A national interest view of Syria’s terrible war – to peer at it through a Theresa May-friendly lens – might judge Assad the lesser of two evils. The country has become a proxy for war between Sunni and Shiite Islam, with Saudi Arabia backing the opposition (or parts of it) and Iran backing the government. Iran is not an ally, but neither is Shiite terror being exported to the bars, newspaper offices and shops of Paris or London. Saudi Arabia is one, but attacks on civilians in the West, from 9/11 through 7/7 and beyond, have been inextricably bound up with the Wahabi version of Sunnism that dominates that country. ISIS is a futher twist in the pattern than brought us Al Qaeda. So let Assad blast ISIS to smithereens, the logic runs, and good for him.
There are at least three problems with this viewpoint. The first is a humanitarian one. One estimate claims that Assad’s regime is responsible for 95 per cent of roughly 400,000 civilian deaths – enough to fill Wembley Stadium four times over. Even if that percentage is exaggerated, Syria’s Government is guilty of horrible atrocities. To support Assad, rather than wish a plague on both or all houses in the fight, is to excuse them. But a national interest view will be unmoved by this case. The second is more practical. Britain’s Muslim population is largely Sunni. To back Assad or even to stay neutral is to act as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS, and to encourage the flow of young British Muslims to Syria to fight against him.
However, it can be argued – and with justification – that Britain should not frame its foreign policy to please the more extreme forms of Sunni Islam. National interest first. And that if British Muslims journey to Syria to fight they should be allowed to return back, or at least be charged with offences when they do. The third problem with support for Assad is more persuasive from a national interest point of view. It is an illusion to believe that Assad is really fighting ISIS at all. He has instead been targetting other parts of the Syrian opposition – much of it Islamist, bits of it not – rather than ISIS itself. He doesn’t want to knock the latter down, at least yet; he wants to build it up, in order to present the West with a stark choice: ISIS or me.
There are other practical difficulties with simply piling Britain’s eggs in Assad’s basket. The Sunni world is far bigger than the Shiite one, and there may be diplomatic and perhaps economic consequences if we do – all at a time when, as Brexit looms, we need to keep and build our trading links. But the final problem is far bigger. Not so long ago, Assad was losing the war, but now he is winning it – and all because of the direct intervention of Russia. It is Russian bunker buster bombs that are blasting underground hospitals in Aleppo. It is Russian planes that bomb the White Helmets who seek to dig civilians out of the Syrian rubble. It is Russia that is playing double or quits – in military terms – before America can elect a new President. Putin is racing against the clock to win the war.
Barack Obama’s Syrian policy is passive. A President Clinton might well take the John Kerry view and be more active, perhaps ramping up sanctions against Moscow. But whether she does or doesn’t – or whether she is elected at all – Russia’s role in Syria should give anyone concerned with our national interest reason to think deeply. Russia is not exactly an enemy. We need its help in Afghanistan and with Iran. But nor are its authoritarian rulers allies. Wherever the blame may lie in the continuing story of Ukraine’s troubles, we are signed up as part of NATO to defend the Baltic States. And the long and short of it is that Russia increasingly sees itself as top dog – or at least as a growing dog – while America broods in its kennel. Obama is a sign of this; so, more dramatically, is Donald Trump.
To grasp the scale of the change, have a look at the Israel-Palestine problem. America was once the actor who sought to solve it. For better or worse, Obama hasn’t tried to. Putin is stepping into the gap. He is making overtures to Netanyahu and Abbas, inviting them to a summit. Even the Saudis, who seem to be giving up in Syria, are recalibrating, nervously asking themselves whether they should be knocking on Moscow rather than Washington’s door. The Foreign Office, still struggling to come to terms with Brexit, will be keeping a nervous eye on these developments. There is a danger that, at some point in the future, an over-confident Russia miscalculates and seeks to destablise or, worse, dismember the Baltic States – or push into the western part of Ukraine.
A lobby in the Commons, powered as much by humanitarian concern as geopolitical calculation, wants an international coalition to impose a no-bombing zone in Syria. This is for the birds during what’s left Obama’s presidency. That might change if Clinton wins. But it presents considerable obstacles to sober thought. Yes, Russia might stop bombing civilians. But then again, it might not. What then? And while Russia might not be able to strike back directly at such a coalition’s forces, it could instead expand its activities in other theatres – such as the Ukraine. This would be seriously destabilising. Furthermore, the imposition of a no bomb zone could boost Sunni jihadis in the short-term while not stopping Assad in the medium. That sounds like the worst of all worlds.
Obama’s policy has been to cut a deal with Iran and, in dealing with Russia, essentially confirm a policy of spheres of interest. He has judged that Syria, like the eastern part of the Ukraine, lies within Russia’s sphere. There is a pragmatic case for this brutal realpolitik. But allowing autocrats rather than democrats to set the pace in the Middle East has consequences. It is also puzzling in terms of fundamentals. America’s economy may have its problems, but they are nothing compared to Russia’s. The Eagle still packs a more powerful punch than the Bear. A President Clinton will need to pick up the pieces and help reinforce NATO’s presence in the Baltic States further. Military intervention in Syria looks like a risk too far. Tightening sanctions on Russia a notch does not.