Lord Green: On Syria, mere vituperation is not a strategy
We will not get a sensible strategy for Syria unless we come to terms with our instinctive rejection of the Assad regime, writes Lord Green
We seem to have been bounced into an armed attack on an Arab country. Our armed forces responded with very remarkable skill but now what? What are we trying to achieve? What is the longer-term strategy? There is clearly no such thing.
The government say that they have acted in our national interest to prevent the further use of chemical weapons in Syria and to uphold the global consensus that these weapons should not be used.
Yes, indeed, but what happens if there is another such incident? Do we bomb again but on a heavier scale? Do we take a further and probably more serious risk of a confrontation with Russia? More importantly, where is all this heading? Do we seriously wish to re-engage militarily in Syria with our own armed forces? Have we learnt nothing from Iraq and Libya?
The reality is that the present Assad regime is now here to stay. His forces have made decisive progress on the ground, strongly supported by Russia and Iran, both now key players in the region. Even the Israelis have long learnt to live with the Syrian regime.
As for ourselves, we will not get a sensible strategy for Syria unless we come to terms with our instinctive rejection of the Assad regime. Certainly, it is a very tough police state and has been so for decades.
Surveillance of any possible opposition by six secret police services is intense and their treatment of prisoners hardly bears thinking about. This is not due to Bashar al-Assad alone - he is more a figurehead than a dictator. Rather it is the result of the seizure of power by a minority sect, the Alawites, who have held on to it for two generations with ferocious determination.
It is only when you have lived in the country, as I have done, that you come to understand the balance that exists within what is fundamentally a police state. Ordinary Syrians live in fear of the secret police but they also know that, if they stay out of politics, they can live a reasonable life. Looking around at Iraq, Libya and even Egypt they can see the case for a stable country.
This explains why there are still many people in government-controlled areas, especially minorities and especially Christians, who much prefer even the present regime to what they judge to be the most likely alternative. Indeed, what they really fear is a regime of Islamic extremists who would sweep aside the so-called democratic opposition forces in the blink of an eye.
It is high time, therefore, to take an objective view of the Syrian regime and of our interests in the region. Our major interest is the denial of Syrian territory to ISIS and its allies. We need to be clear that Islamic extremists are the greatest threat to our own society since the Second World War.
There is an Arab proverb that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Friendship is hardly possible unless and until the Syrian regime lightens its touch but, meanwhile, we should swallow our pride and move in that direction.
As Lord Kerr, a former Head of our Diplomatic Service put it in the House of Lords on 16 April, “We should stop saying that the man who is actually winning the civil war must go before there can be any future settlement”.
Indeed so, and a reopened embassy in Damascus would be a useful start. Mere vituperation is not a strategy.
Lord Green of Deddington was ambassador in Damascus from 1991-94 and is now a board member of the British–Syrian Society