Difficult road to Damascus

Written by James Denselow on 17 September 2013 in Opinion
The UK should favour diplomacy and aid over force in the Syrian conflict says James Denselow

There can be little debate as to the scale of the disaster that continues to unfold in Syria. The UN recognised in July that over 100,000 people have been killed and more than 6 million, 25% of the country’s total population, forced from their homes. The horrors from the ground – with reports of chemical weapon use, cannibalism, massacres and accounts of sadistic torture – tells the story of a country that is spectacularly unravelling before our eyes. The conflict is both brutal and complex, an explosive enigma wrapped up in the bloodstained bandages of those who have lost their lives.

So what can be done? It is important to stress the lack of clear and easy options available to those in Western capitals. The dramatic rejection of the British Parliament to any form of military options highlighted the lack of political oxygen to do more. However, there are fundamental questions over building a strategic approach to the conflict that if answered could provide more solid bedrock to policies that have too often been defined by a tactical responsiveness as opposed to a long term vision.

Take for example the basic question of what is Britain’s preferred outcome in Syria? Large scale ‘boots on the ground’ intervention is off the table for a host of legal, fiscal and political reasons, and even the notion of arming the rebels is a tactic that has sparked widespread condemnation. Following Augusts’ recalled Parliamentary vote British leverage towards the conflict remains limited to diplomatic and humanitarian tools. Unless that calculus was to change dramatically we must ask whether it is sufficient to ‘tilt’ the scales in a way that would lead to the fulfilment of the UK’s original aim – the departure of President Assad from power. Otherwise the secondary option of seeking a sustainable ceasefire appears a far more realistic, although by no means easy, objective.

There is a clear logic to the government shutting down the debate over arming the rebels in favour of an inclusive diplomatic approach. One diplomatic source suggested to the Telegraph that the arms rhetoric had simply been part of a plan by Britain to encourage Damascus to take part in the forthcoming Syria peace conference in Geneva saying: “this was never about arming the rebels. It was simply a diplomatic bargaining chip to say to Assad: ‘if you don’t come to the table, we can arm the rebels’.”

A war weary British population enduring the squeeze of austerity are in no mood to support further military involvement in Syria. An Observer poll in June showed that just 24% of the public back giving weapons or military supplies to the forces fighting Assad. A cash strapped Ministry of Defence is similarly sceptical, especially when they saw the Pentagon’s briefing on military options delivered to Congress outlined intervention as costing ‘billions’ to be effective.

The government should shut down discussions over arming in favour of a commitment to the two channels of diplomatic and humanitarian responses. David Cameron should be applauded for his desire to do more on Syria and the political risk he took when engaging in the arming debate. However the bluff was called and British military support is off the table, a decision that General Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army, described as leaving “us alone to be killed”. The diplomatic focus remains ensuring that the Russians and Americans are on the same page, something that John Kerry’s efforts with arranging the Geneva Two peace conference have gone some way to progress but any US intervention may put in doubt. Britain must push for a date to be set for this and for the conclusions from it to be translated into unity of action at the UN Security Council. Meanwhile Britain should continue its innovative work around accountability towards the conflict - with pioneering projects sending specialist teams of lawyers and police to interview and chronicle war crimes by engaging with refugees who’ve fled the country.

A consistent focus on diplomatic efforts to halt the violence which is killing 5,000 a month should be buttressed by continued leadership towards the humanitarian response. When Andrew Mitchell MP was Minister for International Development he spoke of how Britain was an ‘aid superpower’.  Soft power is something that we’re very good at and it is backed by more than half British public (58%) who support the strategy. The government’s response to Syria has seen £348 million allocated towards the conflict, the largest total sum the UK has ever committed in response to a single humanitarian crisis. Britain cannot pretend to hold all the cards in the Syrian conflict but a clear strategic policy aimed at halting violence based on a commitment to the twin diplomatic-humanitarian track puts us on the good side of a bad conflict.

Tags: Issue 62, James Denselow, The idea

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