On 12 February, after talks in Munich, world powers agreed a “cessation of hostilities” in Syria to begin a week later. Much subsequent commentary is dismissive, for example the Telegraph’s remark that “The “nationwide ceasefire” supposedly agreed for Syria belongs in a special category of futility”, and has pointed out that the Syrian situation is still a grave risk to world peace. Although the civil war in Syria started as a local uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s government, its subsequent trajectory has been much worsened by the involvement of external powers. Western foreign policy has been misguided and many of the other participants in the conflict are pursuing their own interests in wider political struggles. The hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran is an example of a tension that could erupt to widen the war-zone.
Misguided Western Foreign Policy
The Syrian civil war has been partly fuelled by a Western foreign policy of intervening in the Middle East to encourage the spread of democracy, whilst having no regard for whether it is yet viable in the countries concerned. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq made way for sectarian strife and identity politics. The overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya had the same effect. Encouragement for those who wished to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria would, if successful, have repeated the pattern.
The ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings seemed to be a clear expression of people’s wish for democracy in the Middle East. Of course the population wanted democracy, because they thought it meant that they would have more say in how they were governed and that they would be able to overthrow the corrupt rulers who were looting their countries. What they all failed to take into account, though, was that they couldn’t each have the government they wanted as they all have radically different ideas of what that might look like. The fault lines within Islam, and between Islam, Christianity and Judaism, meant that the Middle East was a tinderbox even before the Western interventions in Iraq and Libya. The flames of war are now well alight and Daesh (aka ISIS, ISIL or so-called Islamic State) has emerged as a new threat, as a global sponsor of terror as well as a fighting force in Iraq and Syria.
Combating Daesh in its global aspirations
Daesh preaches a warped variant of Islam as it tries to gain support for creating a caliphate across the whole of the Middle East, if not the whole world. It is appropriate to use the name ‘Daesh’ for the organisation led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi because its other names imply that it is Islamic. It has been roundly condemned by Muslim leaders. We need to avoid feeding the perception that all Muslims are terrorists because that is exactly what Daesh is wanting. Its acts of terrorism are designed as propaganda to create hostility towards all Muslims, because treating them all badly will cause some to be radicalised and join the jihad. This strategy has been very successful in recruiting Western Muslims, as Islamophobia is now rife in the West (as exemplified by attacks against Muslims in Britain, Donald Trump’s popularity in America and the rise of the Front National in France). Western military involvement in Syria also helps Daesh by enabling it to argue that the whole of Islam is under attack, thereby making it a religious duty to oppose the non-Muslim West.
The Daesh-sponsored terrorist attacks need to be dealt with in the countries where they take place. They reflect different social and political problems.
Combating the Daesh military presence in Iraq and Syria
The world’s most complicated involvement with Daesh is where it started, in Iraq and Syria (whose borders were arbitrarily established by the British and the French in 1916, under the Sykes-Picot agreement). In that region Daesh has a constantly growing army that has shown itself to be capable of seizing and maintaining control over large swathes of territory.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Syrian government, the Kurds, the West and Russia are all opposing Daesh in its home territory, but there are also conflicts between these actors. It will not be possible to reach a peace agreement there until order has been restored. Bashar al-Assad’s authority will probably be re-established with Russian support, at least temporarily, even though that is unpalatable to the Western governments and their allies – who are recklessly still trying to encourage the spread of democracy in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia, for example, has threatened to remove Assad by force.
Any visible Western military involvement in Iraq and Syria is likely to strengthen Daesh’s global aspirations by enabling it to depict the West as anti-Islam. The Syrian government invited Russia to help it to restore order, but Western countries have no mandate to operate there and they are effectively helping Daesh propaganda by doing so. Britain’s decision to bomb Syria was politically and legally unsound, described by James Meek as an attempt “to turn to purpose the inarticulate emotions of hate, rage and fear”. Daesh must have been delighted with the result of the Parliamentary vote.
Although it would be possible to crush Daesh by using military force in Iraq and Syria, that alone would not bring peace (and Daesh would continue as a promoter of international terrorism).
A possible peace process
Peace negotiations in Syria would have to offer something tangible to the Sunni Muslim groups, who have genuine political grievances arising from their mistreatment by the Iraqi and Syrian governments. The Russians have made it quite clear that the ceasefire that was proposed on 12 February will not become effective whilst there is any resistance to Bashar al-Assad, but those groups whom the Americans describe as ‘moderate’ opposition will not stop fighting merely to return to the pre-war situation.
Perhaps Assad’s opponents could be persuaded to have a cease-fire and negotiate if they were offered an enforceable process with clear parameters for reaching a new constitutional settlement for the region, possibly redrawing the borders (but it is much too soon to make specific proposals on what the outcome of the process might look like). It would have to include all the participants, including neighbouring countries – and that has previously been recognised in earlier attempts to start peace negotiations; it is likely that Daesh would be refused a seat at the table, but it could be involved by proxy. All the parties need to accept that the process almost certainly would include the restoration of Bashar al-Assad’s control, at least temporarily, and that it could not rule out giving him a continued role in at least part of the territory – because that decision is not for external powers to make; his future should be an outcome of the process, not a precondition for launching it.