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Thursday, August 13, 2020
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Home News It’s time to make friends with Syria, not punish it

It’s time to make friends with Syria, not punish it

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LAST Tuesday the Mail published an admirable article on the subject of Libya by Mark Almond, director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford. He detailed how the British government’s policy of good intentions in 2011 resulted in chaos there.

Six months of bombing by the UK and other countries brought about the demise of President Gaddafi and his 40-year rule. It was thought that democracy and human rights would follow, but instead there was a nightmare of unintended consequences. Libya fell under the rule of armed groups and has become a training ground for Islamist terrorists coming to the UK and elsewhere. It is also a gateway for African migrants coming to Europe and there is a civil war, with Field Marshall Khaifa Belqasim Haftar’s LNA (Libyan National Army), which controls eastern Libya, fighting the Western backed Islamist ‘Government of National Accord.’

 As Almond rightly stated, ‘blowback’ has occurred: that is when the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good policy at the time come back to haunt you.

Libyan parallel with situation in Syria

There is an uncomfortable parallel here with the British government policy in Syria.

It was at the same time, that of the so-called Arab Spring, when the British government decided on a policy of removing President Assad in Syria, and supported opposition groups who it was hoped would bring about democracy and human rights there.

To start with, this policy seemed to have some success as the Syrian government lost a large number of key towns and cities to the rebel opposition groups. A number of countries became directly and indirectly involved in the Syrian conflict, which commenced in March 2011 and continues to this day, a period of over nine years.

 What has changed though, is the composition of the opposition rebel groups. There simply are not any ‘moderate’ rebels now. The war has essentially become one of two sides, the Islamist rebels or the secular Syrian government.

After the atrocities of ISIS Daesh and other Islamist groups, the Syrian people sided with their government. The approximate 10 per cent of the population who are Christian are firmly behind their government. They see their government as the protectors of their faith from the Islamists.

There is no doubt now that with the majority of the country back under government control, the war is close to being over. There are just one or two areas held by Islamist rebels, such as Idlib. In other parts of the country the remnants of the once powerful ISIS Daesh are being mopped up.

In the Kurdish-controlled part of the country, where there are still US forces, they share concerns about ISIS. This is the area of Syria where most of the oilfields are, and the detractors of the American presence believe they are there for the oil and to prevent it falling back into the hands of the Syrian government. There are echoes of Libya and Iraq, with control of oil being a major factor.

 Experts such as Peter Ford, the former British Ambassador to Damascus, (2003-6) have been saying for some years that the British government policy on Syria has been wrong and needs to be changed. He has particularly referred to the fact that the jihadis in Idlib are propped up by heavy weaponry, including tanks, from Turkey, which are paid for by Qatar (who also pay the fighters). Without this support, they would quickly flounder. Hopefully his calls for a new policy towards Syria will be heeded, otherwise there will continue to be instability in the area.

Recognising realpolitik would help counter the growing Russian influence in the region. They are viewed as the saviours of the Syrian people due to assisting the Syrian government in the conflict since September 2015.

The new harsher sanctions against Syria are a huge mistake

The USA probably have a different agenda in Syria as it seems they have decided on a last throw of the dice to bring down the Syrian government. This is seen in some quarters as support for Israeli government policy or having a weak and unstable neighbour, rather than a strong potentially threatening one.

 They have greatly toughened their sanctions against Syria through what is known as ‘Caesar’s Law’. These sanctions have also been applied by the EU and the UK, who have renewed and strengthened their 2011 sanctions, but they are based on the situation in Syria in 2011, not on the situation which applies today. The sanctions were originally intended to speed up regime change, but all they have done is cause suffering to the 17.5million Syrian people.

 The sanctions the UK has employed against Syria are the most extreme employed against any country, even taking into account communist anti-Christian North Korea.

War and sanctions increase the numbers of refugees

There are about 7.6million internally displaced Syrians and about 5million Syrians who are refugees in neighbouring countries and other countries in the world.

This situation has come about partly because of the war and partly because of sanctions. Many towns and cities have suffered huge destruction during the war, some of it even by British and coalition bombing of formerly ISIS Daesh-held territory, such as the city of Raqqa.

The sanctions are so intense that the massive rebuilding effort which is needed just cannot get under way. Any companies, countries or individuals who help Syria in any economic activities suffer severe penalties, which is why so few are prepared to take the risk.

There is a moral imperative for Britain to act fairly

There has to be at least a moral imperative for Britain to invest some foreign aid into the country, if only for the areas affected by the bombing.

So far, no UK foreign aid has gone to the Syrian government-controlled areas, just to the Islamist and Kurdish ones. Ironically the Kurds and Islamists are at war with each other.

Thousands of Syrian refugees are returning to their country but many more in the UK and Europe are actively prevented from going home. The UK government has no programme for helping Syrians who want to return home. The increased sanctions are slowing down the rate of return of Syrian refugees, because they need a healthy economy and jobs to return.

The UK government’s Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme (VPRS) for 20,000 people has cost £.1.8billion of known funding since its commencement in 2014. This is not including the costs of the 5,000 who came in prior to that, or the 3,500 unaccompanied younger refugees. These are all part of the unintended consequences of a foreign policy which is causing violence and disruption in Syria. Added to this is the fact that refugees include a sizable proportion of key people who are needed to help in the recovery of the country which they have fled.

Sanctions against Syria are a double edged sword

The sanctions are therefore a double edged sword:

They cause instability and give the Islamist rebels encouragement to continue to fight, thus prolonging the war.

They make the Syrian people believe that the British government is on the side of the Islamists and that it is only Russia on which they can rely.

The sanctions do not, ironically, apply to the Islamists in Idlib, nor to Kurdish controlled Syria.

 There is no justification for sanctions against Syria when there are so many countries in the world with far worse human rights abuses, who are not sanctioned at all.

The USA has in fact offered to withdraw the sanctions if Syria asks Iran to withdraw its troops from the country. The reality is that Iranian forces were asked to help combat the jihadi terrorists and have also helped protect Christian communities. Should the UK get involved in the USA’s dispute with Iran anyway?

The Syrian sanctions are inhumane

The renewed and harsher sanctions against Syria started this month and already they are beginning to bite, with the Syrian currency losing value and many goods scarce or expensive. It is the ordinary people who are most affected. Those with contacts in Syria, both Christian and non-Christian, know that the Syrian people are in despair about these actions against them.

After fighting a war against terror for double the period of the Second World War, do not the Syrian people deserve a respite from their suffering? In many ways they have been fighting the West’s fight, but have had no thanks for it.

British policy on Syria is based on 2011, not 2020!

The British government policy of 2011 was based on the short-lived ‘Arab Spring revolution’ which is no more. It was hijacked by Islamist fundamentalist, and now the people affected have made clear they do not want their form of revolution.

The British government needs to recognise this now, accept that the there is a road for recovery for Syria, if it will help build it. The British sanctions against Syria must end without delay. There would be a good chance of the EU following this independent lead. The USA would be hardly likely to sanction those breaking their ‘Caesar’s law’ under such circumstances.

There could be major benefits for Britain. One of these could be the return of thousands of Syrians to their homeland. The Syrian government has a successful reconciliation programme for former terrorists who lay down their arms. There could be an agreement that Syria takes back the former terrorists currently living in the UK. This would have to ensure their safety, but it is not impossible. The monitoring of terrorists in the UK is currently costing the government a fortune. The ‘de-radicalisation’ programmes the government are running are clearly a costly failure. France has given up on its programme.

Why Britain needs to restore diplomatic relations with Syria

Syria could become a friend of the UK again. It still remembers how British forces liberated Damascus from the Ottoman Empire on October 1, 1918, and Syria was declared independent. Those were the ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ days.

It is not too late for the British government to find some form of rapprochement with the Syrian government. Parliamentary elections are due soon in Syria. In 2021 the Presidential election will take place and no one doubts that President Assad, despite allegations of human rights abuses, will be overwhelmingly re-elected. His British-born wife, Asma al-Assad, is extremely popular too, and has had the nation’s sympathy as she has been suffering from cancer.

The UK could restore relations in such a way as to create stability not just for Syria, but also to enable neighbouring Israel to feel secure.

Foreign policy constantly has to adjust to reflect changing circumstances. It is time to have a policy for Syria which reflects up-to-date realism, and is beneficial to all.

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Anthony Webber
Anthony Webber
Anthony Webber is an independent political commentator and strategist

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