Supporting solutions that enable the Syrian people alone to be arbiters of their future
There are no easy solutions to the problems in Syria. This is partly because there are many different layers to the conflict, including fighting between government forces and Islamist militias, struggles between Kurds and Turks, and proxy wars involving other nations. Atrocities have been committed on all sides.
The crisis remains one of the worst humanitarian disasters of our time, resulting in massive internal displacement and outflow of refugees, affecting people of many ethnicities and religions.
As the conflict enters its eighth year, there is a need for the international community to recognise that the Syrian people must be free to decide their own future, without foreign interference.
Frequently asked question
Does the UK still support opposition forces in Syria?
Yes. The US and UK has provided considerable financial support to so-called “moderate” armed opposition forces. Yet the vast majority of these forces are now dominated by jihadist militants with no intention of creating democracy in Syria. They would readily dismantle the broadly secular constitution in which most Syrians take pride.
The UK contributed at least £199m (of taxpayers’ money) to opposition forces between 2015-2017, offering political support, infantry training, communications apparatus and logistics equipment.
Many armed opposition groups, although diverse, are not moderate. They adopt the same extremist ideology as Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS or other terrorist factions. For example, the Army of Islam, which controlled much of Eastern Ghouta prior to their eviction, paraded prisoners including women through the streets in cages.
In December 2017, the UK government was forced to cease some of its funding to opposition groups following reports that money was “diverted to extremists” and that recipients were linked to groups which had committed atrocities such as stoning.
Despite these concerns, the US and UK continue to support projects involving armed opposition groups. What is more, government ministers continue to refuse to disclose the names of opposition groups supported. While supporting armed groups, the UK government seeks to block international support for rebuilding efforts.
Will the UK work with the Syrian government?
No. Former Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that UK military action in Syria was “not about regime change” yet the Foreign Office continue to endorse publicly “a transition away from the Assad regime”. Indeed the UK government has been wedded for a long time to the mantra that “President Assad must go”.
The Syrian government is guilty of instances of human rights violations. Such atrocities are impossible to condone. However, as there is no moderate armed opposition, enforced regime change would create a chaotic situation similar to, or perhaps even worse than, those in Iraq or Libya. Commitment to a “transition of power” in Syria, as a prerequisite of any settlement, has proved unachievable and will remain so.
Were the missile strikes in April 2018 legal?
No. The legal justification for the UK, US and French joint airstrikes in April 2018 was significantly flawed. Neither the UN Charter nor international law permit military action on the basis of humanitarian intervention.
According to Dapo Akande, Professor of Public International Law at the University of Oxford, the legal justification for military action “was not in accordance with the United Nations Charter and international law” and was dependent on a “radical restructuring of the most fundamental rules of the international legal order.”
Neither the UN nor the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) investigated the Douma attack before missiles were fired. The US-led Coalition did not have conclusive proof of the use of chemical weapons or, if such an attack had occurred, by whom.
In the UK, Theresa May did not seek parliamentary backing in advance of the bombing raids. Despite her defence of the “right to act quickly in the national interest”, the government exhibited a disregard of the necessary checks and assessments on intelligence information.
When the OPCW did investigate, they found no conclusive evidence of use of chemical weapons.
Which foreign countries currently occupy Syria?
As of January 2019, the Syrian government control around 80 per cent of habitable Syria and 60 per cent of the overall territory.
A third of Syria is effectively under US and Turkish control, supported by the UK and France. It is understood that NATO powers work largely through surrogates – their own special forces forming the kernel around which local opposition forces are organised, trained and supplied. Most supplies come overland from Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
Russia and Iran also have a significant military presence in Syria. However, their presence is legal under international law since it is sought by the host state. Their military support of the Syrian government has had a severe impact on civilian populations, but no more so than actions by NATO powers. The withdrawal of Russia and Iran, enforced and divorced from an overall peace settlement, would be likely to result in a vacuum of power, leading to factional hyper-activism and mass bloodshed, from which ISIS would be a main beneficiary.
Should sanctions be imposed on SYRIA?
No. US and UK-backed sanctions greatly harm civilians, for whom it is very difficult to obtain employment – and adequate supplies of food, medicines and medical equipment. Pressure should be maintained for sanctions to be sharply curtailed or dropped altogether.
Unilateral coercive measures are illegal under the UN Charter and the Rome Statute as they are a form of collective punishment and of economic warfare, which should not be imposed without internationally-recognised authorisation.
The sanctions include a de facto prohibition of transactions denominated in US dollars. This acts as a dampener on many aspects of the economy and forces much trade to proceed via the black market or legally through expensive intermediaries in Lebanon, Turkey or elsewhere.
Photo © James Gordon