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6 December 2015updated 03 Aug 2021 11:52am

No one knows what they’re doing in Syria – but standing back is not an option

Ultimately this is a question about the world in which we want to live.

By John Jenkins

The essential truth about Syria is that no one apart from Iran knows what they are doing. This isn’t an admission of incompetence. It is a recognition that there are so many different actors in the conflict, so many moving parts to any solution, and so many different linkages with other conflicts and sociopolitical challenges in the wider region, and that so much stuff just happens (such as the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane) that it is impossible to construct a line of argument that has conclusively persuasive evidential or empirical support. To put it another way, you can argue from similar premises to a range of different conclusions.

So some will say that we should steer well clear. This conflict is essentially a civil war and can be resolved only by fighters on the ground. We need to watch and wait – rather as Israel (for instance) is presumed to be ­doing. Others say it might be a civil war but it also has significant transnational dimensions, both ideologically through the Islamist International and materially through the actions of those states that sponsor certain actors, ranging from the Shia militias that fight alongside Bashar al-Assad to the various Sunni militias that fight Assad, Hezbollah and Iran as well as, frequently, each other. We should therefore seek to shape the outcome by judicious intervention on the side of those groups that we wish to have a decisive say in the political aftermath. Still others say that we should seek primarily to destroy Islamic State – Da’esh – and if this entails a pragmatic alliance with Assad and Iran, that is the price we need to pay. Others protest that this will merely bolster the recruiting power of Da’esh and its Sunni jihadi Islamist analogues. We need instead to focus on containing them and making the removal of Assad and the political reconstruction of Syria a priority: Da’esh will only be defeated ideologically by a new, more stable and inclusive political dispensation, in Iraq as much as Syria.

The truth is that there is something to be said for each of these positions. So, how do we determine what combination of actions makes for the best policy response by the UK and other western governments, particularly after the Paris attacks and with clear evidence that the terror threat Da’esh poses to western societies is increasing?

Part of this is about our own safety – but only part. There is no simple correlation between our actions overseas and our domestic security: Islamic Jihad didn’t slaughter Swiss tourists in the Valley of the Kings in 1997, Jemaah Islamiya blow up churches across Indonesia in 2000 and bars in Bali in 2002, nor Omar Abdel-Rahman try to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993, al-Qaeda the Strasbourg Cathedral Christmas market in 2000 and Fatah al-Islam regional trains in Germany in 2006 because the West had invaded Iraq. The ideology that drove them and drives others is not merely one of local grievance: it is a self-reinforcing and totalising ideology of domination from which retreat does not buy immunity.

Ultimately this is a question about the world in which we want to live. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, one of the pillars of Nato and a large EU member state, the United Kingdom cannot avoid it. The outcome in Syria matters to us. The outcome mattered to us in Iraq and Libya, too. In Iraq we helped let the incumbent prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and his Iranian backers steal the 2010 elections. In Libya we helped remove Gaddafi and created the space for electoral politics, only to stand back when armed Islamist groups held a gun to the head of the state after they failed in successive elections to gain the power they thought of as their right.

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So, we need to think hard about what sort of political outcome we want to see in Syria. This is a matter of the national interest. It would have been better for us if Iyad Allawi had become prime minister of Iraq in 2010 or if the National Forces Alliance (NFA) had formed a government in Libya in 2012. It would probably have been better for Iraq and Libya, too.

Allawi, a secular Shia leading a largely Sunni national alliance, was consistently the most popular politician in Iraq throughout 2010, and the NFA won a plurality of seats in 2012. Adopting a policy that leads us to acquiesce in an Islamist takeover of Syria because they are the ones with guns would be foolish – in terms of our own interests and those of most Syrians alike. All the electoral and polling evidence in the Middle East since 2010 suggests that most people there, like anywhere else, want a government that delivers material improvements in their daily lives. The failure to do so was one of the main contributory factors to the collapse in popularity of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) in Egypt between 2011 and 2013. We need to remember that Assad retains support among significant sections of the Syrian population, not just Alawites but also non-Islamist Sunnis, Christians and Druze, who all fear an Islamist takeover.

No Sunni Islamist regime in Damascus is likely to be stable: Hezbollah will not accept it and neither will Iran. Russia’s position is more ambiguous but I find it inconceivable that Moscow would acquiesce in the overthrow of Assad by jihadi groups. And, in the end, these groups will fight each other for the spoils. This includes those groups with a significant Muslim Brotherhood component, such as Ahrar al-Sham. There is no evidence that Da’esh is supported by any significant outside power, though in the early days of the conflict jihadi groups attracted a lot of private funding, channelled mainly through Qatar and Kuwait. Some of these other groups will continue to be supported by some Gulf states, however, especially if the Assad regime and its backers show no appetite for compromise. We need to be clear what we think of this: in the end, a secular dispensation in Syria – with political room for various actors – is best.

That does not mean Assad is the answer in Syria, any more than Nouri al-Maliki, prime minister from 2006 to 2014, was the answer in Iraq. Like Maliki, Assad bears a heavy responsibility for creating the polarised disaster in his country. He transformed a contest characterised initially by peaceful demonstrations into a brutally sectarian and now regionalised civil conflict.

In any case, Assad cannot defeat his enemies. He has become one warlord among many and controls only a fraction of Syrian territory. The reason the Iranians and Russians need him is that he represents the bogus legitimacy they both require in order to claim to be bolstering a stable state order against brutal Islamist chaos. Even with their support, with air campaigns by the US-led coalition and by the Russians against wildly different targets, and with a renewed push in the north-east led by Kurdish forces, Assad’s troops have been able in recent weeks to make only minimal progress against the armed opposition (and have not significantly targeted Da’esh).

Yet what the Russian intervention and the sustained Iranian military support for Assad have shown is that the precondition for a role in the final shaping of Syria is a willingness to shape the military conflict. You might not win. But you can stop your client losing. And this gives you influence when it comes to taking decisions both about how the battle is fought and about how it ends.


Standing back because you think any conceivable alternative plan you have seen is mumbo-jumbo is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-righteousness is not a satisfactory substitute for action. And if you really want to act, you can’t just do it from the air. You need ground forces whom you can call your own. They may not need to be your own citizens but they need to be effective and willing to co-ordinate with you. Assad has Hezbollah, various Iraqi Shia militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, all sufficiently co-ordinated with enough unity of command to fight effectively in a sustained manner. If we wish to shape the outcome we need to be just as effective at command, control and execution, and support those groups that are willing to contribute to what we would see as a satisfactory outcome.

That requires the US to play a stronger convening and co-ordinating role. You don’t need the 101st Airborne Division or the US marines – or 2 PARA – to do the ground combat. But you do need proper command of the battle space, better air-to-ground co-ordination, more effective operational intelligence, better targeting capacity, a higher intensity of air strikes, greater interdiction of Da’esh’s sources of funding, including oil, and an ability to respond rapidly to its activity across not just Syria but also Iraq. The two theatres go together.

And the reason for all this is that such action is the essential underpinning for the politics. That was the great lesson of the US-led “surge” in Iraq between 2007 and 2008. You have to do everything well at the same time, not assume that piecemeal military or political activity will allow us to come back in the future to do stuff we wish we could do now but don’t have the capacity, the will or the support to execute at the moment.

The primary target is Da’esh. There are signs that it is containable in certain areas of Iraq and Syria (as it was in Derna in Libya) by elements of the armed opposition, the Kurds, the Iraqi Shia militias, the Iraqi national security forces and a more cohesive Russo-Iranian effort. Hitting Da’esh harder is a test of the Russian claim to be on the same side as we are.

Yet containment within these theatres does not mean containment globally. The attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad were responses to this, as Da’esh has in the past responded to setbacks in Tikrit and Kobane, for example, by switching the point of attack rapidly to other military targets. The group is highly adaptive and has now become adaptive internationally.

Defeating Da’esh demands dealing with it in Iraq and Syria but also in Libya and, in terms of our domestic security arrangements, in Europe and the US. This demands greater co-ordination between national security agencies and military staffs, as well as those agencies and institutions tasked with meeting the longer-term and more complex ideational challenges.

This will all require domestic political consent, as we saw with the failed Commons vote on Syrian strikes in August 2013. Last week’s parliamentary debate was, in its way, rather impressive. The Prime Minister’s official response to the foreign affairs select committee report on British military operations in Syria is also a more sober assessment than some dossiers we have seen. However, it still can’t help making judgements on inevitably limited evidence. The claim that there are 70,000 non-extremist opposition fighters on the ground may well be true, though I do not know what it tells us about their likely future behaviour, given the particularly dense fog of this war. But there are signs that, in spite of the divisions in the Parliamentary Labour Party, consent is at last emerging across political divides and will manifest itself in any free vote.

The Prime Minister is correct to see the construction of an alliance of the politically willing inside this country as the precursor to our greater involvement in a coalition of the militarily willing. This effort needs to be sustained: consent can erode rapidly.

In the end, when we reach the moment at which a political settlement becomes possible, we must be ready to seize it. The Syria peace talks in Vienna – where Iran and Saudi Arabia are at last sitting together as they did not in Geneva – may offer a path to a settlement. I hope it does: otherwise, what we will have once again is process disguised as strategy.

Given the proximity of the Middle East (notably the Levant and Libya) to Europe and the calamity that refugee and other migrations represent for the EU and the region, this is Europe’s problem as much as the US’s or Russia’s. That is a good argument for Britain remaining a core member of the EU’s foreign policy and defence structures. It is also a good argument for the British and the French to continue to work closely together in these areas and guide Europe as we collectively seek to come to terms with the generational challenge that the collapse of parts of the state system in the Middle East and North Africa poses to European security.

This can only be done nationally, just as the Middle East can only be rebuilt on the basis of the existing state system, the most operative parts of which remain the Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. These states, in the end, need to be the ultimate guarantors of any new political settlement reached in the Levant, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, even if that ends up as a form of confederation. Better a guaranteed federalism than an uninsured fragmentation.

That was one lesson of the Taif Agreement of 1989, deeply flawed as it was. It ended a civil war in Lebanon but cemented a sectarian carve-up and legitimised the role of a single militia, Hezbollah, within a single state that, in effect, it then colonised. Stopping militias from continuing to colonise other states, as we have seen them ­doing in Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Syria, is a precondition for stable statehood.


We are witnessing the fifth great refugee wave in the region: Palestinian in 1948, 1967 and 1991, Iraqi after 2003, and now Syrian and again Iraqi. Most of these refugees have not returned home. Ethnic cleansing and resettlements have been widespread features of life in the Middle East for decades. What Syria and Iraq have shown is that there is no exceptionalism in Middle Eastern politics.

An Iraqi friend of mine from Ramadi has over 40 relatives living in his four-bedroom house in Baghdad. They are the ones who could get through the Baghdad belts into the city. Displacement breeds violence. As we stand, anywhere between a third and half of Syria’s pre-war population of roughly 22 million has fled. People continue to do so. Most of those who leave are those with some education and money. Their help will be needed if ever we get to the stage of reconstruction.

In the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the refugee burden is huge – and is profoundly changing the sectarian demographics. That makes the argument about the apparent reluctance of the Gulf states to take in Syrian refugees academic: demographics are politics and in the real world no Gulf state wants its still delicate demographic balance significantly altered. Nor do Jordan and Lebanon (unless you happen to be Sunni). It is also a huge problem for Europe. The answer is not resettlement: it is an end to conflict and a programme of return.

The challenge of Iran will remain, whatever happens in Syria. Those who argue that the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme will change the Islamic Republic are whistling in the dark. The one thing about which Iran’s leaders agree is that the revolution abides. So we shall face this challenge again and again and need to remain resolute in meeting it. There is no grand bargain to be had.

Finally, the crises in the Middle East are not simply external. They are now part of our domestic security. If we abandon this fight to others, we are outsourcing our national security. If the United States feels that it cannot or will not any longer act as a unilateralist hyperpower, then it still needs to act as a hegemonic convener of the like-minded. No one else can. And the UK needs to regain its internationalism. If we stand back, it does not mean we are disengaged from the common effort. It means we are irrelevant.

John Jenkins is a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Burma. He also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London. He is now executive director (Middle East) of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and is based in Bahrain

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