A UK strategy for Syria?

By Christopher Phillips

These comments were first made at a Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) panel discussion at the UK Parliament, 4 November 2015


The first question we should ask is whether there has been a UK strategy for Syria so far. For four years UK policy on Syria has been confused and reactive, with many of its stated goals, including its desire to remove Assad from power, not matched by a capacity to achieve them. Instead, Britain has done more to fuel the civil war than resolve it.

Let’s go back to 2011: three things are worth recalling about when protests first emerged against the Assad regime in Syria. Firstly, Syria was a state over which the west had little leverage. It was in Russia and Iran’s sphere of influence, trade was limited and there were few personal ties with the elite or military, unlike, say, Egypt. Secondly, it was an era of military and financial retrenchment in the west. Obama had come to power determined to leave the Middle East while Britain was war weary from Iraq and cutting military spending. Thirdly, from the very beginning western leaders recognised the potential combustibility of Syria – its ethnically mixed population, its proximity to recent civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Kurdish Turkey, its large stock of chemical weapons and the potential for radical Jihadism. For these reasons leaders were slow to condemn Assad when his forces gunned down unarmed protestors, urging him for months to reform.

None of those conditions changed, and yet in August 2011, five months after protests began, the UK joined with President Obama and other western leaders in calling for Assad to stand down. This was a political decision. The British, French and American ambassadors in Damascus were all reporting home that Assad was not likely to fall anytime soon, having sufficient support among Syria’s military, Middle classes and ethnic minorities. However, this decision was overruled by elected leaders, including in the UK, who felt under pressure to act and ‘do the right thing’.

This locked Britain into an anti-Assad policy – which it is still locked in – that it had only limited capacity to achieve. The UK tried to persuade the Americans on several occasions to deploy greater military pressure, but Obama was already reluctant to be dragged into another unwinnable quagmire like Iraq and he saw the instability of post-war Libya – the last conflict he had been persuaded into. It tried to pressure Assad through sanctions, but Syria was not integrated enough into the global economy nor had an economic elite independent of the regime for this to prompt any internal coup. It tried UN Security Council resolutions, but Syria’s old ally Russia protected it. It worked with the Syrian opposition in exile, but having no historical relationship had to start from scratch and struggled to overcome the deep personal and political divisions that prevented it from becoming a united and effective force.

Britain and the west declared a policy of regime change, yet lacked the capacity and will to bring it about, but the actors in the region didn’t know that. Of course, little was done to dispel their misperceptions that the west could intervene any day – indeed it was (wrongly) hoped that the implicit threat behind calling for Assad to go might prompt a scared elite to turn against him. Convinced that western intervention, like that seen in Libya, would eventually come, Qatar and Turkey and eventually Saudi Arabia helped arm rebel forces against Assad with the tacit approval of Britain and the West. The opposition already favoured a zero sum view of the conflict, that Assad must go, but they were encouraged to maintain it by their regional supporters and, indeed Britain. At the two peace conferences on Syria thus far, in 2012 and 2014, the UK along with other western leaders reaffirmed their uncompromising stance that Assad must go as a precondition – contributing to their failure.

Western commitment to regime change impacted Assad’s allies too. Russia and Iran, already strong supporters of Damascus, saw in the west’s August 2011 declaration a move to try to pull Syria from their influence. This redoubled their determination to ensure the regime survived or, at least prevent Syria from falling into enemy hands. Yet the difference for Assad’s friends was they were defending their regional position and were willing to commit much more to the fight than Assad’s enemies. Both Russia and Iran have risked their regional reputations, large sums of money, and their own troops, while Assad’s enemies have deployed financial and political support only.

The result of this is a balanced conflict: all the external actors have helped fuel a war that neither side is likely to win. The limited capacity and will of each state means they are able to provide enough support to keep the war going, but not enough to tip the balance. At the same time no state is hurting enough from their involvement to prompt a change in policy. Indeed, despite optimistic hopes that Iran and Russia will soon reach a ‘breaking point’ Russia’s recent deployment of air power and Iran’s sending more troops illustrates that both states have a long way to go before that happens. Moreover, for all the states involved, the Syrian civil war is just one piece in a wider picture: the Iran-Saudi regional rivalry, Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds, Russia’s bid for great power recognition and, of course, the west’s clash with ISIS. The question is whether anyone is willing to make concessions on their wider goals to stop Syria’s war.

So that brings us to what the UK can do now. I don’t have a specific plan but I think that given the mistakes and miscalculations outlined so far, three things in particular should be encouraged.

Firstly, Britain should recognise that its capacity in Syria is limited. It acts like it has a big mouth but a small stomach, declaring big intentions but without the ability to fulfil them. Of all the players in the civil war, Britain’s leverage is among the smallest. It has largely mimicked the US’ position, but this has not translated into much influence. Rather than being a US echo chamber Britain would do better to act as an innovator – proposing or trialling ideas initially unpalatable to its ally the US, such as brokering talks with controversial actors. Alternatively, Britain could use its profile to spotlight aspects of the conflict missed by other actors. William Hague did this by highlighting sexual violence and initially the UK was making loud noises about Syria’s refugees, before its negative attitude to the extension of that crisis to Europe undid much of this good work.

Secondly, Britain must not be involved in any escalation of the conflict. The war has seen a steady pattern of escalation and counter-escalation by states supporting and opposing Assad. Four years of war has shown that there is no military solution as, every time Assad’s enemies make gains, his allies counter, and the danger is this will go on until there is no Syria left to fight over. Britain must use what limited leverage it has to urge de-escalation upon the region and certainly not contribute by launching military moves itself. Engaging in the Vienna peace process is a start. Britain should lead by example and abandon its self imposed zero sum call for Assad to go as a precondition. It is from concessions such as this that confidence building measures, such as ceasefires and halts to barrel bombing can be obtained from Russia and Iran.

Thirdly, Britain must think long term. The potential for Syria’s uprising to turn into a civil war, the refugee crisis and the rise of ISIS were all visible from a long way off, yet next to nothing was done about it. Today, there are other clear fallouts from the war needing attention including instability in Syria’s neighbouring states and the unknown fate of Syria’s refugees which, if left untreated, could be the source of the next crisis. Ensuring all Syrian refugee children get a proper education, for example, would be a way to avoid their future radicalisation, and building schools is cheaper (and more effective) than dropping bombs.

Such vision and innovation has so far been absent from the UK, and consequently it has contributed far more to fuelling the war than it has to resolving it. A re-evaluation is therefore sorely needed.