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Tuesday 15 September 2015

Report from a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee meeting

Report from Syria Solidarity UK observer at the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on British policy on Syria. 8th September 2015.

Video of the event here. Full transcript here.

This was a Witness session where the Select Committee takes oral testimony from invited expert witnesses. Those invited included: Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent, The Independent; James Harkin, freelance reporter; Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, Professor of International Relations and Middle East Politics and Director of the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St. Andrews; Professor Eugene Rogan, Director, Middle East Centre, St Anthony’s College, University of Oxford; Julien Barnes-Dacey, Senior Policy Fellow, Middle East and North Africa programme, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR); Professor Michael Clarke, Director, Royal United Services Institute; Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP, former Attorney-General.

The meeting began with an opening statement from the chair Crispin Blunt, who said that although there were no Syrians on the ‘expert’ panel today, it was not because they did not wish to hear the views of Syrians, but rather because they wanted to hear ‘all’ the views on Syria. He emphasised that they ‘do’ actually want to hear Syrian opinions, and said that the Planet Syria event earlier the same day was an example of their willingness to hear Syrian voices.

The session then began with the MPs on the Committee posing questions to journalists Patrick Cockburn and James Harkin.

Mike Gapes MP opened the questioning by asking if the Assad regime was weakening “despite the continued use of barrel bombs and chlorine against civilian populations.”

Cockburn replied that that ISIS was certainly advancing, a view that Harkin seconded. Neither took up Gapes’ reference to the actions of the Syrian regime. Cockburn’s overall message was that “ISIS dominates the armed opposition to Assad.” When asked about the non-Alawite minorities in Syria, his response was that the ‘minorities’ were not necessarily pro-Assad, but rather were “anti the anti-government”, because they view the alternative to Assad as “much worse.” He portrayed all rebel factions as being on a par with ISIS in their ‘Islamist’ ideologies, even going as far as saying, “we mustn’t exaggerate the differences between ISIS and the other Islamists.” He made no mention of Assad’s crimes and when asked whether the West should align itself militarily with Assad, he responded by saying, “yes”, and then called for the US to coordinate airstrikes with Assad in order to defeat “Daesh”. He also spoke of the danger of ISIS taking over Damascus.

James Harkin’s comments included some interesting suggestions but did not provide any coherent solutions. For example, he suggested that there needed to be some sort of “reformed Syrian army” that would include Kurdish and rebel forces, but he did not elaborate on the political pre-conditions for this.

He did not endorse Cockburn’s support for Assad, although he did say that the collapse of the Assad regime would lead to political fragmentation and “greater anarchy”. He stated that in his view the power of Daesh was being over estimated. To his credit, when asked the question, “What do Syrians want?” he responded by saying that this was a question that needed to be answered by Syrians. Ultimately both Cockburn and Harkin accepted that Assad would eventually have to go, but Cockburn’s views on this seemed very confused not explaining how you could shore Assad up and then expect him to go, and seemed to end up proposing some sort of partition.

Harkin suggested that attention needed to shift to the “micro-level” and things like local truces, which would need to be backed up by unspecified “local guarantees” – presumably to prevent local truces being shattered by the barrel bombing of local communities. (Perhaps an indicator of the unreality of the discussion was the fact that the phrase “barrel bombs” was never uttered once in this first session.) This seemed to lead Harkin towards favouring some form of external intervention, with the creation of “protected areas” where the civil activists of 2011 could return from exile and begin to rebuild civil society institutions.

The next section saw the committee members pose questions to Julien Barnes-Dacey, Professor Raymond Hinnebusch, and Professor Eugene Rogan.

MP Yasmin Qureshi suggested that “we have talked a lot about Daesh, but we don’t talk enough about what Assad has been doing” and asked “what do we do in practical terms to deal with what Assad has been doing to thousands of people regularly?”

Professor Rogan replied that we should send “bricks rather than bombs” to Syria, citing statistics about the extent of damage to urban housing, but sidestepped the MP’s question. He went on to call for “policies that prioritise the needs of Syrians and provide not a safe haven but a safe habitat” but gave no indication of how Syrian’s needs were to be determined nor how that was reconcilable with his previously expressed view that Assad could not be removed (the point of sending “bricks” to towns being systematically bombed by the Syrian air force seems particularly obscure).

Mike Gapes MP, made a perceptive comment that is worth quoting in full:
The only air force in Syria at the moment … is the Syrian air force. The only air force that is dropping barrel bombs and killing civilians is the Syrian air force. As I understand it, Assad has killed six or seven times as many people as ISIL, yet the whole thrust of the discussion I have just been hearing is saying, in effect, “Well, we’ll just have to allow this guy who is dropping chlorine and bombing civilian areas,” and is the main cause of the millions of people who have been displaced and the millions who are outside Syria. So, frankly, isn’t this just a recipe for a continuation of that kind of policy for years to come?
Gapes then called for “a no-fly zone to protect the civilian population” and suggested that Assad might be allowed to remain in office if his destructive power was reined in.

Rogan responded “I would be totally for it, but I just do not think that we are going to achieve that if we are going in with air strikes” (which seemed to muddle separate issues) and immediately qualified this statement by adding that it could only be done in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Hinnebusch did not express the Assad vs ISIS dichotomy, although he talked about large segments of Syrian Sunni communities migrating to regime-controlled areas such as Latakia and Tartus because the rebel-held areas were they had lived before were insecure. He failed to mention why those areas were insecure, which made it sound like a further justification for preserving the Assad regime due to its ability to provide “security”. He then shifted the policy argument in another direction when he expressed the necessity of a “power sharing” solution, perhaps modelled on Zimbabwe, with Assad remaining as President alongside a Prime Minister from the opposition. He added that such a power sharing solution would only be a safe and workable option if there was a strong Free Syrian Army to “balance Assad’s army.”

Julien Barnes-Dacey gave more of an analytical perspective dealing with the regional powers. Some MPs asked him what it would take for Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf states to join the West’s war on ISIS, to which he replied that those countries didn’t see ISIS as much of a threat. He added that whilst the West was involved in a war against ISIS, those regional powers did not feel any need to go after the radical group since the West was already doing it themselves, effectively leaving the regional players to focus on their own national interests. He also stated that these powers actually used ISIS and the West’s fear of it in various ways in order to further their interests in the region and in Syria. At one point, he did say that in order to take on ISIS, Britain would need to send ground troops into Syria.

Like Rogan, Barnes-Dacey believed that any regional agreement would have to include Iran in the negotiations. All three analysts believed that a negotiated settlement between the regional players, including Russia, would bring the war to a close. None of them, however, seemed to have any idea of how this negotiated settlement would materialise on the ground.

After the meeting we had a short discussion between the observers from Syria Solidarity UK and those from Rethink Rebuild (Manchester Syrians), and Planet Syria. We all felt that it was now our turn and we should try and get the Foreign Affairs Committee to hear a more focused and sustainable strategy for Syria, with a concrete workable plan.