Turkey, the Kurds & Syria – an Opportunity for Diplomacy?

'Syrians demonstrate for protection outside the US Embassy'. by Jonathan Brown

Syrians demonstrate for protection outside the US Embassy, London – photo by Jonathan Brown

Although the relentless misery in Syria rarely makes the headlines these days, I wonder if we now have another brief window of opportunity to do something positive.

“Turkey and the United States have agreed on the outlines of a de facto “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border … [including] … a plan to drive the Islamic State out of a 68-mile-long area west of the Euphrates River and reaching into the province of Aleppo that would then come under the control of the Syrian opposition.”

The context is a major escalation of violence against Turkey by ISIS and the PKK, and by Turkey against both ISIS and Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. A concerted diplomatic push now could reap real benefits, but if we miss this chance too, we could be looking at yet another moment at which the conflict intensifies and spreads further.

No one should doubt the difficulties: the mistrust between the Turkish state and the leadership of the Turkish-Kurdish PKK over the future of the Kurds in Turkey; between the Turkish state and the Syrian-Kurdish YPD over the future of a Kurdish-ruled zone in northern Syria; between the Syrian Kurds and the fractured Syrian opposition over alleged collaboration with the Assad regime and the future of the liberated zones; between the Syrian opposition and its on-off supporters over the priorities of Syrians regarding ISIS and the Assad regime. The potential is there for things to get an awful lot worse in any number of ways and the fear of this alone should galvanise us into using any leverage we have over Turkey and the Kurdish groups to get them to cool off and return to negotiations.

But the potential is there too to finally make some Syrian lives a bit better. Although the US is still clearly fumbling for a Syria strategy (it isn’t just David Cameron seemingly making up policy “on the hoof”), and the question of how you can secure a ‘safe zone’ from ISIS without simultaneously securing it from aerial bombardment by Assad’s air force remains unanswered, an adequately protected safe zone inside northern Syria could hearten Syrian civil society groups, galvanise moderate opposition forces, create opportunities for grass roots leaders with the authority to negotiate if or when the time comes and could even enable some Syrian refugees to return to their homes. If these things could be achieved, it might even enable some serious headway to be made against ISIS – the stated aim of the plan.

Paddy Ashdown recently claimed that “we are not losing the war against ISIS because we do not have enough bombs – we are losing it because we do not have enough diplomacy.” He didn’t really explain what diplomacy he has in mind, or how it might work, but I would suggest that supporting the US-Turkish safe zone initiative, which will require understanding and addressing the fears and suspicions of the Kurds of Turkey, Syria and Iraq, would be a good place to start.

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

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23 Comments

  • I had the interesting experience of sitting next to an Iraqi Kurd living in Manchester on a flight to Barcelona recently. He told me the Kurds are the most racially and religiously tolerant group in the Middle East, and looking it up there seems to be some truth in that. He also pointed out that the Peshmerga were the only soldiers who were standing up to ISIS in any significant way, despite having none of the heavy weapons given to other groups. He was of the opinion that if the Iraqi government ever manages to defeat ISIS they will soon be attacking the Kurds again (the Iraqi part of Kurdistan has independence in all but name right now.)

    When the British drew the current map of the Middle East after WW1 the Kurds got left out… Since then they have been fighting for independence against 3 different States. Typically we have backed our NATO ally Turkey against the Kurdish minority, but doubtless that has been for strategic rather than moral reasons. Personally I think we should be in favour of self-determination as the starting point, modifying that position if absolutely necessary, and that would apply to the Kurds (and Crimea and eastern Ukraine)

  • The ‘safe zone initiative’ is directed AT the Kurds, to prevent them from linking the Kobani and Efrin cantons in northern Syria. It has everything to do with indulging Turkish fears of Kurdish separatism, and zero to do with defeating ISIS who Turkey quite happily tolerated until recently.

  • John Tilley 31st Jul '15 - 2:09pm

    Amdrew, there is a lot in what you say in your comment.
    ” …When the British drew the current map of the Middle East after WW1 the Kurds got left out… Since then they have been fighting for independence against 3 different States.”

    Initially the Kurds had to fight the ludicrous Imperial pretensions of Winston Churchill who had to be restrained from using chemical weapons against Kurd civilians. So he just bombed them in a ‘conventional’ way.

    The 100 years of warfare, occupation and persecution of the Kurds is a quite extraordinary story. As you say they have suffered at the hands of numerous regimes from 3 different countries in addition to the Ottoman and British Empires.

    As Jonathan Brown says in his original article, Prime Minister Cameron is making up policy on the hoof and not doing it at all well. As usual he is only interested in a sound bite or a photo opportunity and is too posh to push for serious solutions.

    The Daesh cut-throats apparently really fear the women fighters of the Peshmerga. I am not sure what conclusions to draw from that but support for the Kurds seems a better route than undermining them or blindly giving in to the traditional prejudice of the Turks.

    Meanwhile, The Saudis get away with murder, not just murder by beheading their own citizens and murder by bombing the citizens of neighbouring Yemen, but also murder by proxy as the Daesh are their protogés.

  • Jonathan Brown 31st Jul '15 - 6:12pm

    @ Andrew, Ben and Christopher – Yes, I think this latest initiative does indeed have a lot to do with Turkish policy towards the Kurds not just in Syria and Iraq but its own citizens post the electoral success of the HDP in Turkey, as I alluded to in my post. A changing attitude towards ISIS isn’t mutually exclusive however. As well as feeling under more direct threat from ISIS’ terror attacks, the Turkish government also has to worry about Turks turning on them over their relative lack of interest in solving the problem to date.

    One of the failings of the last few years’ diplomacy has been in working out what we are trying to achieve, let alone how. We are now presented with opportunities to pursue some not impossible foreign policy goals which would be very welcome if they could be achieved:

    – reduce tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurdish groups (bearing in mind that the relationships between the various parties are complex and sometimes contradictory.

    – make the most of Turkey’s new interest in challenging ISIS. The fight against ISIS has so far been hampered by the lack of credible and effective opposition on the ground. The Iraqi, and to a lesser extent Syrian Kurds have been and must remain part of the solution, but they will not expand beyond the territories in which Kurds have a strong numerical presence so they cannot be the only answer. If Turkey is willing to make ISIS’ access to funds, recruits and supplies more difficult, that alone will be a help.

    – Although the proposed safe zone in part is almost certainly an attempt to prevent the Syrian Kurds from creating a proto-state that borders almost the entirety of Turkey’s southern border, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t or can’t have other purposes or motivations. Just as the Kurds cannot defeat ISIS on their own, so the non-Kurdish Syrians are going to need help if they are to stand up more effectively to the group. With the right kind of support, what risks being a divisive, anti-Kurdish move _could_ become part of a broader struggle to make the lives of Syrians – Kurdish and non-Kurdish – more bearable and to reduce the pressure on Turkey.

  • The US is fixated on deposing Assad, prompted at least in part by Israel but also by annoyance that Syria has resisted US hegemony in the region. Hence the ongoing but futile efforts to find credible but “moderate” anti-Assad rebels. In the ever-shifting patchwork of groups and alliances the result is that the US is supporting groups that look awfully like Al Quaeda with the thinnest of rebrands. It’s a strategy straight from the 1984 playbook.

    Meanwhile right wingers in Turkey are increasingly alarmed at the Kurdish military successes against ISIS (as Ben Myring says above) and have decided to deploy their military. For western consumption this is deliberated conflated as somehow including attacks on ISIS but reports suggest hundreds of sorties against Kurdish targets and hardly any against ISIS.

    As for the “safe zone” – I’m afraid there appears to be far more spin than coherent planning so the Syrian tragedy continues.

  • Richard Underhill 31st Jul '15 - 7:27pm

    Turkey was urged to not execute Ocalan.

  • Jonathan Brown 31st Jul '15 - 7:53pm

    @Gordon – the US seems far from fixated on removing Assad to me. It’s not like there haven’t been opportunities and the US is basically coordinating attacks on ISIS with the Assad regime these days. Or rather, while the US bombs ISIS, the regime concentrates his firepower against parts of the country that are neither under government rule nor that of ISIS.

    To say that Syria and Israel are partners would be ridiculous, but Syria has (or had) for a long time been the most reliable and predictable of Israel’s neighbours, and the one with the most secure and stable border. As recent discussions in Israel regarding possible intervention in Syria to defend the Druze show, Israel looks far more worried about a rebel victory and/or disintegration of the Syrian state altogether than it does by the continue presence of the Assad government.

    As for the safe zone spin, that’s in part what my article is about – ensure that this is an opportunity that we pursue rather than a slogan we briefly champion and then forget about.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 1st Aug '15 - 2:33pm

    As most of the above contributions tacitly acknowledge, there’s a dawning realisation of the poisonous implications of the “Free Syrian Army”- contrary to the nice, earnest pro-FSA demonstrators outside the US embassy in this article’s accompanying photo.
    Stabilising an unpalatable Assad regime, with Kurdish forces is the best possible outcome of the Syrian civil war.

    Any other outcome, such as the triumph of the various ‘FSA” factions, which mostly comprise of Sunni-muslim salafist strands, would bring greater catastrophe and human suffering in Syria.

    The Assad government has undoubtedly been linked to some atrocities in the civil war.But it’s a Civil War! how do atrocities not happen? Does anyone really suggest that the various FSA strands don’t commit them, or are somehow less brutal?

    The Turkish position is entirely toxic relating to Syria- as others have commented here, it’s really not that interested in harming ISIS as its main focus it to destroy the Assad regime, who it sees as sponsors of the PKK. But this may have been true in so far that generally the Kurdish minority in Syria were close to the PKK.

    Turkey sees the Assad govt as being made up of minorities, which therefore gave minorities such as Kurds, as well as Alawites, Druze & Christians more of a say than a centralised Sunni government that would marginalise minorities in a way that the Turkish state would.
    That’s why Turkey is supporting the FSA and its various jihadist (sunni) groups. And we should challenge this within NATO (The EU is irrelevant and has no leverage on Turkey, given the shabby way it has treated Turkey in recent decades, like its disgraceful Cypriot referendum in 2003-4)

    Jonathan Brown, I think your view on the Israeli perspective is dated and wishful thinking. The Netanyahu govt has been supporting FSA fighters against Assad, and its ultra- sectarian voices in the Israeli media have spoken how the Netanyahu govt should encourage a breakaway Druze state in the Southern Syrian state of Suweida (currently almost entirely within Assad govt control, as the Druze are a classic example of a Syrian minority that thrives within the Syrian secular-baathist state)

  • Richard Underhill 1st Aug '15 - 5:43pm
  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Aug '15 - 2:08am

    @Tomas – I think you’re greatly oversimplifying things. The Syrian opposition – at least the armed elements of it – has undoubtedly become more dominated by hard line, religiously inspired groups and factions. That doesn’t mean the opposition is uniformly bad or uncompromising. Nor does it mean the opposition is immutable. It didn’t start this way, and if the democratic and pluralist opposition hadn’t been hung out to dry, it might never have been superceeded by the hardline sectarians.

    I am not ignoring the attrocities and crimes committed by the opposition. I am arguing that a goal of our foreign policy should be to try to bolster the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, and encourage and support and cojole the Turks to do the same – as they have actually been pressing to do for years but without any backing from their partners (i.e. us).

    Is an ‘unpalatable’ Assad victory really the least bad outcome? A regime that gasses its own people? Arrests hundreds of thousands of its own citizens, including peaceful demonstrators? That murders thousands of political prisoners? That is these days almost as sectarian as its opponents, wholly reliant as it is on sectarian militias trained and sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah? And that has lost control of around 80% of its territory? Even if regime victory was desirable, how is it even supposed to come about?

    The point of my article was not particularly to debate the complexities of the opposition, the regime or of the interests of the regional powers involved in the conflict, but to call for us to develop a strategy that takes these complexities into account, and to look at the currrent developments as an opportunity to further our aims and achieve something good, rather than let it be nothing more than another cliff off which the region falls, sucking Turkey and the Kurds into a full blown war that overlaps the existing conflicts. I’m not pretending there are any easy or guaranteed solutions. I am fed up with the crisis being ignored or dismissed with platitudes such as ‘we want peace’.

  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Aug '15 - 2:22am

    Oh, and as for Israel, once again, I am aware of the claims that Syrian fighters are receiving medical treatment inside Israel / occupied Golan, which if true (and I believe they are) can only be possible with the blessing of the Israeli authorities. But to suggest that this is part of an Israeli plan to bring down Assad is conspiracy theorising. I mentioned the discussion within Israel regards supporting the Druze, should Sweida be seriously threatened by the Syrian opposition. But the trigger for acting is the collapse of the Assad state in the south, not a plot by Israel to bring it down.

    And of course, the Druze are not simply the passive beneficiaries of a ‘secular baathist state’. The context of these discussions includes the Druze resisting calls by what is left of the Baathist state to supply it with men to go and fight elsewhere in the country. Not only do the Druze understandably not want to join in the pointless mayhem elsewhere, they want their young men to be able to defend themselves if or when the regime abandons them.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 2nd Aug '15 - 9:56pm

    @Jonathan:
    Thank you for your reply. However, I very much disagree and would counter ALMOST every assumption and statement of ‘fact’ in your 2 considered replies. But I agree with your last paragraph in both your replies to develop a strategy, and the Druze in Suwaida province.

    However, I strongly believe that some of your statements, which are broadly within the mainstream of Western political establishment, are as much a cause for the Civil War, and young muslim Western Europeans who know nothing about the war going to fight for the FSA or ISIS- as in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” on the Spanish Civil war.
    I also don’t believe it’s a platitude to want peace on top of the agenda- but I suspect that you prefer the quick arrival of a liberal, secular, democratic Syria as being more important than peace and so see peace as an insufficient platitude.
    Unfortunately, I believe that such an option is wishful thinking as is not remotely on the cards- whatever Rana Kabbani or uninformed western politicians (Paddy Ashdown!)may wish to project upon the region as if it was possible.

    As someone who’s visited Syria, just as everyone who I have met who has also been there also seems to hold similar views on the conflict. you would note the stark difference between seeing Syrian society and the wildly-off-mark 2-D portrayal by our media of Syria being some kind of North Korean Islamist police state. It was massively apparent that despite it being an authoritarian state, personal private freedoms, such as the role of women in society, or choice of religion or no religion are far greater than most Middle-Eastern societies- on a level with Turkey or Lebanon.

    But people who have been in Syria are either dismissed as (a) duped tourists sucking up Baathist propaganda or (b) deeply suspect gullible types for ever visiting there in the first place.

  • Jonathan Brown 2nd Aug '15 - 10:25pm

    @Tomas – I’m not saying that wanting peace is a bad thing. I even think it’s possible that most Syrians now would prefer to go back to how it used to be rather than keep fighting. (I’m not aware of any research being done to test this idea, but it’s almost certainly true that a lot of the idealism has vanished.)

    What I mean by platitudes is that we have lots of people, particularly in the west, saying that they want peace and/or negotiations… but not explaining how peace might come about or why they think negotiations have a chance. There have been several attempts at negotiations, but anyone who knew anything about Syria thought them highly unlikely to suceed because the wrong sort of pressure – or no pressure at all – was put on the actors to negotiate in good faith.

    At no point did the Assad regime see any reason to use negotiations as anything other than an opportunity to round up (mainly peaceful) political opponents and critics. The exception being the accidental diplomatic ‘breakthrough’ around the destruction of most of the regime’s chemical weapons.

    I used to live in Syria and remain in touch with people who live in the country, have fled the country and/or who visit the country. I am well aware that despite it being an authoritarian state, private freedoms were greater than in some countries in the region and that the secular state provided considerable guarantees of religious safety (not perhaps choice, but they did more or less permit / force religious groups to live peacefully with each other).

    However, that is now ancient history. The nature of the regime is drastically different to what it was. Most of its fighting is done by sectarian militias organised by Iran and Hezbollah or by what are essentially armed gangs with a heavy ethnicity-based system of recruitment. Religious leaders who spoke out against the regime have been rigorously suppressed, whatever sect or religion they came from. And personal freedoms don’t matter so much to people whose bakeries, schools and hospitals are being deliberately targetted by the regime.

    I am calling for diplomatic action here to achieve specific purposes: preventing the Turkish/Kurdish conflict escalating and merging with the Syrian conflict and for the idea of a safe zone in the north of Syria to be fleshed out and turned from being a possible ‘anti-Kurdish’ zone into a ‘safety for Syrians’ zone.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 2nd Aug '15 - 10:40pm

    @Jonathan: Your common , but wrong assumptions include:
    1. “The (armed) Syrian opposition…. has undoubtedly become more dominated by hard line, religiously inspired groups and factions”.
    The ARMED opposition was ALWAYS dominated by hardline religiously inspired groups. Our media oversimplified it as an ‘Arab spring’ long after the peaceful protests had gone. The first few weeks in April 2011 had large unarmed protests, but already armed attacks on the state were happening, and the govt attacked any demonstrators as if they were the same as the armed groups as it struggled to keep foreign armed gangs pouring in.
    Most of our media took ages to report the strength of Al-Nusra in FSA, and were completely surprised by a seemingly ‘sudden’ appearance of ISIS in January 2014 (coincidentally a few weeks after the door shut on the idea that the west would bomb Assad forces!)
    2. ” I am arguing that a goal of our foreign policy should be to try to bolster the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition”
    “Moderate” armed parts of the FSA barely exist- some of those towns or areas that were, have entered truces with the govt. The FSA mostly consists of Sunni salafist factions. Turkey’s narrative masks how they train and arm all these factions, including ISIS.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 2nd Aug '15 - 10:47pm

    3. ‘A regime that gases its own people…’
    Much more contentious. But set aside how rapidly the savvy media operation youtubing these atrocities disappeared and simultaneously slick media reappeared in ISIS- who burst out of the FSA after the west shied away from bombing Assad over these chemical attacks. Instead, note:
    (a) Is use of white phosphorous by US on Fallujah, Iraq, or by Israel on Southern Lebanon 2006 & Gaza 2009 on civilians better because our friends tell us it’s ‘collateral damage’ on ‘foreign’ civilians?
    (b) The Assad regime complied with UN & US demands and handed in of all of its chemical stockpiles.

    4. “(Assad govt)… is these days almost as sectarian as its opponents, wholly reliant …on sectarian militias trained and sponsored by Iran and Hezbollah?”
    Jeremy Bowen and other journalists in main population centres have quietly reported that Christians, Alawites, Druze are overwhelming supporters (albeit often grudging) of Assad, and at least a large minority of Sunnis.
    The Syrian Kurds sometimes co-operate with the govt, but are constrained from their neutrality between the govt and the FSA.
    Hezbollah and Iran are not sectarian in the way that most Salafist Sunni groups are. They will attack those Salafists Sunnis who attack them as heretics.
    The Govt has lost large parts of its territory as 100k’s of jihadists poured into Syria. 60% (12m) remain or are refugees in govt territory, 25% (5m)are refugees outside Syria. Another 5-10% are in Kurdish areas, leaving 10-15% max in ISIS/ FSA territory.
    5. “(A regime) That murders thousands of political prisoners?”
    You mean like Saddam Hussein? )Or like the new Western-backed Egyptian govt?
    It’s a far from a perfect regime fighting a vicious war against groups who want to at best, ‘convert’ minorities and turn Syria into something like Saudi Arabia.
    But like Turkey has improved with western engagement, a Syrian secular govt could also gradually improve- if it wasn’t frozen out from being technically at war with Israel. Reforms were slowly moving forward before the war, and Assad proved he would negotiate with the west by complying with disposal of anything viewed as chemical stockpiles.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 2nd Aug '15 - 11:24pm

    @Jeremy Brown:
    I would broadly agree with you that there should be a diplomatic push- but the key component of negotiations shouldn’t be that Assad must go, because Turkey and Saudi Arabia (with their fighting proxies in the FSA) demand it- because while it’s impossible to exactly gauge his support, there is definitely acknowledged that there has always been a large minority- probably always bigger than the 25% that Egypt’s Al-Sisi got.
    Assad is undoubtedly the most popular leader, as well as being the most hated. He was always much more like Egypt’s Mubarak or Sisi, rather than the shallow support for Gaddafi.
    However, you continue to speak of Hezbollah and Iran as having purely wicked drives or motives.
    Hezbollah has been the most successful fighting force that has stopped Israel, as well as the US (in its early appearance bombing the US embassy in 1983 Beirut). It has attacked Israeli citizens abroad, as Mossad has attacked it. In some ways, it’s an unpalatable Lebanese resistance force that attacked other vehement sectarian groups and is an integral part of Lebanese politics, and so a deadly enemy of Israel when Israel wants to impose its hegemony in operating with in Lebanon as it pleases.
    Iran…well, Iran is a whole other conversation, but setting aside the unhelpful position of Britain and the US in meddling in Iranian affairs that we like to forget, consider that they are the ones who pushed out the uselessly sectarian Maliki in Iraq, and provide the backbone on the ground to the Kurdish Peshmergas fighting against ISIS.
    Iran is

  • Jonathan Brown 3rd Aug '15 - 8:07pm

    How simple it must be, to believe that everything in Syria is the fault of armed, foreign jihadis! The non-violent resistance to Assad continues today, in various forms and with varying degrees of success. I’m sure there always was a violent element in the opposition to Assad, but it was a long time before the armed opposition became in any way representative, and then an even longer time before the more secularist factions were displaced by the hardline jihadis. Even now there are a great many opponents of the Assad regime who reject the armed opposition.

    I haven’t denied that large numbers of Syria’s minorities support Assad to some degree, but you would do well not to forget that – once again – things aren’t so simple: there have been prominent opponents of Assad from all of the minority communities. And the regime has cracked down on them hardest of all.

    I think you completely misunderstand the nature of the Assad regime as it exists today. It was engaged with ‘the West’ for a decade, in which the economy was liberalised, to a degree and, for large numbers of people life improved. Although throughout that time the security services retained a very firm grip. (And huge numbers of people were left behind in drought-induced poverty and as state subsidies were withdrawn too – a fact overlooked by many of those reporting on Syria before the uprising.) Of course Iran is different from Hezbollah and both are different from ISIS. That doesn’t change the fact that the foundation of the Assad regime today is not the secular, Baathist state of 2010 but one of Iranian subsidies, Iranian and Hezbollah military support, sectarian militias, Alawite ‘NDF’ gangs and so on.

    I am not defending Saudi Arabia, or Israel, or Egypt or anyone else here. I am not defending British meddling in Iranian affairs. I am looking at Syria, at who is doing what, and at what Syrians are saying.

  • Jonathan Brown 3rd Aug '15 - 10:11pm

    Actually, I would like to retract the first, somewhat snarky line of my above comment. I think you’re wrong about quite a few things, but you have been polite. I apologise for my tone.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 5th Aug '15 - 7:34pm

    Thank you for withdrawing your first sentence.
    I am fundamentally opposed to the general attitude that you have, and indeed share, with much of our political establishment as the realpolitik attitude that opportunity to dislodge Assad must be encouraged and seized.

    You may be close friends to many Syrians who want Assad to be deposed in any which way.
    And I accept that there will be many Syrians who don’t like him, but may have reluctantly decided that they only support him for fear of the unknown .
    But I’m sorry that you are unable to concede that as dislikeable his clan and ruthlessness in clinging to power may be, there remain a substantial part of the population – all be it probably only a large minority between 30-40%- who support him.
    These clearly don’t include your friends and acquaintances, some of whom may indeed have doubtless suffered terribly with family and friends murdered (in particular since 2011)
    I know Iraqis who hold the view that the Iraqi govt (basically Shia) is as bad as IS, while at the same time vehemently deny sectarian bias- but I don’t buy that their view is the only mainstream one in Iraq. I suggest that you should hold the same scepticism rather than be emotionally affected by one mainstream, important view, rather than promote it as representative of the right view for the west to intervene and support that one -of several, large mainstream views.

    My iraqi friends also feel that as nasty and murderous as Saddam Hussein could be, they remain almost beyond words as to why the West invaded and dislodged him .

    Aside from the fact that you still avoid the fact that while probably a majority of Syrian citizens may want him to go, Assad would be the most popular. Unfortunately, the likelihood of a secular, liberal politician to win isn’t impossible- but nowhere near a reality. Egypt had a secular socialist nasserist candidate who came 3rd in 2013, a few % less than the Army & Muslim Brotherhood, and just beat the Salafist candidate. At best, Syria might in a free and fair election produce a similar result.

    Ultimately, Eddie, I believe we have no business to determine the political weather, like Britain and France did in 1921, by removing a key political players in the country to support a particular, very weak faction who is most to our liking. Such recommendation is tantamount to demonstrating that authoritarian (Western might) counts most.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 5th Aug '15 - 8:42pm

    My opinion is that the west should work with Russia and Iran to put pressure on Assad and the FSA factions for concrete measures towards:
    – A ceasefire between FSA/Syrian army conflict zones.
    – Accept Assad to remain the de- facto head of state.
    – Accept the different areas currently controlled by the Assad Govt/ FSA/Kurdish Forces as ‘different political representation’ with the country.
    – Accept a system of resource allocation and a joint council for the rebuilding of the cities, economy, agriculture and industry in the town and countryside across SYria (except ISIS and other non-co-operating groups)
    – Form a council and commission to strengthen the existing legal and judicial system which already recognises the primacy of islam in Syria, but doesn’t abandon it for a Sharia-based one.
    – The new council to agree a strategy of combating suicide attacks, renegade militia, ISIS and any other group who don’t come into this ceasefire tent (like Al-Nusra, but possibly other jihadist groups that form much of the FSA)
    – Accept that all sides have committed atrocities, but have a commission on how to bring the various militia to not attack each other or dissenting voices in their zones.
    This could eventually lead to a truth & reconciliation-style commission (though this is a long way off, as would be seen as an outside Western, Christian imposed solution)

    Some high-level exchanges have recently started between the Saudi & Syrian despots. The Saudis have significant influence with the FSA and arm them (as well as ISIS). Ironically, while Erdogan is elected, he seems more intransigent than many despots, but the West should continue to pressurize him to accept and support such a ceasefire accord.

    As stated in your article, the Kurds are key to lead such an initiative, as they fight alongside the FSA and the Syrian govt in different parts of Northern Syria against ISIS. However, the West currently lacks this vision as it holds the one YOU promote that Assad’s departure is paramount, so won’t encourage Turkey and Saudi to engage towards this plan with Russia and Iran.

    You may scoff at my suggested approach as naive, but it’s less so than demanding Assad’s departure for any ceasefire.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Aug '15 - 4:31pm

    Hi Tomas, sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Thank you for putting forward some proposals too. One thing the debate over Syria has been very short of is realistic proposals for things we – or anyone else – could do to help the situation.

    Before responding to them, I’d like to clarify a couple of assertions you made.

    1) I absolutely accept that Assad retains the support of a sizable minority ofSyrians. That doesn’t make him legitimate or, necessarily, the least worst option to lead the country, but I don’t deny that he retains some support.

    2) I don’t recognise your view that it is our political establishment’s view (or the realpolitik attitude) that Assad must go. There have been multiple opportunities to push Assad out and they haven’t been taken (the aftermath of the chemical weapon attacks on Ghouta being the best example, but there have been others). Western leaders have frequently wished him gone, but when push has come to shove, Obama and others have chosen the devil they know and backed off.

    3) Although I think peace with Assad as leader remains incredibly unlikely, and I think that we _ought_ to have supported moderate opposition forces in pushing him out, I do not argue that forcing Assad out should be a precondition for talks, etc. For two, connected, reasons. Firstly, because while I think there is an argument for intervention, it is not our durty or responsibility to go around removing leaders we don’t like. Supporting mass movements inside a foreign country is one thing (e.g. Libya), but stepping in and doing it ourselves (e.g. Iraq) is another. And secondly, because while at one time there was momentum behind a fairly broad anti-Assad coalition which had a chance at governing in his place (perhaps jointly with the rump of his regime), I don’t think that is the case now.

    I do however think that we need to acknowledge that for most Syrians opposed to Assad, his continued leadership of the country prevents any possibility of a deal.

  • Jonathan Brown 9th Aug '15 - 4:45pm

    With regards your actual proposals, my main problem with them is something that your approach fails to take into account. Assad, and his Syrian and Iranian backers, have to date never taken talks seriously. Whenever there have been ceasefires, the government has stepped up its repression of peaceful political activists, and with Russian diplomatic cover has only ever used talks as an opportunity to humiliate and discredit the opposition. The only talks that have achieved anything have been local ones brokered between regional military commanders and their opponents on the ground. There is no one in the Syrian opposition who could or would believe for a second that any newly proposed talks would be any different.

    For any chance of talks to succeed, there must be credible pressure put on Assad. He and his backers must believe that they have something to gain by talking rather than by continuing to hold out, and try to turn Western fears of ISIS into acceptance of his continued rule. Most Syrians who live outside of regime control view ISIS as a minor problem compared with the regime. The regime cannot defeat ISIS (and has shown very little interest in trying), and the only way to get Syrians to fight ISIS is to acknowledge that they see the greater danger as coming from Assad. The regime has killed, and continues to kill an order of magnitude more people than has and does ISIS, and it is every bit as brutal towards the people.

    But to return to the arguments made in my article: I was not proposing a way to end the war. I was proposing a policy which had limited, but achievable goals. If achieved (a return to peace talks between Turks and Kurds and a safe zone inside northern Syria for Syrian refugees and IDPs) they would be impressive and valuable even if nothing further happened. But they could also form the basis for enabling wider negotiations to proceed. By giving Syrians (opponents of the regime) a stake in the process and the opportunity to show leadership, and by forcing the regime to accept that it would never militarily win back control of the whole country we might, for the first time, actually create the conditions for peace talks to succeed. It might even create the conditions in which some of your proposals became feasable.

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