David Cameron is preparing the way for a vote on extending British air strikes from Iraq to Syria. Fine as far as it goes; this could make inroads into Islamic State, and there are good military and humanitarian reasons why Britain should take the risk.
But what then? To intervene to defeat one group without a plan for the future is a recipe for disaster, as the Chilcot report on Britain’s failures in Iraq will no doubt eventually show. Crispin Blunt, the chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee, has remarked acidly that it “is not as inappropriate as it seems,” that British airstrikes stop at the Iraq-Syrian border “as the coherence of our present policy also stops there.”
Four years after the Syrian civil war erupted, Britain still cannot answer the most basic question: who does it want to win? It did once have an answer—the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, who back the loose coalition recognised as the opposition by the United States and Europe. But despite millions of dollars of support from the US and others, and informal backing from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, they have got nowhere.
At least, you might say, Britain knows who it most wants to lose—Islamic State. The US, UK and France all say that defeating IS extremists is the priority—although for four years they have also said that Assad must go. Yet Assad’s survival, and the European refugee crisis, may force them to choose which enemy is worse. That could push them into a U-turn dramatic even in a region which eventually extracts realpolitik from the most idealistic governments. Austrian and Spanish ministers have now broken the taboo by saying that dealing with Assad may be the price of any plausible plan to reduce the fighting.
In Syria, western governments are spoilt for choice of enemies. Assad’s regime has killed many more Syrians than IS, turning chemical weapons on civilians and opposition rebels in defiance of international law and President Barack Obama’s purported “red lines”. He is still there because he is backed by Iran and by Russia—increasingly actively, President Vladimir Putin has admitted. Meanwhile, the civil war has created a cauldron of chaos into which jihadists have poured. IS, which already controls half of Syria, is only one, if dominant; Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, inspired by al Qaeda, are there too.
American officials admit they underestimated IS’s appeal and ability to capture territory; after President Barack Obama compared the group to a junior basketball team playing out of its league, it promptly seized most of northern and western Iraq. Yet they have also stuck to the public position that Assad must go, given his treatment of his own people and the extremism that this history of brutality will fuel if he remains.
That’s a powerful argument, with moral and pragmatic force. But it’s hard to fight two enemies at once—not least when they are each other’s worst foe. Beating one strengthens the other. Some European officials remark that it is hypocritical to complain about Russian support for Assad because if his regime finally collapsed, IS would become the dominant player in Syria.
As it began to dawn on Western governments over the past couple of years that in the FSA, they had not backed a winner, they began quietly to shift position. Some officials mused privately about whether they could contemplate an outcome where much of the structure of the regime remained in place, provided that Assad himself and his top people went.
The flood of Syrian refugees pouring towards Europe—11 million Syrians have been driven from their homes—has now changed the tone even more. Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister, called in September for the West to talk to Assad to help the fight against IS. “One should not forget the crimes that Assad has committed, but also not forget the pragmatic view of the fact that in this fight [against IS] we are on the same side.” His comments, made during a state visit to Iran, echo others; José Manuel García-Margallo, Spain’s Foreign Minister, has said that negotiations with Assad are necessary to end the war.
It is clear now at least that western governments will need to talk to Russia to make progress (indeed, US Secretary of State John Kerry has made several calls to his counterpart). The aim would be a joint effort to press all sides towards some kind of settlement—a messy arrangement of different zones of control, with or without Assad in place.
There are, of course, formidable problems with that. Assad shows no sign of wanting to talk to anyone. US and EU relations with Russia are icy. And Syria is so shattered—almost certainly beyond reconstruction as a single nation—that stability seems a fantasy.
The choice that Britain faces is an ugly one: whether to pursue one enemy although that will strengthen another. But if it decides for good reasons to pursue IS into Syria with airstrikes, it needs to be able to answer the question—is it prepared to deal with Assad, if that is what talks to reduce fighting then prove to require? Those who answer No have morality and justice—and some pragmatism—on their side. But they then need to explain the alternative goal they will pursue. The strategy of the past four years—to hope both that Assad will fall and that IS will crumble—has been one of wishful thinking. As the refugees streaming towards European shores show, it hasn’t worked.