Where next for Syria?

On the night of the Syria debate I missed out on hearing Hilary Benn’s speech and instead paid a visit to my local mosque. Evening prayers had just finished and I sat in a room at the back with Dr Haytham Alhamwi, Director of Rethink Rebuild Society – “the voice of the Syrian Community of Manchester”.

Tempting as it was to discuss the rights and wrongs of the UK bombing campaign, we didn’t. It was clear that the vote would be won in Parliament. We were more interested in what happens next.

Whether you think that the UK joining the international bombing campaign in Syria is a good thing or a terrible mistake, we all want to get the best outcome. But what would that outcome look like?

We all know the situation in Syria is confusing, and I certainly didn’t leave the mosque with a perfect understanding – nothing like it. But over a coffee and a chocolate biscuit, I gained a much better grasp of what Dr Alhamwi’s organisation – and others like it who want to see a peaceful, democratic Syria – believe needs to happen.

Don’t give up on democracy

We saw western attempts to bring about democratic states in Afganistan and Iraq falter. We saw the Arab Spring burn brightly then sputter out. But, Dr Alhamwi argues, Syria can be transformed into a democracy. It won’t happen on its own, but it can be done.

Don’t forget Assad

We in the West are, very understandably, most concerned about Daesh – they pose the bigger threat to us and we hear far more about them. If you lived in Syria, you would probably be a lot more worried about Assad. He has killed far more people than Daesh, has driven many more out of their homes, and continues to wage war on those calling for a democratic state. He has the support of Russia and Iran. Without that foreign support Assad’s position would be far weaker. With it he remains a threat and must be forced out of power.

The 70,000 troops on the ground exist, but…

These 70,000 troops there’s been so much discussion about really exist, says Dr Alhamwi. OK, we can debate the exact numbers, but they are out there: the Free Syrian Army. What they don’t have is the equipment they need. Or the training. Or the coherence to work together as a united fighting force. They are being bombed by the Russians, attacked by both Assad and ISIS. There are FSA troops who, faced with fighting a war without ammunition, are defecting to ISIS. It’s better than death. We can support them with training, leadership, equipment (including weapons and ammunition) and protect them from being bombed from the sky by Assad and Russia.

Help Syrians, don’t victimise them

Dr Alhamwi worries about moderate Syrians being driven away by the policies of western governments. He urges the West to do more to enable humanitarian aid work in Syria, to support Syrian refugees, to stop banks like HSBC closing people’s bank accounts simply because they are Syrian and to cease the routine stopping and questioning of Syrian residents entering the UK. This is challenging for any government, with the fear of letting a terrorist slip through the net surely high in the minds of ministers, but perhaps some progress can be made.

All of these issues are important if we want to build a peaceful, democratic and united Syria. Although I can’t say if a UK bombing campaign will help or hinder, it seems to me that – with or without UK bombing – these issues remain important, they can be tackled and our objective can be achieved.

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • You’re very shouty today, Iain

  • So it seems! 🙁

  • Is it possible that us focusing on Daesh will push the Syrian people more concerned about Assad towards them?
    The strongest parallel in my opinion is with the British intervention against the Russian Revolution, nearly a century ago. Then as now, Britain faced a revolutionary group setting up a new kind of internationalist state and engaged in cross-border bloody civil wars. The Allies blockaded the regime and supported the (equally brutal) White armies against the Reds, convinced that Russians would flock to the White cause if they were seen to be supported.
    Result? The blockade intensified the authoritarian attributes of the regime and contributed to the horrible famine, while support for the Whites merely pushed ambivalent Russians towards the Bolsheviks. We realized it was a fight we couldn’t win and left our White allies to curse us for pushing them into a continued war and then leaving them to be killed. We naively expected to be greeted as liberators, and that the different forces fighting the Bolsheviks would consolidate around the particular wannabe dictators we chose to back, and made things worse for just about everybody. A regime we initially thought would last for months ruled the country for 70 years.
    Obviously, there are innumerable differences between the two scenarios, but the key lesson then as now is that an ill-thought out intervention in civil war based on fanciful over-regard for our own moral standing and a superficial knowledge of the situation can lead to absolute disaster.

  • Believe in the 70’000 who are not at all similar to the rebel forces who were going to free Libya. Cameron has a cunning plan and his couple of extra planes will tip the balance.

  • @ Mike

    The reference to the intervention in Murmansk in 1919 is well made and yet another folly (add Gallipoli ) by Winston Churchill in his Liberal days – aided and abetted by Lloyd George – and the Coalition government.

    We soon skedaddled out again…. and in 1922 Churchill (sometime MP for Oldham !!) was defeated by an anti-war ex Liberal E.D. Morel.

    Funny how history repeats itself. All M.P.s ought to have a compulsory history lesson of the 20th century before being allowed to take their seats……. particularly on the July 1914 period. Syria (Serbia) is a half exploded powder keg poised to explode even more. As Dylan sang – “When will they ever learn?”

  • If I were a Christian (of the Oriental churches) and I lived in Syria I know who I would be supporting. But anyway in fact I live in the orient in a country that has no democracy now. Democracy is not easily established.There are certain social and economic requirements that must be met before it can be established, education for example . Most of the population must have at least had a secondary education.
    The most important thing is people must be prepared to accept the views of others when they may hold other ideas. I see it here (where I live abroad)all the time, people so convinced their way of thinking is the only correct one and all other views are not only mistaken but need to be suppressed.And of course I know that outlook also prevails in the Middle East.

  • @Mike there’s quite a lot of difference between Bolshevism and Islamofascism.

    The main reasons the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War were as follows:

    – the White forces had little to unify them, stretching as they did across the spectrum from social democrats to Tsarists
    – the strategic situation where the Bolsheviks controlled the centre and the three White fronts were disparate in terms of the strength of their forces, their strategic aims, their political aims, and the timing of their assaults.

    The main problem with the Allied Intervention was that it was too little too late. If it had taken place immediately in November 1918 after the armistice with considerable force, and had reinstated a moderate government, it might have succeeded. But ultimately the Allies could not commit enough troops and were conscious of the desire of soldiers to return home.

  • @David Raw they’d be better off (as would many contributors to this board) reading “The Great Game” by Peter Hopkirk.

  • Did you see any women? Did they contribute to the debate or were they segregated?

  • Nick T Nick Thornsby 4th Dec '15 - 6:24pm

    Excellent piece, thanks Iain. It’s important that Lib Dem MPs, having rightly voted for airstrikes in Syria, not only hold the government to account in respect of the military campaign against IS but also ensure the focus is kept on ending the Syrian civil war and Assad’s brutal regime.

  • Bill le Breton 4th Dec '15 - 6:50pm

    Nick, you are employing the Queen’s gambit:

    “Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

    ‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast. There goes the shawl again!”

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '15 - 7:44pm

    @ Iain Roberts,

    What happened to the Rethink, Rebuild policy proposal / recommendation regarding civilian protection prior to British involvement in Syria? ‘

    ‘Syria between Dictatorship and ISIS: What can the UK do.’? (September 2015)

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Dec '15 - 7:51pm

    I support taking limited military action against Assad. Cameron should do it via surprise. This idea that we have a big debate and give our enemy warning before we hit them isn’t sustainable.

    I was afraid in 2013 of a confrontation with Russia, but we can attack Assad quickly and Russia probably wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

    If it can be arranged in such a low-risk way then it should be done. As long as our best allies agree with it too. The UK is no longer a super-power – but NATO is.

  • Anne – I was having a chat to one person, and he was a man.

    Jayne – I have a copy of that, and they continue to promote it.

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '15 - 8:17pm

    My memory is fallible Iain, but wasn’t there a precondition to any British bombing, the creation of no fly zones? Was there a change or have I got that wrong?

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '15 - 8:41pm

    @ Iain,
    I am sorry to bombard you with questions, but are you aware of the Action Alert on what is claimed to be the Rethink, Rebuild website?

    ‘Action Alert: ‘Tell your MP to vote against an ISIL only approach’, dated ‘Mon 30th NovemberThere is a template of a letter on how to write to one’s MP.

    I am uncertain whether this is a spoof or authentic.

  • ddie Sammon 4th Dec ’15 – 7:51pm…………………I support taking limited military action against Assad. Cameron should do it via surprise. This idea that we have a big debate and give our enemy warning before we hit them isn’t sustainable…………….I was afraid in 2013 of a confrontation with Russia, but we can attack Assad quickly and Russia probably wouldn’t be able to do anything about it……………If it can be arranged in such a low-risk way then it should be done. As long as our best allies agree with it too. The UK is no longer a super-power – but NATO is……….

    Words fail me!.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Dec '15 - 8:49pm

    Yes expats, I know it is risky, but all the options seem to have downsides. Doing nothing might make us look on Assad’s side, economic sanctions probably won’t have much effect, no-fly zones could work but risk becoming a target, so a quick direct attack was what I came up with.

    However then our planes might get attacked whilst we are attacking ISIS, the very thing moderate Syrians are worried about now. It is an awful situation, but next time I’m not being as soft on Assad.

  • Andrew McCaig 4th Dec '15 - 11:57pm


    Words fail me as well! Thank heavens you are not in charge of our military strategy! Would this “limited military action against Assad” be a “short victorious war” by any chance?

    Iain, I have to say as well that turning Syria even more into a proxy war with Russia and Iran is not a good idea either. And whilst I am sure there are many moderate Syrians in Stockport and indeed in Syria, recent history shows that however many moderates there may be in Syria, they are unlikely to come out on top, even with our support. The best result I can see in Syria in the foreseeable future is a ceasefire and de facto partition as has happened in Ukraine… What your article does not mention is that the civil war in Syria is more part of the long-running transnational conflict between Sunnis and Shias, than a fight between democrats and a dictator

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '15 - 12:08am

    Nope Andrew, just a few strikes to let him know he can’t do whatever he likes and to show the world whose side we are on.

    It was only an idea anyway. Chatham House make a good point by saying we need to detach the Baathist and Alawite rank and file from Assad. So I’m not suggesting a full on war with these groups.

  • Eddie
    “whose side we are on”
    This thinking is a hang over from the days of British Empire.
    Whose side on you on- Bamar or Kokang, Bodos or Bengalis, Ndebele or Zulu?
    I am sure you have seen the movie Zulu, a small group of British soldiers hold off thousands. Todays world is different.
    There is a generalised extremist threat and invading Syria won’t stop it, in all likelihood it will increase it.
    Remember the 1982 Israeli of Lebanon.It did not meet its political objectives and ultimately caused the rise of Hezbollah.
    Chatham House need to get down on their knees and pray for forgiveness for their sins.” We”should learn to do the right thing that is disengage from the conflict and focus on establishing a peace conference, if any military action is necessary it should be under UN auspices.

  • 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
    The Israeli army has found operating in southern Lebanon increasingly difficult.The opposition there is no push over.
    Western Boots on the Ground would face greater difficulties in Syria.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '15 - 4:54am

    It’s not thinking from the empire – my worry is if we look like we are on Assad’s side then it increases the risk we will be attacked.

    Assad is a much more difficult enemy because of Russia, but we now need to turn our attention to him and let Russia know that we won’t just let Putin write the rules of the world.

  • There is no danger that this country will ever look as if it is on Assad’s side. Britain’s involvement in Syria is likely to remain minor. Irish dissident republicans are a likely source of violence more than other groups in the future.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec ’15 – 4:54am…………………It’s not thinking from the empire – my worry is if we look like we are on Assad’s side then it increases the risk we will be attacked………………
    ………………….Assad is a much more difficult enemy because of Russia, but we now need to turn our attention to him and let Russia know that we won’t just let Putin write the rules of the world…………………….

    Eddie, perhaps you know whose side we’re on; I don’t (.nor it seems do the government)…Please don’t say the Syrian people, because survey after survey have shown that Assad still maintains more support than any other faction….

    As for ‘letting Russia know’, perhaps we should send a gunboat to shell the Winter Palace? Anyway, through Iraq and Libya, the current writers of rules hasn’t made life easy for the people of these nations…Is Ukraine any worse?

  • An interesting picture you conjour up, of brave british pilots shooting down Russian jets trying to attack our group of rebels. Wonder where that would end.

    It does illustrate the complete lack of any plan how this involvement can reach a good outcome. The intervention, even the Uk intervention, will simply keep Assad in place, whereas it was our aim to get rid of him. I assume someone has decided it is better to have the Assad dynasty running the country than IS, but this simply sounds like we are now actively working towards a worse outcome than we were a year ago. On top of which no one at all will thank us for the final outcome, whatever it is. (though I see no chance of a good outcome)

  • Andrew McCaig

    ” the civil war in Syria is more part of the long-running transnational conflict between Sunnis and Shias, than a fight between democrats and a dictator”

    Yes this is exactly right. This is at the heart of the matter, and also explains the stance of some of our “allies”.

  • Richard Underhill 5th Dec '15 - 11:31am

    Bill le Breton 4th Dec ’15 – 6:50pm Will the Quen’s Bishop’s pawn be sacrificed?
    Ask why so many Liberal Democrats like science fiction. They have not all established that these things are possible.
    When I was a kid there were suggestions that we could put a man on the moon, even that the UK could do it.
    This was obviously impossible because:
    1) It would be necessary to escape Earth’s gravity;
    2) It would be very expensive:
    3) We would want (in the western world) to bring him back alive:
    4) We did not know how.

  • Eddie the problem is that are no “good ” sides in Syria. There are no ” moderates” as we understand the term. This is why we should not just go in bombing one side or the other. If IS goes, then something equally bad will move in its place. There needs to be stability first, then diplomacy, sanctions, refugee repatriation etc to reach some sort of reasonable solution which does not threaten us.

  • John Roffey 5th Dec '15 - 12:21pm

    A little controversial – but it is noticeable that many of the Syrian refugees are young men.

    Whereas it is understandable that they should want to get their families to safety – however, rather than wishing to then find work in the UK/EU – isn’t there an expectation that they would wish to return to Syria and fight with a group for a long-term settlement in their country?

    If the majority had such an ambition – it would give some credence to Cameron’s desire to bomb those standing in the way of such an eventuality. Without this – it seems difficult to justify any UK involvement at all in Syria.

  • There is not just an elephant in the room, there’s a herd of them fighting to get in:
    1. The Israel/Palestine conflict has to be resolved if there is going to be a prospect of peace in the Middle East – that is not going to happen any time soon.
    2. The Kurds need and deserve their own homeland, which the West can’t support because it will upset our allies in Turkey and Iraq, as well as the Syrians and Iranians.
    3. The Turkish government is playing Europe: on the one hand extracting large amounts of money and promises of restarting negotiations for EU accession, while at the same time turning a blind eye (at least) to people using Turkey as a means of travelling to join IS, and buying oil supplied by IS.
    4. IS, and the other jihadist groups, are financed directly and indirectly by individual Saudis, Qataris and people in other oil rich Gulf states who want to impose their hard-line interpretation of Islam on the world. These people are our ‘friends’ and allies; we do arms deals with them worth billions; we need their oil and gas; and we have sold them substantial chunks of our country’s real estate and infrastructure.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '15 - 1:11pm

    I didn’t say shoot down Russian jets – I mean some sort of attack on Assad. Russia is bombing our allies in the country.

    I’d love people to get behind the idea of more economic sanctions, but people don’t seem very interrated in it.

    We probably have to stay with just bombing ISIS for democratic reasons now anyway, but we were still right to support our French and US allies on this. In my opinion.

  • John Roffey.
    The reality is people do not like fighting wars. That’s why when we had really big one we had conscription and social pressure. Not only that but parents don’t like seeing the sons killed so probably encourage them to leave. One of the things that annoys me about coverage of our dismal spate of military interventions is that because our casualties are very low by old standards of warfare, we tend to forget that local troops are being killed in old fashioned large numbers, The understandable reluctance to kill and be killed is also why naïve trusting youngsters surrendered to ISIL and were executed.
    People who seriously think there are potentially 70,000 willing fighters to back up Cameron’s ridiculous claims should maybe ponder offering their services instead of wondering where they are.

  • John Roffey 5th Dec '15 - 1:31pm

    Eddie Sammon 5th Dec ’15 – 1:11pm

    “We probably have to stay with just bombing ISIS for democratic reasons now anyway”

    I think that it has to be accepted that some/many[?] forms of Islam are simply not compatible with democracy – if you recall Blair has maintained that one of his motives for attacking Saddam was to bring down an ‘evil tyrant’ and to install democracy in Iraq – so I think you should be careful when evoking that concept in the ME.

    However, his prime motive was that Saddam had WMDs – a case that has gradually disintegrated as time has gone by – not that it had not been fairly well demolished by Dr David Kelly at the time. The latest episode in this process has come from a South African journalist in a recent book ‘God, Spies and Lies’ in it John Matisonn ‘describes how then president Thabo Mbeki tried in vain to convince both Blair and President George W Bush that toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003 would be a terrible mistake.

    Mbeki’s predecessor, Nelson Mandela, also tried to convince the American leader, but was left fuming that “President Bush doesn’t know how to think”.

    The claim was this week supported by Mbeki’s office, which confirmed that he pleaded with both leaders to heed the WMD experts and even offered to become their intermediary with Saddam in a bid to maintain peace.

    South Africa had a special insight into Iraq’s potential for WMD because the apartheid government’s own biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programme in the 1980s led the countries to collaborate’


  • John Roffey 5th Dec '15 - 1:43pm

    Glenn 5th Dec ’15 – 1:12pm

    “The reality is people do not like fighting wars. That’s why when we had really big one we had conscription and social pressure. Not only that but parents don’t like seeing the sons killed so probably encourage them to leave.”

    I will concede that, following the experiences of WW1 – where there were a significant number of volunteers – that there might have been less enthusiasm for fighting the Nazis whilst they were invading countries on the European mainland. However, I am not at all convinced that UK citizens, particularly the young men, would have generally been looking to leave the country to find a new life overseas once the threat of or the actual invasion of the UK took place.

  • John Roffey
    Its a civil war. If there was a civil war between BNP v SWP, assuming both those parties became powerful because of an economic collapse, whose side would you be on? Or would you rather leave the country.

  • John Roffey 5th Dec '15 - 2:35pm

    Manfarang 5th Dec ’15 – 2:17pm

    “Its a civil war.”

    I wouldn’t leave the country – I would try to find others whose views were similar to mine and join with them [which seems to be the case for the much discussed 70,000]. However, if Syria is going to become a decent country to live in – its nationals are going to have to be prepared to fight for that end. It is why there has been a plea for ‘no fly zones’ I would suspect.

  • John Roffey,
    We’re an Island, there’s no where to go. Also we are a different kind of society with a very long very aggressive history of fighting wars, But personally as a parent, if I could get my son out of the military in a war torn country I would. And absolutely, I would encourage him to leave. I actually think it’s near sociopathic to expect other people to fight when you would never want it for yourself or your own children’ People come out of wars physically and emotionally damaged. Fighting is not an easy or natural thing, You see people even after a brawl and they’re shaking, sometimes they feel guilty etc. It’s very easy to sit in an armchair thousands of miles away from combat saying what other people should do is what I think,

  • John Roffey 5th Dec '15 - 2:39pm

    I wonder if TF is beginning to wonder if ‘The Big Boss’ is happy with him voting for airstrikes on Syria? 🙂

    “People in large areas of northern England and Scotland have been warned to prepare for flooding as Storm Desmond continues to bring heavy rain.

    Seventeen severe flood warnings, which indicate danger to life, are in place in CUMBRIA and Northumberland.


  • The other point is that its mostly only very young people who are really expected to physically fight wars. All the older armchair generals would be in their basements on the lap top writing really stirring blogs or something.

  • Nom de Plume 5th Dec '15 - 6:17pm

    Was it, per chance, a Sunni mosque?

  • Richard Underhill 5th Dec '15 - 6:27pm

    Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec ’15 – 8:41pm How to write to your MP: do it in your own words. The MP and the MP’s staff are used to stock letters and send stock replies. 38degrees workes once, over the planned privatisation of forestry.

  • Jonathan Brown 5th Dec '15 - 11:11pm

    Excellent article Iain.

    @Anne – I attended the ‘Together for Syria’ conference today in London. It was chaired by a woman and four out of the 8 speakers were women.

    @Jayne Mansfield – you can download the very readable ‘Syria between Dictatorship and ISIS: What can the UK do?’ document here: http://www.rrsoc.org/node/313

    @Phyllis – there are very many Syrian moderates and it is pretty insulting to suggest otherwise by writing off an entire people. To be fair, the moderates don’t get much air time because ISIS make much ‘sexier’ videos, but you should have a look at the Rethink Rebuild website above for a taster of who the moderates (i.e. ordinary Syrians) are.

    @tonyhill – it is undoubtedly true that wealthy Saudis, Quataris, etc. are financing ISIS… But so is the Assad regime through its oil and gas deals. And of course ISIS finances itself by taxing the population it controls and from looting the parts of Syria and Iraq it has conquered.

  • Jayne Mansfield 6th Dec '15 - 9:06am

    @ Jonathan Brown,
    Thank you Jonathan, I had read it. The reason I raised the subject with Iain, was that, as far as I could see, the organisation was opposed to our current intervention unless their were safe zones for citizens ( no fly zones). This pre-condition for support has not been met. I wanted to know how this was received by the group.

  • @Jayne Mansfield you are right. Speaking from Rethink Rebuild, any solution that does not have civilian protection as a precondition will most likely not see any success unfortunately. See our assessed effectiveness of the strikes here http://rrsoc.org/sites/default/files/pdf/2015-11-26_Reaction_to_Cameron_Plan_to_Bomb_Syria.pdf and our reaction to the vote here https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=759643454163142&set=a.330381627089329.1073741826.100003524826562&type=3&theater

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