Britain must not escalate the conflict in Syria

With Tim Eaton in Prospect, 2 December 2015

Prime Minister David Cameron is today seeking a vote on extending airstrikes to Syria. The Prime Minister acknowledges that they need to be part of a wider strategy for the Syrian conflict, which Number 10 attempted to set out on Thursday in response to criticism from the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. Military measures against Islamic State are to be accompanied by diplomatic support for a political settlement in Syria based on a negotiated transition, alongside a continued programme of humanitarian aid.

There is little new here. In essence, this is the strategy that has been in place for years, with air strikes against IS added to equation, illustrating the reactive nature of UK policy on Syria. The last bout of discussion surrounding air strikes was spurred by the attack on British tourists in Tunisia, while this debate follows the terrible events in Paris. These are kneejerk reactions from leaders who must be seen to respond to terrorist acts, not part of a well-considered long-term strategy to defeat and degrade IS, let alone resolve the Syrian conflict which has allowed the extremist group’s growth.

It is understandable that the British government doesn’t want to stand by as IS continues to terrorise or as Syria continues to be consumed by chaos, but reaching for a quick military option like the one proposed is not the answer. Instead, the UK needs to re-evaluate its entire Syria policy, which has clearly failed.

Britain should recognise that its capacity in Syria is limited. For over four years many of the UK’s stated goals have not been matched by a realistic capacity to achieve them, whether removing Assad from power or destroying IS. Bold intentions have been accompanied by a reluctance to use substantial military measures while unknown or unreliable local allies on the ground are expected to do the heavy work. It is time to adopt a more realistic position based on what Britain can actually influence. Four things in particular should be encouraged.

First, Britain must not escalate 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: every time Assad’s enemies make gains, his allies counter. The danger now is that this will go on until there is no Syria left to fight over. Rather than adding itself to the long list of military actors in Syria, Britain should use what limited leverage it has to urge de-escalation upon the region.

Secondly, the UK has thus far largely mimicked the United States position on Syria, but should instead look at imaginative ways to complement rather than echo its ally. Britain would do better to act as an innovator – proposing or trialling ideas initially unpalatable to its Washington, such as brokering talks with controversial actors, or taking up former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ suggestion to targeting IS economically rather than militarily. Alternatively, Britain could use its position to spotlight aspects of the conflict missed by other actors. William Hague did this by spearheading a global campaign against sexual violence. The UK also took an early lead in aiding Syria’s refugees, before the government’s negative attitude to the extension of that crisis to Europe undid much of this good work.

Thirdly, Britain should lead by example in seeking a political settlement under the auspices of the Vienna peace process, by showing a willingness to make real compromises. Abandoning its demand for Assad’s departure as a pre-condition might be one such move. This need not mean accepting Assad as a partner, but may provide sufficient space to break the current diplomatic logjam with Russia and Iran in search of a viable peace. Concessions such as this can lead to confidence building measures that actually de-escalate the civil war, such as ceasefires and halts to barrel bombing.

Finally, Britain must think long term. The potential for Syria’s uprising to turn into a civil war, the refugee crisis and the rise of IS 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, could 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, pursuing instead mostly ineffective short-term reactive policies like the current plan to bomb IS in Syria. Thus far these policies have brought the war no closer to a resolution and a re-evaluation is therefore sorely needed.

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