David Davis is a former Shadow Home Secretary, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
As our four car convoy tore across the Bekaa Valley out of Syria and across the mountains into Beirut, I pondered the events of the previous four days. As we entered the suburbs of Beirut, and our escort – which bore all the hallmarks of being a Hezbollah unit, switched on blue lights and sirens – I wondered at the strange relationships between guerrilla movements and governments in this part of the world.
We had just been to Syria. I had decided to visit this troubled country because of my increasing concerns over what is a huge failure of Western foreign and security policy in the region.
Today all of Europe is facing the twin crises of mass migration and terrorism. As xenophobia grows and anti-establishment parties flourish, the nation states and the EU struggle to cope with both the tide of human misery and the terrorist threat to the the safety of their citizens. And they are failing in both.
They are failing because they are trapped in a Syria policy that combines an aggressive public posture with effective paralysis on the ground. So taking out “Jihadi John” coexists with failing to stop 300-vehicle Islamic State convoys as they attack and take Palmyra, with all the loss of innocent life that that entailed.
The Syrian civil war, after the Russian intervention, is stalled in an uneasy standoff between the combatants. As a result, the Islamist badlands of Syria and Iraq constitute a festering cesspit of modern barbarism. The ordinary Syrian living in these badlands suffers a life of fear of arbitrary execution, torture, rape and dispossession under the medieval mafias that make up IS and the other jihadist groups.
Meanwhile, these groups continue to recruit, train and equip the young misfits that flood to their banner from around the world, and send them back out to kill and maim innocent citizens of Paris and Brussels in terrorist attacks. On the basis of Europol’s figures, these terrorists are leaving Syria at a rate of about a thousand a year – more, if you believe the Syrian intelligence services. As it stands, I see no sign of them stopping.
This is a real threat to the safety and security of every British citizen, yet our knowledge and understanding of it is pathetically weak. This is not helped by the fact that Britain, and nearly every other EU state, has no embassy in Damascus. Only the Czechs and the Norwegians are there. There is little or no intelligence cooperation. So out of an understandable distaste for the Syrian state, we have rendered ourselves blind.
This is why a delegation of which I was part decided to go and see for ourselves. Needless to say, we were not about to wander into jihadist territory. That would simply lead to kidnap and perhaps worse. So we were confined to the land under Syrian State control, and by the security arrangements which that state provided. As there was a temporary ceasefire in place there was just one car bomb whilst we were there, but we did not have to put up with the nerve-grating experience of random mortar attacks that had afflicted central Damascus up until a month or so ago.
Nevertheless, in a country in which assassination and kidnap are standard instruments of politics – as we shall see – it was impossible to argue with this. It meant that we were constrained in where we could go, and we had to treat everything we were told with great scepticism. We spent a good deal of effort on “fact checking” with other people – religious leaders, NGO workers, Western journalists and the like.
What we got from the government was a mixture of propaganda and self-delusion, mixed together with some hard facts.
An example of the self-delusion arose whenever we talked about their civil war. “It is not a civil war,” they insisted, “We are being attacked by foreign fighters and enemy states.”
Well, up to a point. The only jihadist group that is led and dominated by foreign fighters is Islamic State. The others may in part be acting as proxies for Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, but they are predominantly Syrian people led by Syrian commanders, at least in the country itself. But to recognise that is to recognise that those Syrians had a grievance against the state, which the Syrian State refuses to do.
Similarly, when we pressed them on the allegations of murder, torture and mistreatment by security services and soldiers, they insisted that they had mechanisms in place to deal with this – but they could not tell me why there had not been a single prosecution for such crimes. The capture, torture and murder of British doctor Abbas Khan proves that they have not yet mended their ways.
Of course, they are not alone in fostering their comfortable fictions. The British Government invented a force of 70,000 “moderates” to justify extending the air war to Syria. This of course was nonsense. In practise, as we were told by an extremely experienced aid worker who had dealt with all the groups except IS, there are no groups whose behaviour would meet any Western definition of “moderate”. Even the Free Syrian Army behaved more like gangsters than a liberation movement. Speaking to people who had escaped the areas occupied by the FSA, we heard stories of theft, kidnap for ransom, murder, and religious oppression. Our group also witnessed at first hand the despoliation done to a Christian town that had fallen into FSA control, with the desecration of Christian shrines, the theft of the ancient icons and the destruction of modern ones, and the wreckage done in a frenzied search for gold.
However, these stories pale beside the atrocities of IS, al Nusra, and the other jihadist groups . There was the girl who was executed for the crime of having studied Sharia law in Iran, as was her sister. Then there was the UNICEF worker who drafted AIDS leaflets, whose 17 and 12 year old brothers were beheaded as punishment for his “atheist” behaviour, the elder one in front of his parents. Or the man executed for refusing to join the jihad. Or the assistant bus driver executed for being a government employee, shot twice in the head in front of his mother. Or the woman whose husband was executed for refusing to call for jihad, and who then had her house taken from her.
It is of course possible that the people who gave these accounts of the murder of their loved ones were all brilliant actors in the pay of the Syrian government – but I doubt it. The jihadists themselves have bragged about such things in their campaign of intimidation, and the last example I cited was corroborated by the Grand Mufti of Damascus himself, who is paying the rent of the dispossessed woman. Since he is the nearest thing in Syria to a Moslem Archbishop of Canterbury, I do not think he would be party to such a deception. His own son was assassinated by an extremist group in revenge for the Mufti’s preaching against violence.
There were about 20 other tales of this reign of terror. Women being taken as sex slaves, and/or being forced to “marry” jihadist fighters. Young men being given 80 lashes for having a song as a ringtone on their phone. It went on and on.
This is what is being perpetuated by the continuation of this war. Simply put, the reign of evil in a large part of Syria.
There are some glimmers of hope.
We interviewed Mohamed Heider. He was the leader of the longest standing opposition party in Syria, the Socialist National Party. He had been a leader in the widespread demonstrations against the government in 2011. By his and other accounts, at that time, for the first month the demonstrations were peaceful. Then snipers started to shoot people, primarily policemen at first. As the security forces responded, killing demonstrators, he and others decided to arm themselves. Within a month they realised that this was a mistake, and tried to get everyone to disarm. Other more radical groups resisted, and Mohamed’s son, who was a student leader, campaigned to “Keep the Guns out of our Protest”. A month later, he was assassinated. The Syrian State certainly responded brutally to the demonstrations, but there was evil on both sides.
Today, Heider is the Minister for Reconciliation in the Syrian Government, despite maintaining serious criticisms of the regime. His task is to get groups to give up their guns and and stop fighting. He claims that about 100 groups, totalling some 15,000 people, have joined the programme. This figure may or may not be accurate, but notably he says that the number increased sharply after the Russian intervention, which seems entirely believable.
This is what we often see in civil wars. People make a calculation about who is going to win. The believe, sometimes rightly, that a miscalculation will mean death for both them and their families. As a result, when, one side starts to get ahead, more and more people flock to it, and the war collapses, ending in a fight with the irreconcilables.
Some understanding of the origins of the so-called Arab Spring reinforces this point. We in the West indulged in some wishful thinking in believing that the main driver of that pan-Arabian uprising was simply a desperate desire for democracy and tolerance. In truth, in many cases it was a desperate cry from a generation of young Arabs for whom life held few prospects of career, home, or family. It was a revolution driven as much by Marx as Mohammed.
In Syria, this was compounded by two years of drought, which drove many poor farmers off their farms and left them jostling for economic survival with the urban poor. Then along came the jihadist movement, offering to pay them $250 a month – a huge sum for a poor Syrian. Many of these Syrians, although they do have an issue with the government, are driven by economics than by theology. Today, the driver of all sections of the revolt is money: money that originates in the Gulf, in Saudi Arabia, and in the oil sales that Turkey facilitated.
It is worth understanding the nature of Syrian society at this point. If you walk around Damascus you see a fascinating melting pot of culture and religion. Fashions are a mix of Arab and Western. About half the women wear the headscarf-style hijab. I saw none wearing a face veil or niqab, and certainly none wore the burka. Skinny jeans seemed to be the clothing of choice. I saw a significant number of women in military uniform. Churches stand alongside mosques of all persuasions. Souks rub shoulders with supermarkets.
The most notable aspect of the Syrian secular state has been the fact that Sunni, Shia, Alawites, Ismailis, Druze, Maronites, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and atheists have coexisted peacefully over the decades. We went to see the Grand Mufti and an Orthodox Archbishop. Both stressed the strong ecumenical nature of their society, and the mutually supportive approach of all the churches. In recent years the Grand Mufti has given to mentioning Christian festivals like Easter and Christmas in his sermons. I had the strong impression, corroborated by others, that this ecumenical goodwill has increased in recent years, as they realised that the existence of a secular state was under threat, and with it their coexistence.
This mutual tolerance had historically engendered a creativity and productivity in Syrian society that made it the Germany of the Levant. It was the breadbasket that fed surrounding Arab nations even in the drought. Before the crisis, teenagers throughout the Middle East were wearing jeans and t-shirts made in Syria. The country’s pharmaceutical industry supplied most of the region. The nation had the best health and education standards in the Arab world. The paradox of Syria is that a relatively liberal secular state with a comparatively decent standard of living for its citizens existed under such a repressive and heavy-handed government.
In the event of any of the anti-government groups winning the Syrian civil war, this liberalism will all go. Forget IS. Groups such as al Nusra and the other jihadists who dominate the insurgency give us a clear idea as to the future for Syria by the way they have run the areas under their control. Those areas are run by Islamic judges. These people provide the civil government of the insurgent areas, and they are the ones who sentence to death Alawites, as well as apostates and atheists, and expel Christians: they are the ones who sentence young people to be lashed for inappropriate ringtones, or for shaving off their beard. They are the ones who are creating the puritanical Islamist reign of fear.
This is the sort of government Syria can look forward to in the event of outright defeat of the government, even if such a result does not collapse into the tragedy that we now see in Libya or Iraq. This is why much of Syria’s middle class is fleeing to Europe. Forty per cent of the Syrians in Germany are said to be graduates. These are the people who fear the future under an Islamist regime of any sort.
So the potential outcomes are victory by the Syrian regime with its reputation for oppressive government, a victory by the insurgents which will destroy the basis of modern Syrian society, or a prolonged stalemate that will continue to pump terrorists into Europe at a rate that is greater than we can cope with. None of these are tolerable. So what should we do?
First, the major nations need to take a more active role in the negotiation to determine the future of Syria. America, Britain, France and Germany need to engage more heavily to force the pace of the negotiations. At the moment, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Russia on the other are simply maintaining an impasse.
The roles of Saudi Arabia and Turkey are particularly disgraceful, since by facilitating the supply of money to the jihadists they are perpetuating a hotbed for terrorism and failing their duty to us as allies. So extreme pressure needs to be put on them.
Second, the West should start to take an active role in creating an attractive future for the eventual future Syrian state. Over $100 billion of damage has been done to Syria’s infrastructure during the course of the civil war. The new Syria is unlikely to be able to cope with that. If the rest of the world funded a Marshall Plan for Syria, it would underpin the future of the new state, it would give hope, and incentive to cooperate, to those rebels whose problem is primarily economic, and it would give the rest of the world a proper say in Syria’s future.
That leverage would allow us to put serious conditions on the outcome. We could insist on the Syrian government cleaning up its police state activities, something the Russians are not likely to do. We could insist that the jihadist groups, including the so-called “moderates”, accept a secular state with the preservation of religious and individual liberties, something the Saudis and Turks will certainly not do. With the incentive of the “Marshall Plan proposal”, we could accelerate the eventual peace. And with American and Russian pressure on the Saudis and Iranians, we could create a guarantor structure for the peace.
If we do not find a way through this we will see an uncontrollably escalating terrorist threat, the destruction of the civilised parts of Syrian society, the cementing of Syria into the Russian sphere of influence at the expense of the West, and the continued destabilisation of Iraq, Lebanon, and maybe Jordan. If we succeed, we could rescue the Syrian people from a terrible fate, bring Syria back within the influence of the wider world, stop the exodus from Syria and give many of the Syrian diaspora a reason to return home (which millions will take); we could cut back the stream of terrorists flooding into Europe, and we just might give the region a real chance of restabilisation.
To do this, we need to engage America and get it to engage with Syria. That might just be possible now, after the previous policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya that has plainly failed, even in American eyes. If they realise that they need a functioning state in Syria, and that that may provide them with a mechanism for dealing with the Russians in the conflict with terrorism, then maybe they will initiate a turning point in their strategy and with it the stability of the Middle East. Britain has a real role to play in this, because of our strong relationship with the Americans and standing with the rest of the world. If we choose to act, this will be a much better way of dealing with both the flood of migration and the sharp increase in the terrorist threat than any of the patchwork measures taken so far by the EU.