David Cameron told the recent Conservative Party Conference that Russian military action against Islamic State rebels and other opponents of Assad is “a terrible mistake”, and urged Putin to stop supporting his regime. The Syrian conflict is, if nothing else, extremely complex both in terms of the domestic groups battling for control within the country and in terms of the various world and regional powers backing these groups. Mr Cameron has never once shown any indication that he understands the consequences of the power struggle.
The war has been raging for four years, and at the present time the two largest forces are Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Islamic State, with numerous other rebel groups involved. A central criticism of Russian action in Syria from David Cameron has focused on the fact that Islamic State has not been the exclusive target, other anti-Assad groups also having been the victim of airstrikes.
Russia wishes to prop up Assad, while Cameron and most of his allies have chosen to arm rebel groups in an attempt to remove him. Many of these weapons have found their way into Islamic State hands with so called moderate rebel groups surrendering to ISIS and generally being in a state of disarray. While President Assad is a deeply unpleasant dictator who has bombed his own people and freely used torture against opponents, he was able to hold Syria together for most of his rule and maintain harmony between the different religious groups and sects. His regime was destabilised in part by the wider Arab Spring uprising (and his own repressive response) but also by Western governments which armed his opponents.
“While President Assad is a deeply unpleasant dictator who has bombed his own people and freely used torture against opponents, he was able to hold Syria together for most of his rule and maintain harmony between the different religious groups and sects”
Should Assad be ousted from power, it is hard to see any group preventing ISIS from taking the whole country. The worst possible outcome for civilians and the West. Experiments with toppling Arab dictators in the past have not exactly resulted in the best possible outcomes for those countries, especially in the cases of Iraq and Libya where power vacuums created by ousting long-standing regimes have led to lengthy civil wars or weak democracies unable to cope with insurgency. Nothing suggests that Syria would be any different.
Despite the lessons that we should have learnt from trying to force democracy on Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, David Cameron and Barack Obama were both in favour of bombing Assad’s forces in 2013. Cameron did not get his way, losing a vote in parliament on the issue. Yet, had things gone differently we could now see ISIS fighters subjecting Damascus to their reign of terror. The man is fantastically confused and has no idea who should run Syria should Assad go.
“Should Assad be ousted from power, it is hard to see any group preventing ISIS from taking the whole country”
Vladimir Putin, for all his faults, does have a coherent plan. By bombing Islamic State and other rebel groups he hopes to ensure that Assad stays at least for now. This is not an ideal outcome but would be the least worst option to avoid the disastrous scenario of ISIS winning the war. It means propping up a thoroughly unpleasant man but there are situations where there aren’t any good guys and this is one of them. Some may object to any foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict, but as Russia is clearly set on getting involved the action that they are taking is understandable.
Cameron can hardly morally object to aerial bombing by Russia when he was within a vote of doing exactly the same, and has used both drone and air strikes against jihadist militants. He can also come off his high horse about Assad’s human rights abuses when the UK is such a big supporter of Saudi Arabia, the country which perhaps has the worst human rights record in the world. There is more than an element of hypocrisy going on here, with Dave seemingly unable to accept that Putin has simply backed the better side whilst highlighting his incompetent and dangerous foreign policy.
Image: Enno Lenze via Flickr