busy fighting all the rebel groups. So there are no ground troops ready to follow up on bombing raids on Da’esh, except for the West’s special forces, which I suspect are already conducting limited sorties in the area.
    One issue mitigating against bombing Da’esh held areas is the possible capture of pilots of downed aircraft. There will be no Syrian army to rescue a downed pilot as happened with the Russians as happened in NW Syria.
    Degrading Da’esh is a reasonable military objective, however, , but it needs a concerted international effort to isolate and starve Da’esh forces of oil revenues, other resources and weaponry.
    Before and until the civil war is ended and an accord is reached, Da’esh will not go away.
    If I were Tim Farron, I would support the vote in the House on Wednesday, but insist that we double and double again our efforts on the sanctions and diplomatic fronts. We also need to hold Russia, the Gulf States and Turkey to account for their actions and get these and all other stakeholders around the negotiating table. A massive ask, I know, but this conflict has the potential to escalate into a much bigger conflagration.

  • Jonathan Brown 1st Dec '15 - 11:14pm

    @Glenn – the logic of intervention in 2013 would have been regime change, but the government failed actually articulate that goal, or really any other. They didn’t say what they hoped to achieve, how, or what the consequences would be and how we could deal with them.

    But prior to Assad’s gas attacks in 2013 ISIS was a very minor player in Syria. I’m not pretending other fascistic, anti-democratic factions weren’t around – Jabhat an Nusra was a significant player, for example – but the moderate forces were much stronger and much more moderate. The Southern Front, with assistance from the US and Jordan was making significant advances against the regime (indeed, it was suburbs where they were strong that were the targets of the sarin attacks). ISIS expanded into the void left by the partial collapse of the more moderate factions. Even so, in the first few months of 2014 the northern opposition groups got together and defeated ISIS. Sadly, ISIS’ retreating soldiers simply fled into Iraq and took advantage of the political time bomb there to capture Mosul and with it, huge amounts of money and weapons.

    @Howard – the ‘moderate’ groups include a range of different factions, some of which are decidedly less moderate than others, but as the article I linked to makes clear, they are all groups focussed on overthrowing the regime in Syria, not international jihad, and all committed to a multi-confessional country (if not necessarily a secular one, although some of the groups are indeed secular).

    The Syrian Army on the other hand is only kept in the fight thanks to extensive Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese Hezbollah support. The army has barely fought any battles against ISIS – unlike the opposition, moderate and islamist alike – and only very recently has Russia begun bombing ISIS. One of the reasons ISIS has grown in strength is because the regime indiscriminately barrel bombs civilian towns that are captured by the Syrian opposition, but only occasionally touches areas dominated by ISIS. Plus, of course, the regime has extensive business interests with ISIS:

  • Jonathon.
    Again thank you for your reply. I disagree, what Cameron was trying to do in 2013 was to use the RAF as an armed wing in of mostly foreign backed attempt to remove the government of Syria. There is nothing moderate about the idea of a US and Jordan supported attempt at regime change. Syria is a sovereign state. It is not up to us or America or Turkey or Saudi Arabia to decide it’s future. It’s actually up to the Syrian government. Also, back in the 80s when I was a kid there regular news items with journalists following “resistance” fighters as they downed helicopters and tried to remove a government supported by the Russians. Those resistance fighters turned out be the Taliban. At the time they were not seen as regressive religious extremists who would close down schools, enforce strict dress codes, turn sporting arenas in execution grounds and set up terrorist camps but as noble freedom fighters. My contention is that the “moderate” rebels were only ever a small part of what was going on in Syria and would have been fairly quickly eliminated or absorbed by the Islamist forces who were already on the ground in numbers and were being joined by others from Libya and Iraq. . After all, America spent around $600, 000.000 training Syrian moderate rebels and there turned out be less than a dozen of them who were eventually told to join with extremist forces for safety. We are about to enter a complete mess without knowing the consequences.

  • Jonathan Brown 4th Dec '15 - 2:40am

    @Glenn – As I said, I agree that the logic of the 2013 position was to attempt regime change, but the government didn’t explain how they would do this or make it work.

    There is nothing moderate about our or any other governments choosing to change someone else’s regime, just because it suits us, but there is also nothing moderate about ignoring our obligations to our fellow human beings and under crimes against humanity laws, etc. to, for example, act to prevent genocide.

    If it wasn’t for the military, financial and diplomatic support of Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militias the Syrian people would have removed the Assad regime long ago. (Which isn’t to say that he hasn’t always had at least a considerable minority of people in support of him.)

    There are clearly a lot of extremists around in Syria today, but the gradual decline of moderate factions wasn’t something that happened overnight in 2011. To begin with there were vast, non-violent protests and mass campaigns of non-violent resistance. For the first couple of years the major opposition groups were pretty moderate. Nusra Front got a lot of attention because they had effective fighters and suicide bombers but they weren’t numerically dominating. The moderate oppositon were making dramatic gains in the south in 2013 and the failure of the world to step in and punish the use of chemical weapons was a huge blow to moderates throughout the country.

  • The mistake by the Americans along with Hague was to call with regime change. The call should have been for political reform in Syria. Efforts must be made now for an international peace conference where at least some ceasefires can be created.

  • call for regime change.

  • Jonathon.
    My view is that US and its allies turned the crushing of a protest movement into a civil by encouraging am armed movement a lot of the fighters of which didn’t even come from Syria. Crushing protest movements is undoubtedly bad, but the fact is we didn’t advocate bombing when china did it or when Franco did it or when Turkey did it and we have not gone piling into Egypt after an armed military takeover removed a democratically elected government and sentenced the elected representative to death. We don’t even really have strong evidence of moderate forces. We do have evidence that at a cost of over $500,000000 America managed to find 4 moderates to train and then abandon. And we equally have strong evidence from history via the Contras, from their involvement in Haiti and with the Mujahedeen that America’s criteria for defining “moderate” anti government forces is to say the least a bit skewed. We also have very strong evidence that shows the same tactics used in Libya by David Cameron resulted in a failed state and sectarian violence. So forgive me, but I see very little evidence that he ever had a strong case in 2013 or that he really has much of one now. We are very fond of calling out Bush and Blair , who at least committed ground troops, but are willing to forgive the utterly disastrous policies of Obama, Cameron, sadly Nick Clegg and others since then.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Dec '15 - 1:09am

    @Glenn – sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

    This isn’t really about the West. Support for opposition groups has always been lukewarm at best (the US has made it impossible for opposition groups to obtain modern anti-aircraft weapons, for example). Western calls for Assad to go should be understood in the context of our leaders having been on the wrong side of democratic protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain and they didn’t want to be wrong again – especially when it wasn’t even an ally that was being protested against.

    But as I say, it’s not really about the West. Assad’s crushing of protests was brutal from the start, and yet it was still months before the armed opposition really got going. Assad released scores of hardened jihadists (veterans of the guerilla fighting against the US in Iraq) right at the beginning of the uprising in an attempt to delegitimise the opposition, while the crackdowns on protests by civil society leaders continued unabated through peace talks sponsored by Kofi Annan and others.

    The US didn’t turn the protest movement into a violent insurrection: Assad did. It was an essential part of his strategy to scare the minority and business communities into standing by him.

    The evidence for moderate forces is there if we choose to look at it. For the first couple of years journalists and aid workers could report from inside Syria, and in 2013 the moderate ‘Southern Front’ was making gains against Damascus (when Assad gassed pro-opposition neighbourhoods).

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