by Atul Hatwal
I recall speaking to Syrian friend last summer about the impending parliamentary vote on military intervention.
He had been one of his country’s leading surgeons, and a classical musician, appearing regularly on national TV. Until his dissent against President Assad had become a little too public. Imprisonment and torture by Assad’s secret police were followed by a lucky escape, both from Assad’s jail and a country degenerating into civil war, to seek asylum in Britain.
I’d expected him to be supportive of action against the regime. After all, it had taken everything from him and his family.
But all I found was despondency and, on balance, opposition to military action.
By this time last year, the primary threat to Syria was no longer President Assad. It was the rise of the Islamist militias and the collapse of secular centre in the opposition. We could bomb Assad. We could send him a bouquet of flowers. Both would have been equally relevant to the suffering of the Syrian people.
In summer 2013, the reality of life in Syria was that it was more dangerous to live in territory controlled by the Islamist militias than Assad.
The discussion that my friend saw unfolding in this country was facile and pointless. The knee-jerk opposition of much of the left to any intervention that involved the Americans – who, by coincidence are also the only country that can mount any meaningful humanitarian or military intervention – was borderline offensive.
Yet the position of the interventionists, although motivated by good intentions, was barely better informed.
Targeting President Assad’s military infrastructure with some limited bombing might have made the hawks in London and Washington feel happier, but it wouldn’t have helped Syrians living under Isil, the Al Nusra Front, the Syrian Islamic Front or any one of the other dozen or so, hardcore jihadi groups.
And if this potential action had materially degraded the Syrian regime’s military capability, the threat of advances by the Islamist militias would have been all the greater.
By the time of the parliamentary debate on Syria last year, the situation had deteriorated to the point that even a full scale military intervention, involving US and UK troops on the ground, would not have been able to restore order.
Recently, one of the emerging articles of faith within the interventionist camp on the left has been that a muscular, early engagement in Syria – with military support and supplies – would have bolstered the centrist rebels and prevented the rise of the extremists.
There is a large element of truth to this, but too often the timing for this intervention is conveniently omitted. It was not last year, or even the year before, but late 2011 when a difference could have been made.
Think about that: 2011.
Barely weeks after the intervention in Libya, with British armed forces struggling to recover from their over-stretch in delivering that mission and the US almost wholly opposed, there was as much chance of bringing peace to Syria through the medium of everyone linking arms and singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing,” as there was of a forceful military engagement by the West.
Last year, the best that my friend hoped for was a stalemate: where Assad’s forces, Islamist rebels and centrist rebels cancelled each other out for years to come, and that a new peace was won through exhaustion – of resources and the will to fight.
There was almost no chance of the centrists regaining the initiative, but they needed to hold onto the ground that they had won, to prevent the Islamists taking control of the opposition, and then maybe, the country.
Since then, the worst has happened.
Isil has become the dominant group and although it is currently fighting the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra Front and Islamic Front, in practical terms, the choice is Taliban or Talibanner. Whichever group emerges as victorious, the jihadists will control the opposition.
The possibility of an Islamist victory in Syria at some point in the next few years is now very real.
Currently the US and Britain are supporting the Kurds in attempting to reverse recent Isil gains in Iraq. Yet this can only be a temporary palliative, one that will have to be repeated again and again over the coming years, as long as Isil and the jihadists retain a safe haven over the border in Syria.
The question the West now needs to face is the one that many Syrians understood all too well last year: who is the greater threat, Assad or the Islamists?
Yesterday, for the first time in over a year, the Syrian airforce hit Raqaa, the capital of Isil controlled territory across Syria and Iraq. It demonstrated the ability of the Assad regime to strike at Isil in their heartland.
If the US and UK come to the same conclusion as many Syrians, that Isil is a greater threat than Assad, then the only route to victory over this enemy, runs via an accommodation with President Assad.
The ability to hit Isil heavy armour and troop convoys, as they mobilise in Syria, will be critical to ensuring their fighters in Iraq are not resupplied. The importance of forcing Isil to fight on the ground, on two fronts – in Syria and Iraq – will deplete their resources and squeeze them in the same tactical vice that confronts any army which has to split its resources in this way.
Without secure resupply lines, lacking air superiority and numerically outnumbered by a combination of Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian troops, Isil, and their Islamist rivals, could be crushed.
To change the conditional into the definite, a major step is required by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. To publicly acknowledge the military facts on the ground which dictate that President Assad has to be our ally, or at least not our enemy, if we are to defeat Isil.
Only then, will the West demonstrate that it is serious and understands what is needed for victory against Isil and the Islamists who are threatening to overrun both Syria and Iraq.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut