The situation in Syria is the product of a bloody civil war which has continued for over 4 years. While it began as part of the Arab Spring, as a genuine uprising against the government of Bashar al Assad, it turned rapidly into a multi-faceted civil war, characterised by intervention from a whole range of regional and international powers. These powers have backed various actors, including Assad (on the part of Russia, Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah) and the different rebel groups (on the part of the US and its NATO allies, including the UK, and on the part of regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Jordan).

The war is one where none of the main actors can score a decisive victory. Assad controls around a fifth of the country, ISIS control large areas, al Nusrah front controls pockets of territory. The Kurds in Syria have been the most effective fighters so far against ISIS, but their reach does not extend beyond the Kurdish areas. In this situation, the horror facing millions of ordinary Syrians will continue. We can expect more deaths and injuries, more displaced people and more refugees fleeing the war on all sides. This refugee crisis is acute in countries such as neighbouring Lebanon, which has over a million (a quarter of its population), in Turkey and Jordan. We have seen the spill-over of this crisis in Europe throughout the summer.

The US and its allies have been involved in bombing Syria over the past year. British forces have been conducting airstrikes in neighbouring Iraq during that time, but ruled out bombing Syria because of the government’s defeat over the issue in parliament in 2013. It has been acknowledged that British servicemen have undertaken airstrikes under the command of the US; in addition there have been considerable numbers of British drone operations over Syria (an estimated 40% of all UK drone operations), some of which have been involved in targeted assassinations.

The present situation

The government has announced its intention to return to parliament to secure a vote for military action against ISIS in Syria. Such a move would have greater political import than military, since it would mean British planes joining an already existing US and allied operation (recently joined by France).

Russia has also recently launched airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, which also appear to have targeted other groups opposing Assad.

The motives for this move by Russia seem clear: to shore up an increasingly weak Assad regime and to respond to proxy moves by some regional powers. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are drawing a red line, which is not mainly about the control of a Mediterranean port but because they see regime change as highly damaging to their interests. They are responding to military action this year backed by Turkey and various Gulf States in northern Syria, which has seen Assad defeats and loss of territory. The airstrikes send a message to them and to the West that they will support their ally.

Why airstrikes will not work

The arguments against Russian airstrikes apply equally to the current US airstrike and to any such intervention by outside powers.

They will target civilians, as is already the case. This is both abhorrent in its own terms, but also counterproductive in that such attacks are likely to increase support for ISIS and for terrorist groups generally. The US has admitted that rules to avoid civilian casualties are looser in Syria than they are elsewhere. In addition, the number of refugees is likely to grow with more pressure on the surrounding countries and on European countries.

Studies by the World Bank and others have found that foreign interventions tend to prolong and exacerbate civil wars, as well as to hinder movements for democratisation. UK airstrikes in Syria will threaten the escalation of a war which has already caused such devastation. The intervention of Russia has highlighted exactly how close the situation is to a great power conflict. The whole country is an armed camp, with powerful forces intervening to back particular actors. There can be a range of incidents, maybe even caused by accident, which can lead to a greater Middle East war, with all that this implies.

Where does ISIS come from?

ISIS (otherwise ISIL or Daesh) is an extremist and reactionary organisation, but it did not come from nowhere. In fact, as Patrick Cockburn has said, ISIS is the child of war. It origins lie in the occupation and invasion of Iraq, and the opposition forces which grew up in the Sunni areas of Iraq from 2003 onwards. It developed from Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which carried out sectarian attacks as well as those against Iraqi or US forces. Changing its name to ISI in 2006, it merged with Jabhat al-Nusra to form ISIS or ISIL in 2013, extending its operations across parts of Syria and Iraq. The merger turned into fighting between the two groups, with many foreign fighters joining ISIS (ISIS and the sectarian conflict in the Middle East HC research paper 15/16 19 March 2015).

Funding and arms for ISIS have come tacitly from Saudis and Qataris, and it has received much logistical support and assistance from Turkey – including the ability to conduct cross border arms sales. According to Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar: ‘IS exports about 9,000 barrels of oil per day at prices ranging from about $25-$45. Some of this goes to Kurdish middlemen up towards Turkey, some goes for domestic IS consumption and some goes to the Assad regime, which in turn sells weapons back to the group.’

The US has backed the supposedly ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army (FSA) in an attempt to get regime change in Damascus. This helped weaken the FSA’s credibility and created a vacuum which the Islamic State eventually came to dominate. The FSA has now practically ceased to exist. This process was massively assisted by the fact that, especially early on, the Gulf States and Turkey were unofficially willing to support the Islamic State for their own political ends.

How to end the crisis

  1. A crucial means of defeating ISIS lies in cutting off the support it continues to receive from regional states, and destroying its means of selling oil and other resources to maintain its operations.
  2. There has to be a ceasefire involving all those forces both internal and external who are willing to countenance such a move. One of the major obstacles to this has been the machinations of various powers, especially the US. According to Finnish negotiator Marti Aatashari, in 2012 there was diplomatic agreement with the Russians that Assad would be forced to step down. But this was blocked by the US among others because it believed Assad was about to fall. Three years on, Syrian people are still paying the price.
  3. There has to be recognition that a political solution, rather than continuing warfare spreading for a decade and a half, is the only way to reduce the threat of terrorism and to create peace in the Middle East and beyond.

Source: Stop the War Coalition

15 Oct 2015

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