How to Save Syria: a deal with two devils is urgently needed

Dr Sarah Wollaston MP
Houses of Commons


Dear Sarah,

Next month will mark the 5th anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, a conflict which according to various estimates, has so far cost the lives of between two hundred thousand and half a million people – men, women and children. In addition, an estimated 1.9 million people, both combatant and non-combatant have been wounded in the seemingly endless fighting. Beyond death and injury, the costs of the conflict to the civilian population have been immense.

Half of the country’s pre-war population, more than 12 million people has been killed or forced to flee their homes. There are thought to be 1.6 million Syrian war refugees living in Turkey. Another 8 million of more are either internally displaced within Syria or have crossed the border and are living in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. In 2015, over one million Syrians fled to Western Europe from the conflict zone and nearly 4,000 of them are thought to have drowned making the attempt. The first 6 weeks of 2016 have seen more than 80,000 Syrian refugees make the perilous journey to Europe.

As the Economist reported this week:

“Syria is a nasty complex of wars within a war: an uprising against dictatorship; a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Alawites (and their Shia allies); an internecine struggle among Sunni Arabs; a Kurdish quest for a homeland; a regional proxy war pitting Saudi Arabia and Turkey against Iran; and a geopolitical contest between a timid America and a resurgent Russia.”

It is now time for the West to act decisively to bring this dreadful conflict to a conclusion. A failure to do so will mean that the war will drag on endlessly into the future, destabilising the Middle East even further and allowing hundreds of thousands more Syrians to be killed and injured. An already over-stretched Europe will see millions of additional refugees in the years to come.

Further inaction is not an option in the face of this calamity of biblical proportions. It seems likely that the Syrian peace talks as presently configured will turn into an international talkfest that could go on for years without achieving anything significant. It is very clear to me that any realistic plan to bring the conflict to a rapid conclusion is going to require an ultra-pragmatic approach which will require the unthinkable to be thought. In practical terms this will mean the following:

 • Involving Bashar al-Assad in the peace talks. Christopher Hill, retired US Ambassador to Iraq and veteran of the 1995 Dayton peace talks which brokered the Bosnian peace settlement, speaking on the BBC Radio 4 this week commented “The biggest mistake the US and UK have made in Syria was deciding at the start of the conflict that they could not deal with President Assad”. He went on to make the point that due to the complex multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian nature of Syria, it is vital that he [Assad] be included in talks because without him a solution to the crisis is unlikely. And so he must.

 • Acknowledging the blindingly obvious, self-evident truth that the only significant, effective military forces in Syria at the moment are those of the Assad Regime and the Russians. Any rapid resolution of the conflict and the defeat of ISIL must inevitably involve the West doing a deal with two devils: Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

 • The West has a long history of dealing pragmatically with unsavoury leaders in pursuit of honourable objectives.

 • Assad and his local allies should be supported in taking on ISIL by the West and by Russia. The so-called “moderate” rebels in Syria on seeing the West line up with the regime and the Russians will recognise that the “game is up” and lay down their arms, disband and return to their communities. They will be very frustrated that their efforts to oust Assad have failed and disappointed in the West for its change of heart, but at least they will be alive and with a country and a future. Their security must be guaranteed as part of any future political settlement in Syria.

 • In exchange for lending its support to Assad, the West needs to extract a firm commitment from both him and the Russians, that minority groups in Syria must be protected. Prior to the civil war, there was a long history of religious and ethnic minorities in Syria living reasonably harmoniously with the Sunni majority.

 • A vital part of any peace deal in Syria will require a transition plan being agreed that will eventually see Bashar al- Assad exit the Syrian stage into retirement outside the country. If allowing Assad, the dignity of exile rather than the indignity of a war crimes trial at the ICC saves the life of a single Syrian, it will have been a deal worth making.

 • Post conflict there may be a requirement for some kind of UN led stabilisation force as happened in the Balkans in the 1990s. The UK and US must be prepared to support this with boots on the ground. This probably would also include a Russian component.

 • Syria will need to be rebuilt and that is going to cost many billions of dollars, much of which will have to come from Europe and the US. It must be made clear to the Syrians that support for the rebuilding of the country will only be forthcoming if there is significant progress in determining the future political arrangements for the country. These must include real democratic reforms, a realistic timetable for their implementation and the inclusion of significant constitutional protections as part of the political settlement for minority groups in the country.

 Vladimir Putin is clearly a very tricky customer for the West to deal with and making concessions to him, anathema for us. However, if peace in Syria requires that at least some of the Russian demands are to be allowed, then the UK and US must demonstrate some flexibility. For example, if the Russians request, as seems likely, continuing access to their Mediterranean naval base at Tartus as part of the deal, then we must be prepared to consider it seriously.

Yours sincerely,


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