Syrian Conflict: What is the strategy for dealing with the failure of the Vienna talks?


I opposed the government’s (and this party’s) support for air strikes against ISIS in Syria not because I think there is a credible alternative to confronting them militarily, nor because I don’t wish to stand with our allies, nor because I doubt that air strikes helped saved large numbers of Kurdish lives in both Iraq and Syria. I opposed them because while they can and ought to be part of a strategy for defeating ISIS, the government’s Syria policy is full of contradictions and I don’t think it can succeed. Largely because it does not put the protection of civilian life in Syria at its heart and so will not mesh with the priorities of the people living and dying in the country.

While a lot of the recent debate has been about UK politics, principles, pacifism, opportunism, leadership and rebellion, comparatively little was actually said about Syria and even less was heard from actual Syrians. Faith in the Vienna peace talks as being the only or at least best chance for a negotiated peace is misplaced. This statement from Syrian community representatives in the UK makes the case eloquently: 

We saw in Geneva in 2014 that talks won’t work if Syrians are being starved into submission and bombed into oblivion. They won’t gain traction if civilians are subject to relentless indiscriminate attacks, while high-profile leaders talk “peace” in far-off European capitals. Talks will fail if ordinary Syrians see them as little more than a cover for escalating violence on the ground or as a diplomatic charade that does little more than raise false hopes.

Barbara Walter, who blogs on political violence around the world, noted in 2013 that

 The Obama Administration continues to insist that it would like to see a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. But this desire flies in the face of everything we’ve learned about how civil wars have ended over the last 70+ years.

Civil Wars don’t tend to end quickly; they last longer when there are a greater number of factions, they end far more frequently in decisive military victories than negotiated settlements and those that have ended by negotiated settlement require large numbers of peace keeping boots on the ground.

Paddy Ashdown thinks that

it is the coalition being constructed in Vienna today that will first of all defeat ISIL and then move on to create, I hope, some kind of stable peace in Syria.

But the Syrian opposition forces fighting Assad aren’t even represented at the talks and 70 armed groups were pretty emphatic when in October this year they stated that

The formation of a transitional governing body is a process of full transfer of power in which Bashar al-Assad and pillars of his regime have no place. We emphasize the need to preserve state institutions and prevent their disintegration as they belong to the Syrian people, and to prevent the country from sliding into more chaos.

It is hard to see how the opposition can somehow be persuaded to stop fighting against the regime and focus on ISIS while “the Islamist militants are actually only responsible for a fraction of the civilian deaths in Syria.” And “President Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains, for many Syrian civilians at least, the biggest threat to their lives.”

They key to getting Syrians to support any peace process is the protection of civilians, as the Rethink Rebuild Society explains in their policy document ‘’Syria Between Dictatorship and ISIS: What can the United Kingdom Do?’ This is also a point well made by former ISIS-hostage Nicolas Henin in his video interview carried by the Independent.

I’m not writing this because I want to deepen wounds in the party caused by the vote. I am writing because I would like us to rally around the principle of prioritising the protection of civilians being killed.


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

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  • The opposition reached an agreement with the Syrian Army in Homs without us. They were bussed peacefully out of the city. This is because like it or not the Russian Strategy is coherent, has ground forces and has clear aims. The coalitions strategy pretend that there are moderate Islamists who can be easily distinguished from extremists,, phantom troops that even with the aid of over $500, 000000 produced four people, involves getting countries hostile to Syria to agree on its future and has no get out clause, plus is a continuation of policies that failed in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq which also result in the rise of ISIL in the first place. Is it not possible that we are actually just in the wrong?

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Dec '15 - 1:16pm

    My hope is that Russia can persuade Assad to stand down. If he stands down in an orderly fashion, that would be the best outcome, although I am not sure who could replace him and whether he will be any better.
    A disorderly overthrow of the Assad regime has dangers, similar to that which destroyed Iraq after Hussein was overthrown. In the power vacumn there will continue to be unspeakable violence between political factions, many of which are very extreme. ISIS would happily commit genocide against the Kurds, Druze, Christians, Jews and Allowites just as they did against the Yazidies in Iraq. They would be much worse than Assad.
    At the same time we would certainly want to support the Free Syria Army, and how we can best do that given they are a small player in all this, I do not know.

  • Meral Hussein-Ece 10th Dec '15 - 1:20pm

    Jonathan, thank you for highlighting this depressing and disappointing situation., despite all the assurances we have apparently been given by the PM.
    This is the reality:
    “Not a single Syrian has been at the negotiating table — despite repeated assurances that any future transition would be Syria-led and Syrian-owned”

  • Geoffrey.
    A good point, but maybe the Russians don’t need to negotiate and the Free Syrian army is a bit of a myth.? To be honest. I’ve concluded that we are on the wrong side, trying to promote unworkable solutions to problems of our own creation. Syria under Assad was secular and had a military with a mixed religious background and is really a Mediterranean coastal country with an militant Islamist problem.

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Dec '15 - 6:17pm

    @Geoffrey – you are absolutely right to voice those concerns, and I think they are shared by many of the opposition too, hence the affirmation of support for preserving state institutions.

    Unless the war ends in an outright military victory for one side – which seems pretty unlikely – the best chance of making any negotiated settlement work in my view would see a deal between the opposition and what is left of the Syrian state – minus Assad and his cronies.

    One of the things that worries me about the optimism (desperation?) we seem to be putting in these talks is the assumption that elections in 18 months’ time will solve anything. Without security and without a legal system to validate the elections, they could simply pour fuel on the fire. There are no ‘Mandelas’ or ‘De Klerks’ with nationwide support who could realistically be expected to win an election with sufficient mandate to make a peace deal work. Elections which saw Assad’s cousin voted in to office on 25% of the vote (perfectly possible if free and fair elections were held) or 97% of the vote (if the regime is allowed to run the vote in the normal way) would kickstart civil war rather than end it.

    We ought to be planning for local and regional deals, a patchwork of power-sharing arrangements, a big dose of devolution of power under a simple, clear and secure framework. Rather than place our faith in powerless figureheads somehow elected to national office, we should be ready to work with institutions and organisations with a history of local accountability and build up from there. Of course, that assumes there is a peace deal to begin with.

    @Meral – indeed, it is terribly depressing. I am much more upset about the lack of attention being paid to what Syrians think and say than I am to the way politicians vote – especially when what they are voting on is going to make very little difference to what is happening on the ground.

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Dec '15 - 6:19pm

    @Glenn – that ceasefire in Homs took 2 years to negotiate. If we apply that model to the whole of Syria we can look forward to peace some time around 2117. Russia, in support of the Assad regime, does indeed have a coherent strategy: place rebel held districts under siege and bomb them until the defenders run out of ammunition and the civilian population is brought low by disease and starvation. And enable the growth of ISIS to act as a counterweight to the opposition and as a threat to outside powers that things can be made more difficult for us than they are already. Not a strategy we should be supporting in my view.

    The US’ ‘train and equip’ programme was indeed incoherent, relying as it did upon asking Syrians to ignore by far their biggest threat in favour of fighting ISIS on behalf of foreigners who were not even prepared to provide air cover or anti-aircraft weapons while they did so. A classic example of where failure to listen to Syrians resulted in a failed policy.

    We should be focussed on protecting civilians in Syria – if only by implementing a No Bombing Zone – that would see huge numbers of lives saved, weaken ISIS, strengthen Syrian civil society organisations and enable the delivery of aid inside Syria.

    I highly recommend reading the Rethink Rebuild Society’s policy document – it is practical and reasonable.

  • It is a depressing situation, yes. The fact that so many of us are happy to pin on the ‘bad guys’ badge and just accept that for Syrians the choice is limited to military dictatorship (hey, at least its secular!) or fundamentalist theocracy, only makes it worse.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Dec '15 - 7:54pm

    Bombing ISIS is aimed at the protection of civilians. We shouldn’t design foreign policy purely on what is best for other countries. Our civilians count too.

    Some want our soldiers to be sent instead, but a soldier’s death is a tragedy too.

    If the Vienna Peace talks fail then the answer is more economic and political sanctions plus probably more military action too.

  • Jonathon,
    Well I see your point , but I disagree with it. Also in all honesty as it’s now nearly 2016, achieving peace by 2017 doesn’t seem that bad a timescale.
    Syria is a one party state not a military dictatorship. We deal with China and it is also a one party state, we also deal with monarchies, theocracies etc. It’s not a case of pinning a bad guys badge on ourselves, but nor should it be a case of our way right or wrong especially when our recent track record has been so destructive and muddleheaded. And as I said elsewhere we see Egypt as allies and their military removed an elected government and sentenced the elected officials to death! So even if all this Arab spring inspired negotiating resulted in a democracy who’s to say it would last and would not result in a military dictatorship anyway.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Dec '15 - 9:50pm

    Keep an eye on the money.
    The UK is committed to spend 2% of GDP on defence, which is happening already, including War Pensions.
    Defence against cyber attacks is getting more money, so police forces will get less.
    Trident has an poverspend of £10 billion.
    Precision weapons aimed at oilfields in Syria by the UK are also expensive.
    The Chancellor has boxed himself in to aim for a budget surplus.

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Dec '15 - 10:21pm

    @Eddie Sammon – I genuinely believe that for many of the MPs who voted in support of airstrikes the protection of civilians was one of their main motivations. The trouble is that if they’d listened to the Syrians they were seeking to protect e.g. they would have perhaps understood things differently – that by backing airstrikes ‘in support of the regime’ (which is how a lot of Syrian will perceive it) there is a very great chance we will prolong the suffering.

    Our civilians count too, of course, but their lives, and our national interests need not be in conflict with Syrians’. A Syria in which Syrians can live without fear of aerial bombardment is a Syria which will leave no space for ISIS to move in to.

    @Glenn – I said 2117 (TwentyONE Seventeen) and it wasn’t a typo!

    We do indeed deal with awful regimes and it is not our business to go around the world changing them. But the carnage spilling out from Syria gives us an interest in what happens, and it shouldn’t be too hard to choose between a brutal dictatorship deliberately inflicting massive civilian casualties and an opposition that – I don’t deny it – includes some appalling groups with anti-democratic agendas but which also includes a huge range of non-violent civil society organisations and secular and moderate armed groups too. And which has a record of fighting and defeating ISIS – unlike the Syrian government.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Dec '15 - 10:33pm

    I Jonathan, I agree that I am partly motivated by UK national interest and to try to take national interest out of war is a laudable aim.

    The diplomatic cost of refusing to help our allies militarily for the second time in two years and against an entity like Daesh was just too much for me to take.

    However I am greatly concerned about civilians. I know that if I were a Syrian civilian and the west killed my child I would be extremely angry, so we need to be careful not to rouse such passions against us.

  • Jonathan Brown 10th Dec '15 - 11:40pm

    @Eddie – I’m not dismissing concerns over the possibility of causing civilian casualties as ‘collateral damage’ in our fight against ISIS, but Syrians are mainly worried about being killed by Assad’s bombs. And by effectively allying ourselves with him – and it’s not hard to find politicians and media personalities openly calling for an alliance with him – we are sending a message to Syrians that we condone the deliberate targetting of civilians. You are worried about rousing passions against us – well guess what it looks like we’re going to do now?

    I was not against helping our allies militarily. Indeed, there was much about our ‘fight ISIS in Iraq but not Syria’ plan that was absurd. But while supporting our allies and being able to chase ISIS across the Iraqi border makes sense on its own terms, it makes no sense at all to fail to understand the broader picture and develop a long term strategy that might succeed.

    If we really want to protect civilians, then we need to listen to them.

  • Jonathon.
    Fair point. However I would suggest the interference that seemed to be inspired by what was initially seemed like the success of the Arab spring turned protest into civil war and many of the rebel forces fighting are not even Syrian which is one of the reasons they are excluded from the talks. Also as the Syrian army fighting lots of different rebel forces it’s hardly surprising that they were unable to single out ISIS. What is surprising is that ISIS appears to have grown rapidly in areas we had been bombing in Libya and Iraq as well as the areas America was engaged in in Syria! Not only that Britain seemed unable to stop school girls and other British citizens from joining ISIS. I simply think we have done a poor job and are in no position to do much about it.

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Dec '15 - 1:17am

    @Glenn – rightly or wrongly, Western powers mostly just dithered for the first few months of the Arab uprisings, and with Syria we never seem to have settled upon a strategy. The uprising became militarised in response to the widescale violence against the protesters by the Syrian security forces. Although I accept that there were probably a few violent opportunists active from a relatively early point. Probably including some of the jihadists Assad pardoned right at the beginning of the uprising, releasing them from prison to cause trouble while the peaceful activists were kept imprisoned.

    ISIS didn’t appear on the scene until years later however, and even Nusra Front weren’t a significant force for a long time. Of course, foreign jihadis flocked to Syria but they are not considered by the opposition to represent them. Indeed, the opposition has fought many battles against ISIS, driving them out of half of the country early in 2014.

    The regime does not target ISIS because while it and ISIS are enemies, they coexist in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Both ISIS and the regime spend most of their time attacking the opposition held areas, and the presence of ISIS both discredits the opposition, drives some fearful Syrians into the arms of the regime, and drives fearful Westerners into proposing alliances with and rehabilitation of the regime.

    So to bring this back to the Syrians’ demands for protection of civilians, you can see why they are going to be sceptical of our claims to be protecting them while we’re allying ourselves with the regime!

  • Jonathon,
    I see your point on the first paragraph though I still disagree.

    I don’t buy the last part. This to me always sounds like a inversion of the same kind of argument that holds that America invented the terrorist threat to push the New World order or some such. Either way I see no evidence that the coalition plans would have ended any better than in Libya which we were also told was to protect civilians. Frankly, I think it’s time we stopped interfering because having noble ideal is all very fine but when you can’t deliver them it creates bigger problems. Britain and America are not going to put money into rebuilding Syria because even if we had the money which we don’t we haven’t got the will because we now believe in small governments and probably think we can franchise it or something. whilst great chunks of the British public would say “how come we can rebuild Syria, but my house is flooded and my bins only get emptied once a fortnight” and then complain about migrants.. All we are doing is storing up problems we don’t really have solutions for and helping people like Donald Trump. Marie Le Pen and Nigel Farage.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Dec '15 - 3:08am

    Hi Jonathan, I’ve just checked out the document from the Rethink Rebuild Society. The problem is it calls for a no-fly zone over the entirety of Syria. This would involve a proper confrontation with Russia. The UK public doesn’t want it and anyone trying to implement it would get voted out of office very quickly, probably before the five year term due to mass public protests.

    I’m in favour of getting tough with Russia, but there’s getting tough and there’s being reckless. I am sad to say it, but we can’t just do what Syrian militias/opposition want. It’s not just me saying this, people in Washington are saying a no-fly zone covering the entirety of Syria is off the table and for Obama any no fly zone at all is off the table for now.

    I understand your concerns about looking on the side of Assad, but there are less risky options than a no-fly zone over the entirety of Syria, if you agree with that document.

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Dec '15 - 5:57am

    Regime change or annexation by Syrians are better options than no-fly zones. A lot of people think they are voting for “humanitarian zones”, but that is not how Assad will see it. If he sees a load of people voting for a “humanitarian zone” he will be likely to attack it because it will say they aren’t committed to a proper fight.

    I would recommend people abstain from any plan for a no-fly zone. It’s not an awful plan, but I think it is naive to think they will end up being what people think they will.

    ” In 1995, the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica took place in a Nato-enforced no-fly zone.”

    The no-fly zone in Libya ended up with regime change without a plan for what follows it and look at it now.

  • Well, I certainly agree that the government’s Syria policy is full of contradictions and won’t succeed. So what, realistically, is the alternative?

    All the hopes pinned on moderates – whether as a military force to counter Assad or as a political movement to take over and rebuild Syria are, in my view, fantasy. The US has, as Glenn notes in the first comment, poured vast resources into the military side of this without measureable result. Why would the political dimension be any different even if we could magically get to that point? I have yet to see any serious answer; writing policy documents based on wishful thinking, however well-intentioned really doesn’t cut it as Yeats understood:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned.
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    What we can usefully do is stop supporting the plans of the US to use the people of the region as pawns in its devious neocon foreign policy agenda. See for example:

    Other sources focus on Erdogan’s allege aim of recreating a neo-Ottoman Empire (and in particular annexing oil-rich parts of northern Iraq and Syria – he has already moved troops into Iraq), the US’s desire for a “Sunnistan” in eastern Syria/western Iraq to surround Iran and to the Saudi’s desire to counter Shia influence (hence also their invasion of Yemen which is going very badly for all concerned).

    In all this tumultuous scheming and plotting you can be sure of one thing; that the needs of the Syrian people are NOT really a factor.

  • Jonathan Brown (comment on 11th @ 1:17 am) – “The regime does not target ISIS because while it and ISIS are enemies, they coexist in a mutually beneficial arrangement.”

    It is certainly true that Assad (and the Russians) have concentrated more on Al Qaeda-linked groups than ISIS but that’s simply because of the military geography. ISIS is established mainly in the east and to some extent the north while other groups are much closer to Damascus and the coastal strip. Hence, as you may remember, the Russians first priority was to clear the area close to their base. My hunch is that the next priority will be to clear Idlib province and then secure the Turkish border which would effectively cut off ISIS from bulk resupply (and also most of its oil exports and thus finance). After that rolling up the remainder of ISIS will be comparatively easy – though undoubtedly bloody.

    The more interesting question is why the US hasn’t attacked ISIS oil tanker convoys, at least until recently, although oil smuggling on an industrial scale has been going on for over a year. AFAIK the US has still only claimed 116 tankers hit and even that is debateable since they weren’t able to produce cockpit video. In contrast, the Russians have hit around 1,000 tankers (perhaps more by now) putting a big hole in ISIS’s finances.

    It’s documented that the US knew ISIS was emerging around two years ago and decided to use it to further its geopolitical aims by carving out a “Sunnistan” roughly in the area ISIS now controls. On occasion the US has intervened seriously – for example to help the Kurds drive ISIS out of Sinjar; it seems to regard itself as a sheep dog controlling a flock of unruly sheep. This is dangerously delusional strategy which casts events in Europe as ‘collateral damage’. Not good.

  • Jonathan Brown 12th Dec '15 - 5:57pm

    @Eddie – It’s true that in classic understatement Russian bombing ‘greatly complicates’ things, although you must remember that the Rethink Rebuild document was published prior to this happening so cannot be expected to have taken this into account at the time.

    The logic and the thinking have of course had to adapt. Syrians are now calling for a more limited ‘No Bombing Zone’ which would not require combat air patrols over the country, nor direct confrontation with Russian aircraft. Syrians recognise that Western countries are not going to risk starting a major war with Russia by systematically shooting down their planes.
    The No Bombing Zone relies on a policy of ‘deter and retaliate’. i.e. Rather than seeking to prevent regime (or Russian) aircraft from taking off and dropping bombs, a warning would be given that doing so would result in limited retaliation by cruise missile launched from the Mediterranean. Before Russia’s involvement this could have been tied very closely and directly to the act of the bombing, by targeting regime air bases and other assets used in the bombing.

    Where the presence of Russian ‘human shields’ on such bases now makes such a response too risky, the retaliation would probably have to take the form of attacking regime military assets that are not intermingled with Russian ones. While this would not therefore stop Russian planes bombing civilian targets, it would mean that the regime the Russians are intervening to prop up would be forced to pay a price for requesting such bombing. Just as air power alone won’t defeat ISIS, Russian air power alone won’t save the regime. The regime and Russia would therefore be incentivised to stop attacking civilian targets and perhaps even negotiate with the mainstream opposition in good faith.

    Even instituting such a policy over a more limited geographical area than the whole country would be a start – and would demonstrate to Syrians that their concerns were finally being taken seriously. While it’s a fair point to say that these calls are asking for something very politically difficult, all our other options are bad too. You can completely leave aside the moral dimension of the call for a NBZ if you want. If our current ‘strategy’ is bound to fail, what is there to lose by at least looking seriously at alternatives proposed by Syrians?

  • Jonathan Brown 12th Dec '15 - 6:17pm

    @Gordon – Regime controlled territory borders ISIS held territory in swathes of Aleppo province, Homs province and Deir Ez-Zur. All of these frontlines have been relatively quiet for most of the last couple of years – unlike those between the mainstream opposition and both ISIS and the regime. A recent report from the Institute for the Study of War notes that:

    “The Syrian regime and ISIS have historically leveraged one another’s offensives in order to advance against rebel forces in the northern Aleppo countryside. Both ISIS and the regime will likely capitalize on the effects of Russian airstrikes on rebels. Russian airstrikes have thus far failed to deter ISIS from launching new offensives and rather have facilitated ISIS’s seizure of new terrain.”

    It is indeed an interesting question why the US has not targeted ISIS oil tankers. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that black market oil sales or even private funding from rich Gulf Arabs is all that is keeping ISIS going:

    “It is crucial to the staying power of ISIS … its main revenues flow from taxation, oil sales, illicit traffic in relics and numerous other items, and duties assessed on the roads leading in and out of its territory.”

    And a lot of those oil sales are to the Syrian regime. The FT had a good report on this recently:
    “Gas is sent to the Isis-held Aleppo thermal power plant. When facilities are working — there are frequent outages due to the instability in the area — the Tuweinan deal nets the regime 50mw of electricity each day. Isis takes 70mw.”

  • Jonathan – My understanding is that the areas ISIS is in contact with Syrian government forces are not mostly strategically so important at present although that may well change depending on developments.

    ISIS has as you say many sources of finance including the vast sums they found in Mosul bank vaults but windfalls (which in this sense include antiquities) won’t last for ever so oil is crucial in the medium to longer term. Everyone mentions that Syria buys it – but then so does nearly everyone else apparently – Israel is one of the major customers.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Dec '15 - 2:47pm

    Hi Jonathan Brown, thanks for that informative post. I’m very interested in the idea of the new more limited no-bomb zone based on retaliation via cruise missiles. It should be much less risky for our troops who would have had to man a no-bomb area.

    There is a risk of course to our ships launching the missiles, but if we launch them directly at Assad only (if even possible) then we should be alright.

    Sorry for getting a bit worked up about no fly zones. I just get worried that many who are ideologically less hawkish than me have sounded more hawkish when it comes to a confrontation with Russia. I think no fly zones have been painted as some sort of low risk humanitarian option when I think what was previously suggested was more like Step 1 in regime change with strong opposition from Russia. Although there is a chance that Vladimir could fold if we showed a strong united front.

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