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Sunday, 15 April 2018

Questions to ask after UK action in Syria

  • What do Syrians say?
  • What does the British public think?
  • Did this action really protect people in Syria?
  • Was this action legal?
  • Will this action protect people in the UK, or put them in danger?
  • Will this action escalate the war?
  • Doesn’t Libya prove that anything we do makes things worse?
  • What effect will this have on the search for a political solution?
  • What does this mean for the fight against ISIS?
  • What next?

The UK Government has joined the governments of the United States and France in military action against the Assad regime in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than forty people, many of them children.

The action consisted of limited targeted missile and air strikes against three military targets carried out in the space of under an hour.

What questions should we ask in debating this action? Here are some to consider.

• What do Syrians say?

Obviously not all Syrians think the same. Assad is a Syrian, as are his generals and his pilots, and so are their victims. SyriaUK believes the people to listen to are civilian Syrians working to save lives and to help others: doctors and nurses, rescue volunteers, women activists. For years these people have been calling on the wider world to do something to stop the bombing of civilians: a no-fly zone or a no-bombing zone, some kind of strategy to protect civilians.

The joint UK-US-French action was only intended to deter further chemical attacks. It was not intended to protect civilians from conventional bombardment of populated areas, from barrel bombs, cluster bombs, incendiaries, or artillery attacks. Therefore the action came as a disappointment to many Syrians.


• What does the British public think?

According to a YouGov poll, most of the British public accept the reality that Assad forces carried out a chemical attack in Douma, but many doubt that missile strikes are the right response, and even more are opposed to sending British troops to deal with it. However most people back a no-fly zone; six in ten of those surveyed are in favour.

Surveys can be hard to interpret. Enforcing a no-fly zone would also require targeted missile strikes or air strikes, but the aim would be to protect civilians rather than just inflict punishment and then turn away. So it seems most British people would prefer to see effective action to protect civilians rather than just a passing show of strength that won’t end the violence.


• Did this action really protect people in Syria?

No civilians have been reported killed by the joint UK-US-French action. However while the action didn’t take civilian lives it isn’t clear that it has saved lives. As the action didn’t stop conventional Assad regime and Russian air attacks, these have resumed, killing civilians.

Every military action risks civilian lives, even if only military targets are intended. It is important to be clear from the start what the mission is, not just to limit the risks to civilians, but to insist that the main aim should be to protect civilians.

Carefully targeted military action can save lives, but only if saving lives is defined in advance as the first priority of the mission. Otherwise experience shows that even the most advanced militaries will justify civilian deaths in pursuit of their military objectives.


• Was this action legal?

The Government’s legal justification is based on the concept of ‘humanitarian protection’ as outlined by the Labour government in the case of Kosovo in 1999 and used by both the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government and the Labour opposition in the 2013 debate over whether to take action in Syria at that time.

Because the Government’s action only focuses on chemical weapons and not on other weapons causing suffering to even greater numbers of people in Syria, it could be argued that this shows the action is not a true humanitarian intervention and that a more comprehensive strategy of civilian protection by the Government is necessary to fully qualify.


• Will this action protect people in the UK, or put them in danger?

At the moment it’s not possible to know the answer to this question.

The legal justification for this action was to alleviate humanitarian suffering of people in Syria, but the focus on chemical weapons has more to do with protecting citizens of the UK, US, and France.

Western states have long been worried about a risk of terrorists getting weapons of mass destruction.

Nerve agents like Sarin are difficult to make and are much more likely to be produced by state sponsors of terrorism than by non-state groups acting independently.

There is a risk that if international measures against chemical weapons are weakened, this might make it easier for a terrorist group to acquire nerve agent from a state sponsor.

The Assad regime has a long history of sponsoring terrorist groups in the region, and was responsible for attempting at least one act of terrorism in the UK in 1986. The regime’s Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun threatened in 2013 that Syria would send suicide bombers to Europe if attacked.

There is therefore a theoretical risk that the  Assad regime’s chemical weapons could eventually endanger people in the UK, but there is also a theoretical risk of the Assad regime retaliating for strikes by sponsoring terrorism in the UK.


• Will this action escalate the war?

This action is intended to deter Assad from further chemical weapons attacks. For it to be effective, Assad has to believe there is a possibility of escalation by UK-US-France if he continues to use chemical weapons.

Some people fear that escalation against Assad could lead to war with Russia. This is the fear many people in the UK have in mind when they worry about escalation. Recent events suggest this risk is deliberately exaggerated by Russia.

After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter plane in 2015, Putin didn’t go to war with Turkey; instead he made a series of deals with Erdogan for both of them to get what they most wanted.

Israel has attacked Assad several times, and Russia has never taken any action to defend Assad from Israel.

The US directly attacked Assad over a year ago, and still Russia did nothing to risk a war with the US. So there is no great reason to expect World War Three over Syria.

Putin’s government is vulnerable economically: vulnerable to sanctions and also vulnerable to military overstretch in Syria as well as in Ukraine. Putin can’t afford escalation, which is exactly why Russian messaging has tried to stoke fear of escalation in Western countries.


• Doesn’t Libya prove that anything we do makes things worse?

NATO’s intervention in Libya, while it didn’t bring stability, likely did save lives. Since intervention, the number of civilians killed in Libya has been a fraction of the number killed in Syria in the same period.

In its 2011 Libya intervention, NATO was directly responsible for 72 civilians killed (Source: HRW). To put that in perspective, the Coalition’s war against ISIS in Syria has killed at least 2,673 innocent people by bombing and shelling (Source: SNHR).

The example of Libya shows that given the right mission, military action can save lives, but it can’t guarantee stability or a political solution. For peace to come to Syria, there needs to be at least as much attention paid to politics, internationally and inside Syria, as there is to military action.


• What effect will this have on the search for a political solution?

This action is too limited to have any effect in itself, positive or negative, on the prospects for a political solution.

From the start of the crisis, every international attempt to achieve political progress has failed. Early on, the Assad regime committed itself irrevocably to a path of violence. All of the regime’s leadership is now implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, and therefore sees only risks and no benefits to any political compromise. And already in 2011 and 2012 the depth of Russian support for the regime was made clear as they began vetoing successive UN resolutions.

Political progress will be possible only if the regime is denied the means of pursuing a military victory, and if the economic cost upon the regime’s key international backer Russia is made unbearable.


• What does this mean for the fight against ISIS?

This action is likely to have little or no direct impact on the fight against ISIS.

Defeating ISIS depends on establishing legitimate and accountable government both locally and regionally.

Therefore future developments in the fight against ISIS will likely be determined by whether the Coalition remains engaged in Syria, how well or badly the Coalition manages local politics within its area of control, how it manages regional relations with Turkey and Iraq, and whether the Assad regime with its history of repression, failure, and sponsorship of terrorism, remains in control of territory west of the Euphrates, or even gains territorial control to the east.


• What next?

The focus of these strikes solely on chemical weapons does not fully align with the declared legal basis of a humanitarian intervention to relieve suffering of Syrians as many more Syrians are threatened by the Assad regime’s conventional bombing. People in Syria need a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians.

There is popular support in the UK for the idea of a no-fly zone. The action taken by the UK, US, and France demonstrates that a ‘deter and retaliate’ no-fly zone, or a no-bombing zone as Jo Cox described it, is a viable option. The only way to achieve a true ceasefire and end Assad’s bombing is through imposing one by threat of force.

There will be no political solution unless the Assad regime is denied the means to pursue a military victory. A political solution requires ending all of Assad’s bombing, and also increasing economic pressure on his international allies Russia and Iran through further sanctions.

There will be no stable outcome enabling a long term defeat of terrorism unless the UK, US, France, and other allies take practical measures to enable Syrians to establish and maintain legitimate and accountable, representative and competent government. That requires a long term commitment and must begin with a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians.

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