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2 December 2015

Britain is right to target Isis in Syria, but we must plan for a future after Assad

Islamic State has gripped the imagination of western politics, but many Syrian rebels are more concerned by Assad. If we are to intervene in Syria, we must make it clear he has no long-term role to play.

By Shiraz Maher

The debate about extending air strikes against Islamic State to include targets in Syria (we currently bomb the group only in Iraq) has focused on the potential efficacy of such an approach. It is worth being upfront about this: bombing Islamic State provides only limited utility. But that does not mean we should not do it.

A military campaign of this type is not an existential threat to Islamic State. That is not the point. The air war has been effective in other ways, principally by killing a number of the group’s leaders and stemming its expansion. Perhaps more importantly, British military drones in Syria have also targeted individuals who have been plotting terrorist attacks against our country.

The current parliamentary debate appears to have missed this. A number of MPs have argued that bombing Islamic State targets in Syria will somehow make us less safe. This is wrong-headed. We are already firmly on the militants’ radar – in the past year, intelligence agencies have thwarted at least seven terrorist plots against us. Something must be done to mitigate that threat. Although it has not yet reached our shores, it has struck our neighbour and ally France. Further attacks are inevitable. As David Cameron said in parliament, “If we won’t act now . . . when?”

It is also true that targeting Islamic State in Syria is of only limited help in ending the war there. The underlying cause of the Syrian catastrophe is President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. No progress will be made while he remains in power.

In making the case for the air war in Syria, Cameron was right to point out that there are tens of thousands of moderate rebels who are not affiliated with jihadist groups such as Islamic State or the al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra. If we expect these fighters to take on the jihadists, we must first win their confidence. To do that, we need to assuage their concerns about Assad’s future by making it clear that he has no longer-term role to play in the country.

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For while Islamic State has gripped the imagination of western populations and politicians, many Syrian rebels are more fixated on Assad. He is the principal threat to daily life in their country and the main reason that more than four million Syrians have become refugees.

Consider how the Assad regime uses barrel bombs, a crude and consistent feature of his war. On a single day in October, more than 100 civilians, including many women and children, were killed after barrel bombs were dropped over parts of eastern Aleppo.

Syrian rebels see US and French planes flying overhead but cannot fathom why they target Islamic State while allowing Assad to continue his butchery. For every crime perpetrated by IS, it is easy to find a similar one conducted by the Assad regime. They are symbiotic forces, feeding off one another in their quest to impose very different totalitarianisms on the region.

Some people on the left appear not to understand this. At a Stop the War Coalition rally last weekend, Tariq Ali told protesters that if Cameron was serious about confronting Islamic State, he “should be fighting side by side with Assad and the Russians”. This view holds that Assad may have pulverised his people and his country but he does not represent a real challenge to global order. That overlooks Ba’athist history, clouded by the dark miasma of Islamic State’s recent horrors.

Consider that just as Turkey today provides the main thoroughfare for young men looking to engage in jihad, the same was true of Syria after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Electronic records recovered from Sinjar, Iraq, showed how members of al-Qaeda were joining the jihadist insurgency there with the full complicity of Syrian state intelligence. The 2003 invasion had many shortcomings but Assad directly contributed towards the destabilisation of postwar Iraq and, in the process, contributed to the deaths of our servicemen.

Similarly, Islamic State may have roared into the public consciousness after beheading James Foley last year but the policy of targeting journalists in this war originated with Assad’s regime. Syrian forces surrounded the district of Baba Amr in Homs in 2012, sealing it off, then shelled it remorselessly. A handful of journalists made their way there, including Marie Colvin, a war reporter with the Sunday Times. Defectors from the Syrian regime have revealed how Assad ordered his forces to target journalists in order to prevent them from reporting on the crimes of his administration. Baba Amr’s media centre was eventually located and repeatedly bombed. Colvin and Rémi Ochlik, a French photojournalist, were killed.

It is easy to be confused by what is unfolding in the Levant. We have only just disentangled ourselves from an unpopular engagement in Iraq. What has arisen now is a sectarian war that is complicated further by the fracturing of Sunni opposition forces into moderate rebels and jihadists, as well as the involvement of great international powers such as Russia and Iran and strong regional forces such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Fighters from around the world have also travelled there on behalf of all sides.

All of this can seem overwhelming to MPs given the responsibility of voting on the issue. “What a crazy war,” Dennis Skinner told the Commons. “Enemies to the right of us, enemies to the left of us – keep out!” Such a view is undoubtedly based on good intentions but we should acknowledge its limits. Abandoning the region will not make us safer; nor will it weaken Islamic State. Further terrorist atrocities in Europe are inevitable and the risks to our country are particularly severe. By the time those threats are realised, it will be too late.

Shiraz Maher is an NS contributing writer and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation

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This article appears in the 02 Dec 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria and the impossible war