Why Syria needs a strong Europe

The Syrians arriving in Europe are chiefly fleeing barrel bombs dropped by their own government, although the thuggery of the militias and warlords who now control much of their country provides another strong impetus. The most notorious of these is Da’ish (better known as ISIS), which has managed to instil fear into us in the West. Dai’sh’s destruction of Palmyra has also affected us directly because Palmyra is part of our own heritage, as well as that of Syria and the Arab world. Almost simultaneously, a photo of a drowned boy, who looked like a doll discarded at the seaside at the end of the family holiday, has finally aroused our compassion for the quarter of a million Syrian dead, and the ten million or more who have been displaced.

The refugees flooding into Europe are only a symptom of the barbarism that is taking place. The question is: how to bring that barbarism to an end and rebuild Syria (and its neighbours)? As any Palestinian can tell you, Western governments have long seen the region’s troubles as problems to be “managed”, rather than sorted out. This attitude has to change. Make no mistake: the Palestine tragedy which has lasted from 1947-9 to this day, the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90 and the continuing instability in that country, the many crises affecting Iraq since the time of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Syria’s decent into chaos since 2011 are all linked. I have no holistic solution to offer, but the most urgent of these is now Syria, so here are a few thoughts about that country.

What has happened in Syria is that a revolution has been frustrated as the government used violence against its own population in order to quell dissent. The government lost control of many areas, and violence was soon repaid with violence. Foreign powers began to intervene: Russia and Iran backing the government, and Sunni Arab states in the Gulf encouraging Syrians to rise up, and even promising them wages paid in dollars if they did so. Turkey played its own self-interested game. As time passed, the conflict became increasingly a proxy war, especially as the conflict stoked hatred between different sects, something that the Wahhabi ideology exported by Saudi Arabia encouraged. Syria also became a grisly playground for the identity politics of young Sunni Muslims from elsewhere, who dreamed of establishing a pure Islamic state on somebody else’s soil.

Repressive, arbitrary and corrupt though the Syrian government is, its institutions remain strong in the areas it controls. It also retains a degree of soft power in the areas it has lost – it still pays the salaries of public sector workers there. Last November, when I visited Damascus (not as a guest of the government – nor with a government minder) the centre of the city was still calm. There was food in the shops and everything was surprisingly as usual, save for the thud of artillery fire on the besieged enclaves in the suburbs. There is no military solution to this conflict without appalling devastation.

The best way forward is therefore to do whatever we can to defuse the conflict and exert pressure to persuade the parties to negotiate. Before the revolution began, Syria had a strong state structure. That structure is still – just about- intact. If that is destroyed, it will be the Afghan-isation or Somali-isation of Syria.

It ought to be obvious to everyone that Britain can do little on its own, but we could offer much to a concerted EU effort. Step forward Federica Mogherini! A coordinated European policy on Syria is needed (and I don’t mean merely on humanitarian and refugee issues). If Europe can pull together, it might have the diplomatic and economic muscle to persuade Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states to stop making the problem even worse than it is. At some point, too, military action of some sort will be taken by someone. If the doctrine of humanitarian intervention could be pleaded in Kosovo in 1999, then it can be in Syria today. That is why I would back the British government having freedom to take military action. And to anyone who wants to dismember the EU (or the UK) I plead: please do not do so, for the sake of the Syrian people.

* John McHugo is a member of the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Advisory Group. He is a former chair of Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is, Syria: A Recent History, and A Concise History of the Arabs.

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14 Comments

  • John McHugo………………………………..Foreign powers began to intervene: Russia and Iran backing the government, and Sunni Arab states in the Gulf encouraging Syrians to rise up, and even promising them wages paid in dollars if they did so. Turkey played its own self-interested game. As time passed, the conflict became increasingly a proxy war, especially as the conflict stoked hatred between different sects….

    The head of the DIA has admitted that as far back as 2012 the US knew the Salafi jihadis were the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria ( whilst proclaiming that ‘moderates’ were the main opposition. They actively supported these factions in creating a ‘proxy war’ to try to bring down Assad….

    Now when we are caught in a situation where we are anti-Assad but even more anti-Salafi (ISIS, etc.) our only answer appears to be “let’s do some more bombing”…..

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Sep '15 - 10:00am

    Interesting article, from someone I probably disagree with when it comes to Israel. You raise the prospect of military action in Syria: let me just say that military action against Assad is a whole different ball game to action against ISIS.
    I’m open minded to military action against Assad, but it risks a proxy war with Russia and Iran and an even bigger extended conflict where I doubt the UK would have the stomach to last. I wouldn’t call for a populist pull out, but I reckon that is what would happen. Look at the evidence: Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. We change the regime and then pull out and it either comes back or something worse or equally horrific takes its place. We need a new attitude where we sit out these conflicts.

    Of course, we should hear from defence and security experts, but if they can’t make a convincing case for action then they probably haven’t got one. It is like Tony Blair said about legal judgements on the Iraq war: people become clouded by their own political judgements.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Sep '15 - 10:01am

    By John McHugo | Tue 8th September 2015 – 8:52 am A helpful and thoughtful article.
    “If the doctrine of humanitarian intervention could be pleaded in Kosovo in 1999, then it can be in Syria today.”
    There are differences, such as political changes in Moscow and the EU is not a military power (and contrary to some voices) should not become one. Military power is in the member states and in NATO.

  • John McHugo 8th Sep '15 - 10:51am

    expats – when you say that “our only answer appears to be ‘let’s do some more bombing’ “, I sincerely hope you are not referring to my article, because that is certainly not what I am suggesting. I am suggesting that the EU and its member states, all pulling together, would be much more effective applying pressure to defuse the conflict than individually. I suggest that this pressure should be first and foremost through diplomatic and economic means (where the EU is most effective) but Kosovo type humanitarian intervention should also be on the table, and the threat of it should back up our diplomatic position. Any use of force should be carefully thought through in advance and precisely targeted. I am certainly not advocating an Iraq style invasion – something that I passionately opposed, and which made me a Liberal Democrat.

    Jayne Mansfield – briefly, the majority of Syrians just want the same things as we do – a fairly free life and a degree of economic opportunity and prosperity. When they demanded this, the government responded with bullets, probably because its security services knew of no other method of crowd control. As things got worse, the government went down the path which has led to where we are today. There was nothing inevitable about the country becoming a magnet for extremist factions. Some observers believe the government actually encouraged this to happen (e.g. by releasing extremists from jail) so as to alienate the opposition from the West. What has happened is that the extremist factions have received much better arms and finance than moderate groups, and that foreign militants have infiltrated the country to take advantage of the chaos. Was the regime worse than others? For a long while the jury was out, but look at where Syria is today. On the question of armed intervention, I have answered this in my response to expats above. I definitely agree that Cameron needs to be kept under very close scrutiny on all this.

    Eddie Salmon – Note that I was not advocating regime change -which is what armed force was used for in Afghanistan, Iraq and LIbya. My analogy was Kosovo.

    Richard Underhill – I agree that the EU is not a military power. The reason humanitarian intervention was used as the justification for force in Kosovo was that there were no grounds for the use of force under the UN Charter because of a Russian veto. I think the similarities between Kosovo and Syria outweigh the differences.

  • John McHugo 8th Sep ’15 – 10:51am……………expats – when you say that “our only answer appears to be ‘let’s do some more bombing’ “, I sincerely hope you are not referring to my article, because that is certainly not what I am suggesting….

    John, I was not referring to your well written article….By ‘our’ I was referring to the rhetoric of Cameron/Osborne/Fox which specifically links ‘refugees’ to demanding ‘action’ against both Assad and Isis….A bit, to my mind, like attacking both Hitler and Stalin, in WW2, …

  • John McHugo 8th Sep '15 - 11:45am

    expats – thanks for those nice words. I agree. Lazy populist politicians do an immense amount of damage when they call for “action” in that loose sort of way. Humanitarian intervention is – or should be – about achieving targeted objectives that will help the Syrian people: safe havens and corridors for the access of aid are possible examples. They do not necessarily involve bombing. Incidentally, Assad has serious air defences in a way that Gaddafi did not. Gaining mastery of the skies over the areas of Syria he still controls would be much harder than over Libya.

  • John Hugo how much do you believe cycle of crop-failure 2006-11 caused by drought, which led to a massive exodus from the countryside to the cities, created the insurrection against Assad? does the long-term despoliation of the Syrian countryside by climate change mean that population displacement is now permanent even were the country to be restored to some sort of order?

  • Richard Underhill 8th Sep '15 - 1:51pm

    John McHugo 8th Sep ’15 – 10:51am You obviously know much more about Syria than i do, but the Kosovo crisis lasted several hundred years, from the Field of the Blackbirds, through the political careerism of Milosevic and his wife, who had her own political party, through the head of the British Army saying that he did not “want to start World War Three”
    to Yeltsin proclaiming a Russian success at the main airport, and our PM being aclaimed by crowds of Albanians with cries of “Tony! Tony! Tony!” which alledgedly affected his judgement.
    The area benefitted from not having Soviet or Russian troops during most of Stalin’s time, but the opposite applies during Gorbachev’s time.

  • John McHugo 8th Sep '15 - 2:33pm

    TCO – the Syria drought of 2006-11 led to an exodus of impoverished people from the countryside to the cities, especially Damascus and Aleppo. I’m not sure whether it was caused by climate change, by the way. In recent decades much more water has been extracted from the water table than ever before. In the 1950s this led to a massive expansion of Syrian agriculture along river valleys such as the Euphrates and the Khabura, and this has continued ever since.

    The droughts lasting several years seem to be a feature of the climate of the steppe/desert areas of eastern Syria. Interestingly, there had been a similar cycle of several years of drought before the 1925 rebellion against the French mandate. As in 2011, many destitute peasants and share croppers were forced to give up and flock to the cities. The big difference was that then these people were almost universally illiterate. By 2011, most of those displaced could read and write (credit where it is due: the Ba’thists spread literature, healthcare and modern communications to the Syrian countryside).

    In answer to your question, the drift from the countryside added to the regime’s problems, especially as they had cut back on social welfare programmes but without succeeding in creating enough new jobs to replace them in an only partial liberalisation of the economy . It was only one of many factors that made life difficult for Bashar al-Assad when the revolution arrived. Incidentally, his father Hafez al-Assad had a much better grasp of the way Syrian society worked and would probably not have allowed the countryside to be neglected in this way.

    I don’t think this displacement would be permanent if or when order is restored. On the other hand, the drift to the towns is a feature of industrialising societies the world over. Nearly half Syria’s population now lives in Greater Damascus and Greater Aleppo (or did in 2011).

  • John McHugo
    I very much appreciated this article for a more nuanced perspective on what still needs to be done in Syria. We seem in danger of being quite happy patting ourselves on the back for taking in an amount of refugees that will be always found lacking so long as the situation in Syria remains unchanged, and washing our hands of taking any further action. I find particularly relevant the parallels with Kosovo, and while I agree that concerted application of “diplomatic and economic muscle” on Assad/Russia/etc by the EU may be sufficient to force a diplomatic outcome, I fear that the window for this may have passed – or will pass as the EU attempts to muddle into consensus.

    If this is the case, I do see the need for a lot more clear-headed discussion about military intervention which does not come down to the current self-defeating stances of ‘no intervention at all’ or ‘yet more bombing with no clear plan’. This would, I hope, follow accepted peacekeeping practice in conflict zones – as you say, “achieving targeted objectives that will help the Syrian people: safe havens and corridors for the access of aid”, with sufficient teeth to fulfil these objectives. This is a very different type of military intervention than Iraq or Afghanistan, and something that I feel we are being far too rash in dismissing out of hand as some seem keen to do.

  • John McHugo 8th Sep '15 - 2:38pm

    Richard Underhill – Comparisons, as they say, are odious – but I drew this comparison so I must defend what I wrote. Yes, there is no equivalent to the Serb/Albanian divide in Syria but I do see a comparison between two governments which are shelling and bombing their citizens and forcing them to flee their homes in a bid to regain control of areas which have slipped outside their authority .

  • Richard Underhill 8th Sep '15 - 3:31pm

    John McHugo 8th Sep ’15 – 2:38pm Perhaps a similarity exists in the number of military actors in each conflict, Christian Croatia fighting Christain Serbia while seeking a Greater Croatia, Serbia fighting for a Greater Serbia at the expense of multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, Muslim Albania looking at ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and fleeing into Albania, Greece’s attitude to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) the independence of Slovenia undoing the carefully balanced federal but undemocratic predecessor. All overlaid with communist atheism, except in Greece.
    Another similarity is the key lying in Moscow. A difference is the size of the UK armed forces then and now.

  • John McHugo 8th Sep '15 - 4:04pm

    Richard Underhill – you are correct about the difference in the size of the British armed forces then and now, but I’m not advocating unilateral British military action. Any intervention under the (albeit untested) doctrine of humanitarian intervention would be by a coalition. I’m suggesting that EU states might be prepared to take part in this, ideally under the umbrella of NATO (as in Kosovo, I think) alongside other partners such as, perhaps, some Arab states.

    One big difference between Syria now and the collapse of Yugoslavia is that Syria is a highly centralised state, while Yugoslavia was a federation. Sectarian divides in Syria are becoming ever more dangerous, but not all militias are sectarian and those that are sectarian have no mandate to represent their coreligionists. The problem is that militias essentially represent themselves – i.e. warlordism. Let’s also not forget that the majority of people living in government controlled areas in Syria are Sunni Muslim. Not all Sunnis are ant-Assad, and not all members of minorities are in favour of him – consider the activist Samar Yazbek, who is an Alawi.

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