RISBY sweater

Lord Risby is a former director of the British Syrian Society.

When disturbances broke out in Deraa, President Assad was unsure as to how to respond. Parents of children killed in these protests were called in to receive his personal condolences.

Weeks later he generated genuine excitement when he announced that he would be making a major speech to the parliament in Damascus. There was widespread hope that he would make some clear commitments on political reform.

Instead he made a bizarrely misjudged speech accusing foreign terroists of provoking these incidents.

The rest is tragic history. Assad, bolstered by Russia and Iran, was effectively left to carry out unimpeded the attacks on his fellow citizens.

Of course it was unwise so quickly to recognise the divided and disorganised Opposition as the official voice of Syria, and to demand Assad’s immediate departure. Thus when inclusive talks were held in Geneva, the Assad regime had not the slightest incentive to cooperate.

However had his capacity to bomb so indiscriminately been removed by the destruction of his airfields, his fighter jets, and helicopter gunships, then there would have been some hope of enforced cooperation. Without this the onslaught continued.

So the strategy was in fact simple and clear – as a very first step to force him to negotiate and to end the destruction he had unleashed. But many argued and voted against any military action, on the grounds that there was no strategy at all.

Post Iraq, genuine scepticism of further involvement in the region prevailed in both London and Washington and elsewhere. The motives to prevent even selective military engagement were understandable, and supported by public opinion .

But massive death tolls and mass emigration have followed, with enormous pressures on Jordan and Lebanon, and real security issues in Turkey. Those quickly became apparent, but Europe is now having to deal with the consequences in full measure.

One of the by-products of the departure of the despotic Saddam Hussein was a ferocious upsurge in intra-Muslim violence. Additionally. over a million Iraqi Christians fled to Syria where they were safe.

But today, the remarkable tradition of religious tolerance in Syria has been destroyed too, with fear stalking all the religious minorities.

After Saddam Hussein, the resulting Shia ascendancy in Iraq also contributed to the rise of the Islamic State. which in turn proved attractive to some who had sought but failed to get rid of President Assad.

It is now indisputably an organisation which dwarfs all others in the region in terror, spilling over so tragically and gruesomely into Europe. The calls to respond are now increasingly universal.

That first vote in the House of Commons, which in turn so influenced Washington, can be judged in the context of what followed.

A positive vote may just have prevented the profoundly ironic situation whereby the very man who has caused such indescribable mayhem in Syria is now increasingly seen as the clear lesser of two evils, and part of a future possible settlement.

As we look to another important and controversial vote in the House of Commons, many will feel that since the first one the wheel has turned full circle.

But in the process indescribable barbarity and human suffering has been unleashed some of which at least, in some measure, might just have been avoidable.

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