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Game, Set And Match: How The West Let Assad Win The Civil War In Syria

14/12/2016 11:24
GEORGE OURFALIAN via Getty Images

Donald Trump's election as President and the expected warming of American relations with Russia is seen by many as the final straw that sees Bashar Al-Assad win the civil war he started and remain in power. The truth, however, is that Bashar effectively won the war three years ago when the free world stuttered in enforcing Obama's red line regarding Assad's use of chemical weapons.

The House of Commons vote in August 2013 to authorise airstrikes against the Assad regime's chemical weapon stockpile was the only time British foreign policy could have unilaterally changed the course of the war. If that vote had been won, the last three years would have played out very differently.

It is worth bearing in mind that Russia was then not lending Assad a hand obliterating the opposition in Syria then. ISIS was not yet a powerful, unified entity. It was just one of many jihadi groups fighting for power. The Free Syrian Army, composed of those who initially protested Assad's rule and the soldiers who mutinied rather than shoot unarmed civilians, held a third of the country, including Aleppo and large swathes of the suburbs of Damascus and had anywhere between 30-100,000 men under arms. The Syrian National Council was created as an inclusive alternative to Assad was comprised of Kurds, Shias, Sunnis and Christians.

It is highly likely Assad would have chosen a negotiated peace with the Free Syrian Army in response to western airstrikes. The failed parliamentary vote emboldened Assad and Putin and contributed significantly to the growth of ISIS, the demoralisation and collapse of much of the Free Syrian Army, and to Russia annexing Ukraine. This view has become increasingly more apparent to a wide ranging number of MPs. Only this week, when debating aid to Aleppo, many remarked of the folly of not intervening when the political terrain was simpler.

Looking back many maintain that there simply was no appetite for intervention, the country was still reeling over foreign policy failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. While this is true, the vote could and should have been won.

The Prime Minister of the day inevitably has much to answer for. David Cameron bungled the case for war. The timing wreaked havoc as MPs rushed back from holiday. The timetable for intervention wasn't clear: on the one hand the Prime Minister urged imminent action but on the other hand No.10 briefed that there would be a second vote, making the first irrelevant. The parliamentary motion itself was edited and edited again. The whipping was poor. Key Government ministers missed the vote, despite being on the Parliamentary estate, and in total 45 Government MPs were absent. The Foreign Secretary was side-lined in favour of the Deputy Prime Minister. The ghost of Iraq loomed large and Cameron did little to dispel it. In fact he invoked it throughout his speech and even more so in the way he presented the intelligence surrounding the attack. His cardinal sin was accepting the finality of the result and ruling out a second vote on intervention.

Ed Miliband and his advisors should not be allowed to abdicate responsibility. Playing politics with foreign policy is playing with fire and in this instance everyone got burnt. No doubt he thought the vote would pass and his advisors assured him that his last minute opposition to the vote would shore up his anti-war credentials- and position him to stand in the General Election as a potential "post-Iraq Prime Minister". However his last minute opposition defeated the Government, whether truly his intention or not and prevented perhaps the only serious opportunity to intervene in Syria and save millions of lives. As President Obama has confirmed, the UK vote was a primary factor in his decision to withdraw plans for military airstrikes against the Assad regime.

Game: The vote in 2013 allowed Assad to continue his wicked game, one he set in motion in 2011 when he emptied his jail cells of convicted Islamists who make up most of ISIS's and the Nusra Front's current leadership. He then left them unscathed focusing his military might on moderate rebels, allowing ISIS to cross into Iraq and break out the rest of their leadership from jail, in addition to indirectly buying oil from them to help them finance and grow. His aim was to create his own devilish enemy and force the world into making the tried and tested 'choice' between a secular dictator and extremist jihadism.

Set: With superior arms from Russia, support from Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and using every weapon at his disposal from tanks, airplanes, to barrel bombs and chemical weapons he broke and radicalised any moderate rebels left and deterred any Western intervention or support for them.

Match: Victory both political and militarily, with ISIS now considered the main if not only substantial rebel group in town, Assad has cemented the perception that it is a choice between a secular dictator and Islamic extremists. With the entry of Russia into the civil war and its air support, Assad has increasingly taken more territory from both ISIS and, more importantly, the last enclaves of moderate rebels left in Aleppo, leaving the other actors i.e. the West to sweep up the remnants of ISIS.

The military victory for Assad is now pretty much assured. The election of Trump will turn the US position on Assad from ambivalence to open support, ensuring a political victory as well. The sad reality is the new warmth in US/Russian relations will be consummated with Assad's victory against his own people.

The tragedy of Syria goes beyond the huge loss of life, mass displacements and human misery. The tragedy of Syria is that we have lost an entire generation across the Middle East and North Africa who wanted to believe in democracy as a positive force to change their countries. Instead the only lesson they have learnt the power of the bullet over the ballot, is that when men with guns come to your village your only recourse is to shoot back. The West will back the winner.

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