Stunning Article Syria’s Voice of Conscience Has a Message for the West

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Stunning interview with Yassin Saleh https://theintercept.com/2016/10/26/syria-yassin-al-haj-saleh-interview/ “Syria’s-Voice of Conscience-Has a Message for the West”.

One commentator asked after reading the article, why the left should not be anti interventionist. This is how I condensed Yassin’s words to answer this as best I could:

“Yassin Saleh is critical of the nature of US military intervention, while he criticizes the left in the West for being anti “all intervention” that involves military force. This means there is some types of military intervention he would support. Syrian activists are pushing for a No Bomb Zone for example (see http://www.syriauk.org/p/no-bomb-zone.html strategy less risk than no fly zone).

Yassin repeats in this article that the right concept is about empowering Syrians. A partnership rather than an intervention. Syrians need to provide security for their society. An accountable organized force cannot be created without weapons and training. A credible government needs access to resources to provide food, health and housing security. There needs to be consequences to the Assad regime of its war crimes or those carried out by Putin in its name. This is the intervention that progressive people in the West should be demanding, in real solidarity with Syrians.

We have absolutely failed, while many practice high sounding hypocritical skepticism of the Syrian opposition. Are they moderate? Are they organized? Are they genuine? When we are totally useless. Government elites in the West have no policy. It is up to you to use your anger to demand a policy that supports the Syrian people. We must be active not passive critics. To do nothing and appease the “Eurasian Fascism” of Putin will be expensive, homicidal and worse than useless. Make instead for effective partnership.”

Washington Post article reveals pathetic myopia of Obama administration Syria decision making.

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See the Washington Post article “Plans to send heavier weapons to CIA-backed rebels in Syria stall amid White House skepticism” by Greg Miller and Adam Entous 23rd October 2016 ( https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/plans-to-send-heavier-weapons-to-cia-backed-rebels-in-syria-stall-amid-white-house-skepticism/2016/10/23/f166ddac-96ee-11e6-bb29-bf2701dbe0a3_story.html ).

This article exposes the fundamentally flawed reasoning by the Obama administration’s decision making on Syria. Here are five examples:

Concerned about low quality of discussions in the White House, as reported in this article.

1. “If [Obama does nothing] so, Obama’s successor will inherit an array of unattractive options. Critics of the proposal to increase arms shipments warn that it would only worsen the violence in Syria without fundamentally changing the outcome.” …………… The program to arm rebels has to be part of a wider strategy, which includes a No Bomb Zone and support for Syrian civil society (see Charles Lister http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war/ and https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/17/how-a-no-bomb-zone-would-work/ ). To criticise part of a strategy as ineffective because it would not work by itself is nuts.

2. “One senior U.S. official said that it is time for a ‘ruthless’ look at whether agency-supported fighters can still be considered moderate, and whether the program can accomplish anything beyond adding to the carnage in Syria. The CIA units are ‘not doing any better on the battlefield, they’re up against a more formidable adversary, and they’re increasingly dominated by extremists,’ said the U.S. official ….’What has this program become, and how will history record this effort?'” …………….. It is estimated that 10-15% of rebels can be classed as extremists. The ruthless reality is that the armed Syrian Opposition have been fighting the resources of the extensive Syrian Armed Forces, barbaric “security” brigades, extremist shiite militias, long term Russian military supplies (with recent financial backing from China) and now the Russian air force. All this with comparatively meagre support from the West and funds from sympathisers in the Gulf States. To say they may not deserve or warrant support is not only ruthless but myopic. Extremists have filled some of the vacuum left by West in the Syrian Opposition, so the answer is obvious. The issue of effectiveness, ignores the fact that the armed opposition is dependent on all it’s elements. This is the point, a properly backed moderate opposition has no need of the extremists. Comparing how these units fight in these circumstances is meaningless.

3. “In 2012, he [Obama] commissioned a classified study of other cases of the agency backing rebel forces. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Obama said that he wanted examples of when ‘that actually worked out well. And they couldn’t come up with much’.” ……….The Arab Democratic Uprising started in 2011, and has only been given meagre support by the West, even in Libya. Are there any cases of US actually effectively supporting mass uprisings against dictatorships?

4. “’The Russians have seized the initiative,’ said a second senior administration official involved in Syria discussions. ‘You can’t pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against Russia’.” ………….. The Russians only acted directly after years of Western inaction, hardly seized. A “No Bomb Zone” strategy” would mean imposing consequences on Assad and Putin regime war crimes, while only hitting Assad regime targets (see briefing http://www.syriauk.org/p/no-bomb-zone.html ).The US went to war against Soviet Russia in Afghanistan without going to war with Russia, which lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It then failed to follow up with support for Afghans after the conflict, leading to a Taliban government.

5.”The CIA’s own assessments of the program have been viewed with suspicion by some at the White House, officials said. ‘Does it make any sense that the people who are totally invested in this program . . . are the same people who are writing analyses of the Syrian opposition on which decisions are based on the future of that program?’ the first U.S. official said.” ……. All they need to do is a little homework and contact “analysts like Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, Charles Lister and Aron Lund who provide regular analysis on rebel organisations”( see http://www.syriauk.org/2015/12/who-are-syrian-rebels.html ).

Core Issue

However the former senior administration official quoted, gets to the core of this problem. “There’s a huge risk here since the Russians entered. . . . The lesson out of this is that if you don’t take action early on, you should almost expect the options to get worse and worse and worse.”

The next bigger core lesson, not mentioned in the article, is that this does not stop in Syria if Putin is appeased, and the Assad regime continues. Russia will become the natural ally of any country with an oppressive dictatorship who has an angry population that needs annihilating. Putin has the advantage of no effective domestic opposition to foreign support for mass murder. The world has changed, there is no ideological barrier to who the Russians or Chinese can support. See Egypt, see Philippines. Obama’s caution is recklessness in truth, and this is how lack of intervention in Syria will be judged harshly by the future, as the twin failures of reckless invasion when the opposite was required in Afghanistan and Iraq, put together with reckless lack of support for the Arab Democratic Uprising especially in Syria and Libya.

Examination of Pro Assad Attitudes in Briefing Paper for UK Labour Party MPs.

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Introduction:

A copy of the UK Labour Party briefing paper for MPs before the Syria debate in Parliament on the 11th October 2016 was leaked. The document is seriously flawed. It does not provide MPs with accurate information that reflects reality. More seriously the document is structured to provide support for the propaganda lines of Assad and Putin Regimes. This is curious for a progressive democratic socialist party, and needs to be thoroughly investigated.

The briefing document is available at http://www.syriauk.org/2016/10/leaked-labour-briefing-on-syria-shows.html (and copy https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/uk-labour-partys-dishonest-leaked-briefing-paper-to-mps-prior-to-syria-debate-on-141016/)

Have analysed the document by considering each section by its relationship to reality and the nature of any distortions. Given the authoritarian rule of the Putin regime, and its control of the media, I have to use the term “Putin regime” rather than Russia, as the responsibility for the actions of the military belongs to Putin not the Russian people.

1. “Top Lines” Section.

The briefing paper starts with a statement on Aleppo “we need an ever more urgent and concerted effort by the international community to end the violence on all sides”. The reality is that civilians in East Aleppo are besieged and being bombarded by the air forces of Assad and Putin regimes. This is asymmetrical warfare with Assad and Putin as the main sources of violence.

It continues “If deliberately-targeted, attacks on civilian targets or humanitarian aid convoys, whether by Russian or Syrian forces, are clear war crimes for which there can be no excuse, and for which they must be held to account.” There can be no real doubt that the Assad and Putin regimes have been deliberately targeting civilians. The use of barrel bombs and “double tap” airstrikes on hospitals and bakeries leaves no doubt.

The answer is not anger but “we need all sides to get back around the negotiating table as soon as possible, calm the rhetoric, and start afresh on the hard work of securing a ceasefire, isolating the Jihadist extremists, opening safe channels for humanitarian aid to besieged areas, and negotiating a lasting peace.”

The reality is that “Jihadist extremists” applies to the large Shiite militias being used by the Assad regime, more than it does to the 10-15% of extremists on the Syrian Opposition side (see breakdown on opposition for Dec 2015 at http://www.syriauk.org/2015/12/who-are-syrian-rebels.html). The briefing also ignores the underlying problem of the large Alawite so called “security” forces, who were formed by Hafez Assad (45+ years ago) to protect the regime by the use of terror from the Syrian people.

The briefing paper accepts the Assad regime propaganda line that they are fighting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Al-Nusra). “…. we would urge the government to give the UK’s support to the proposal from the UN’s Syria Envoy Steffan de Mistura to ensure a safe escort from Aleppo for fighters belonging to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to remove one clear obstacle from the chances of securing a lasting ceasefire in the city.” Fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are at most 10% of the 4000 fighters defending Eastern Aleppo against the regime (see Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-nusra-idUSKBN12E0R6 ). The reality is that the Assad regime will not change its rhetoric if they leave. The regime’s propaganda portrays all armed opposition fighters as extremists.

This section of the briefing paper gives the impression that the conflict in Aleppo is between two equally culpable sides.

2. “Lines on fight against Daesh (Islamic State)” Section.

This section states that the airstrikes in Iraq against Daesh are legal under international law because the Iraqi government requested them. Assad also uses this argument in claiming the bombing by Russia is legal because his regime requested it. Although in reality Assad regime cannot be considered the legitimate government of Syria because it is conducting a genocidal war against Syrians.

3. “Lines on the refugee crisis” Section.

There are no concrete suggestions except to provide more funding to councils to welcome the few refugees from Syria who make it to the UK.

4. “Background” to the Syrian Crisis section.

4.1 “The Syrian Civil War”

The briefing paper provides a wholly inadequate history of the Syrian Revolution. It states that problems began in Derra in 2011 when teenagers were tortured, several demonstrators were killed which resulted in nationwide protests. “By July 2011, hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets, and opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms.”

The reality is that the Assad regime was founded in 1970 by Hafez Assad who set up five “security forces” to spy on each other, and terrorise the population with the threat of systematic torture. Hafez’s obsession was the security of the regime. His son had backtracked on earlier reforms, and over 81.7% of Syrians wanted the regime to leave power by 2011. [see page 30, “Survey Findings: Syria 2011 Public Opinion Survey, Angela Hawken, September 20th 2011, Report Prepared for The Democracy Council of California” (important see note 1 below)].

The peaceful uprising of the Syrian people was brutally repressed by the regime by the use of torture and murder on an industrial scale. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been tortured to death by the regime (see the 55000 photos smuggled out of Syria by “Caesar” in 2014). In 2013 the regime launched a massive chemical attack against civilians in Ghouta, killing at least a thousand people.

The Syrian Network Of Human Rights has analysed statistics for causalities from 2011 to October 2015, the Assad regime is responsible for 95% of civilian deaths, 97% of death by torture, 93% of medical staff deaths and 95% of enforced disappearances (see https://sn4hr.org/overall-toll/). By June 2016 the regime was responsible for 98% of deaths due to siege (see http://sn4hr.org/blog/2016/06/22/research-death-792-individuals-due-syrian-regimes-isiss-siege-civilian-populated-cities/).

The briefing report states that Assad was not removed from power because “without a clear united force against Assad, the rise of Daesh, and the entering into the conflict of regional and world powers, the situation has become increasingly multi-dimensional, and locked in stalemate.”

The reality is that Russia had been supplying the Assad regime with the weaponry needed to create powerful armed forces (dominated by Alawites) since the beginning. After the uprising Russia continued (with Chinese financial backing) to generously supply Assad. Military support for the Syrian Opposition was meagre in comparison. This military asymmetry created a vacuum that encouraged extremism and allowed Daesh to flourish. The fall of Homs encouraged the creation of the Al-Nusra front with foreign MENA backing. The use of terror tactics by Assad’s thugs and his foreign extremist Shiite militias has encouraged sectarian hatred.

According to the briefing paper “successive attempts by both sides to encircle and besiege each other have left hundreds of thousands of civilians in the city [Aleppo] trapped without running water, electricity, medical support, or humanitarian relief”. The reality is that the regime is bombing and starving rebels in Eastern Aleppo into submission.

The briefing paper is again giving the impression that the conflict in Syria and specifically in Aleppo is between two equally culpable sides. This distorted impartiality creates a fake balance of responsibility.

4.2 The US-Russian ceasefire

It provides an outline of the 10th September ceasefire agreement. Also a statement by John Kerry highlighting the publically perceived threat to the West of the Sunni Islamic Fundamentalism of al-Nusra.

The actual 10th September agreement calls for the end of all hostilities, not just airstrikes. It contains a host of very specific terms and ends with “….each Side reserves the right to withdraw from this arrangement if they believe the terms have not been fulfilled.” This means that the agreement never had any chance of survival.

The briefing paper includes this term from the agreement “Those rebel forces would take action, with US support, to isolate themselves from Jihadist forces, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front”. How in the real world could the rebel fighters of al-Nusra be separated from the rest of the Opposition fighters, when they are under huge military pressure form the Assad and Putin regimes?

The briefing paper states “…..Once isolated US and Russia would coordinate on air strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Daesh”. There is no mention of this in the actual agreement.

The briefing paper says: “However, the ceasefire [September 2016] was violated almost immediately, before being fatally undermined by the attack on an aid convoy entering East Aleppo by Russian/Syrian forces, and then definitively buried by their ongoing, devastating assault on East Aleppo.”

In reality there were claims and counter claims of minor ceasefire violations. The briefing paper acknowledges the decisive and clearly gross violation was due to the bombing of the aid convoy by the Russians and the subsequent assault on Eastern Aleppo, which the Assad and Putin regimes were preparing during the ceasefire.

The false impression is given that al-Nusra is the dominant part of the armed Syrian Opposition. This agrees with Assad regime propaganda, as well as Western public opinion which fears Sunni Fundamentalism (given the outrageous and high profile terrorist attacks in recent years).

4.3. Defence Select Committee report

The briefing paper refers to Defence Select Committee report, “UK Military Operations in Syria and Iraq” (21st September 2016, see https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmdfence/106/106.pdf). This 100+ page document bemoans the lack of information from the UK Ministry of Defence [MOD], which the briefing paper points out as well.

The briefing paper states “They [Defence Select Committee] said it is ‘disappointing’ that the MoD has been unable to provide the Select Committee with full statistical analysis of UK airstrikes in Syria, which the Committee requested. Although the MoD’s rationale for doing so may be sound, their inability to provide detail may still undermine the Government’s assertion that ‘the bombing campaign in Syria is in support of credible moderate ground forces’.” The actual report’s rebuke is milder “may tend to undermine”, and is using the word “credible” in the sense of militarily effective.

The briefing paper states “It [Defence Committee Report] says it is ‘much less certain’ that the UK’s efforts in Syria are succeeding, in comparison to efforts in Iraq – this is because the goals in Syria are too ambitious to be realised by military means alone; that is, to not only defeat Daesh, but to also establish a government that will be ‘neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other’.”

The actual report says in the section “Armed Actors in Syria, Conclusions: …. Whilst the military effort in Iraq is bearing fruit, that is much less certain in Syria. We believe this is partly due to the aspirations of the UK Government in respect of each country. The goals in Iraq are to remove territory from DAESH, to strengthen the Iraqi Government and to maintain Iraq as a unitary state. The goals in Syria are not only to defeat DAESH, but also to help bring into being a Government which will be neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other. These goals cannot be accomplished by military means alone.”

The actual report only says that the goals in Syria are more ambitious than Iraq, and separately that they cannot be achieved by militarily means alone. It does not imply anything about the balance of military to non-military support in Syria. If anything the report implies that much more of both are required.

The briefing paper then states in the same paragraph “To this end, the Committee recommends the Government outlines ‘exactly how it intends to help ensure that political reform is achieved and what action it is planning to take to keep it in step with the military campaign’.” This appears in a different part of the report, “The danger posed by military success without political reform”, and is only in practice concerned with areas formerly under Daesh control. The rest of Syria has the problem of an advancing Assad regime.

The briefing paper gives a misleading impression of the Defence Committee’s Report, by glossing the report to imply that there is too much military support to the Syrian Opposition.

4.4 Steffan De Mistura plan

This is the most problematic section. The briefing paper gives a summary of the UN Envoy Steffan De Mistura’s plan to escort Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters Aleppo out of Aleppo. There is no context given.

The UN itself estimates that there are 800 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters in Aleppo. The briefing paper does not mention that this is out of 4000 rebel fighters in Aleppo. As mentioned before the true figure in a Reuters report is believed to be as low as 200 fighters (5% of rebel fighters).

The Briefing Paper states “There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.” This is a gross distortion which needs to be explained fully by the author(s) of this briefing paper. Labour Party MPs were being lied to.

In May 2014 the Old Homs area surrendered to a policy of bombardment and starvation to Assad forces. As part of the surrender deal all the rebel fighters and their families were allowed to leave. In May 2015 a similar deal was done in the Waer neighbourhood of Homs. These were not humanitarian ceasefires. This was siege, surrender and ethnic cleansing. Assad forces were then able to turn their attention to Aleppo.

As in the rest of the Syrian Opposition the al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) were and still are a small proportion of the armed rebels. In reality the briefing paper is suggesting that the rebels surrender when confronted by Assad and Putin regime aggression and war crimes.

The Defence Select Committee report described above, spoke to several witnesses about the makeup of the armed Syrian Opposition. Charles Lister’s focus is to track and interview Syrian Opposition groups, and is the most informed of the witnesses called. This is his assessment of the Syrian Opposition:

“86. Charles Lister, when at the Brookings Institute, produced his own analysis of what he regards as moderate opposition fighters. When we asked him whether he thought that any of the names on his list would be unknown to the Assad regime, he replied that ‘Assad knows about the groups, but obviously defines them in a very different way’. He argued that Russia also had this information and that ‘all the groups together know what each of them represents, who their respective external backers are and what their political positions are’. His work—set out below—claims that the following groups would contribute around 65,000 of the stated 70,000 moderate opposition: ….. Mr Lister went on to argue that, in addition, there were ‘roughly 25–30 additional factions that would fall under this moderate label’ which combined, represented ‘a further 10,000 fighters’.” [page 89, UK Military Operations in Syria and Iraq, 21st September 2016, Defence Select Committee.]

This contrasts with Bashar al-Assad comments in October 2016 “In an interview given to Denmark’s TV 2 channel, President al-Assad said that ‘moderate opposition’ is a myth, and that reaching a political solution requires fighting terrorism, asserting that it’s not acceptable that terrorists will take control of any part of Syria.” [see http://sana.sy/en/?p=89763].

It appears that the author of the briefing paper tends to the Assad view.

4.5. Calls for war crimes charges against Russia and Syria

Briefing paper gives a summary of recent calls for Russia and Syria to be referred to the ICC, and notes that they are not members. It does not mention that a UN Security Council Referral could overcome this, but that Russia and China would veto it.

4.6. Latest humanitarian situation in Aleppo

A summary of the latest UN summary of conditions in Eastern Aleppo is given, without mentioning the obvious reality that this is a result of the Assad regime siege.

4.7 Suggested questions:

The briefing paper poses questions to push the Steffan De Mistura plan.

It then uses it’s misleading impression of the Defence Committee’s Report to suggest asking the government “….The Defence Select Committee has said that the UK’s goals in Syria are too ambitious to be realised by military means alone; that is to establish a government that will be ‘neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other;. What is the government’s strategy to square that circle? “

There are then questions aiming at casting doubt on the number moderate opposition fighters.

Conclusion.

The briefing paper gives inaccurate information and promotes a viewpoint skewed towards the Assad and Putin regimes. The barbaric nature of the Assad regime’s actions and history is absurdly ignored. The number of extremist fighters in the Syrian Opposition is at the same time exaggerated, and increasing military support for the opposition is opposed. The briefing paper ignores the asymmetry of the conflict, with the Assad regime advantage in military hardware and the committed support of Russia and China. The briefing paper’s description of the Steffan De Mistura plan actually recommends surrender to the regime. Humanitarian concerns are pitched at a token level. This briefing is seriously inadequate as it does not connect to reality, and displays attitudes that are not progressive or democratic. This needs to be investigated. The shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry uses many of the same ideas in the debate on Syria in the UK Parliament.

Emily Thornberry: ……[ Steffan De Mistura plan….. There is a precedent for such a step in the way the Jabhat fighters were escorted out of Homs and other towns in Syria. While we must treat the Russians’ assurances with caution, it is an approach that Sergei Lavrov has said they are ready to support and can persuade the Assad regime to agree to, so will the Government lend their support to the plan put forward by the United Nations? The Government have yet to respond to the initiative at all. I believe that it is a serious initiative with some prospect of hope in it, and that it should not be ignored. Will they persuade their French and US counterparts to do likewise and seek to use this pragmatic proposal as the basis to restart talks? [11/10/16 House of Commons, UK Parliament]

** Note 1. The “Survey Findings: Syria 2011 Public Opinion Survey, Angela Hawken, September 20th 2011, Report Prepared for The Democracy Council of California” has been criticised on two counts. The poll was not approved by the Syrian government, and was conducted underground as a “guerrilla poll”. The authors claim that this was due to the Assad regime demanding all opinion polls are approved by the regime. This seems to be supported by the extremely brutal actions of the regime both before and after 2011, and the rigged elections. There do not appear to be any respectable independent polls on controversial issues conducted openly in Syria. The other criticism is that the Democracy Council is funded by the US government to promote democracy in the MENA, and that Angela Hawkins is part of the council and the lead poll researcher. This is a reasonable objection, but the results of the poll do fit in with information about the excessive brutality of the Assad regime. The oppressive history of the regime since 1970 would support the scenario of an unpopular regime kept in power by fear. Some have criticised the poll as showing only 5% of Syrians were critical of protesters in 2011. The false assumption is made that all Alawites supported the regime. The Assad regime is based around a clique of financial and security interests which exclude most Syrians, including Alawites.

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UK Labour Party’s Dishonest Leaked Briefing Paper To MPs Prior To Syria Debate on 11/10/16

Please see below a copy of the dishonest leaked briefing paper for UK Labour MPs issued by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) prior to the debate on Syria on the 11th October 2016. The original pdf can be found on http://www.syriauk.org/2016/10/leaked-labour-briefing-on-syria-shows.html .  The record of the resulting debate can be found on https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-11/debates/F9DCC666-4E96-4F13-A37A-8D51120B8594/AleppoAndSyria . Please notice the link between the briefing paper and the statements by the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry.

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PLP Briefing

SO24 debate – Syria

Tuesday 11 October 2016

From the Office of the Shadow Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Emily Thornberry MP. For further information please contact Alice Hughes on 5156 or 07441279935, or via email at alice.hughes@parliament.uk.

Top Lines:

• With the innocent civilians of Aleppo living in a modern hell, and their situation getting more desperate by the day, we need an ever more urgent and concerted effort by the international community to end the violence on all sides, institute and maintain a UN-led ceasefire, and create safe corridors so vital aid can be delivered.

• If deliberately-targeted, attacks on civilian targets or humanitarian aid convoys, whether by Russian or Syrian forces, are clear war crimes for which there can be no excuse, and for which they must be held to account.

• But anger and recrimination over those acts will not stop the suffering in Aleppo or bring relief to its people, so as difficult as it is, we need all sides to get back around the negotiating table as soon as possible, calm the rhetoric, and start afresh on the hard work of securing a ceasefire, isolating the Jihadist extremists, opening safe channels for humanitarian aid to besieged areas, and negotiating a lasting peace.

• In particular, we would urge the government to give the UK’s support to the proposal from the UN’s Syria Envoy Steffan de Mistura to ensure a safe escort from Aleppo for fighters belonging to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to remove one clear obstacle from the chances of securing a lasting ceasefire in the city.

Lines on the wider fight against Daesh:

• Labour welcomes the progress that has been made in the fight against Daesh and other Jihadist groups, but more must be done. We must restrict their funding, their supply of arms, their trade, and infrastructure, and clamp down on the individuals and institutions who are providing them.

• Labour voted for airstrikes against Daesh in Iraq in 2014. This action is taken at the request of the Iraqi government in line with international law. Our policy has not changed.

• Our thoughts are with our brave armed forces serving their country in operations over Syria, and we will continue to hold the Government to maintain diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the Syrian civil war.

Lines on the refugee crisis:

• The refugee crisis that Europe currently faces is the largest since the end of the second world war. There are more displaced people in the world now than there have been at any time in recorded history. Thousands of people have died making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and in other places around the world.

• As an advanced, democratic, civilised nation, we have a duty to reach out the hand of humanity, support and friendship. We should also recognise that a disproportionate burden has been placed on Syria’s neighbours, particularly Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

• Labour will continue to press the government to provide more funding to local councils across the UK to meet the long-term costs of supporting child refugees and to encourage Labour Councils to offer resettlement and support for those fleeing the conflict in Syria.

Background:

1. The Syrian Civil War

• Anti-government protests in Syria began on 14 March 2011, in Deraa, in the south of the country, following the arrest and torture of a group of teenagers who had painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.

• Security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several and triggering nationwide protests against President Bashar Al-Assad. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets, and opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms.

• In the midst of the Arab Spring, there was reason to believe that the Assad regime would fall quickly, as had Mubarak in Egypt, Qaddafi in Libya and Bin Ali in Tunisia. Former UK ambassador to Damascus, Simon Collis, confidently predicted this would happen.

• However, without a clear united force against Assad, the rise of Daesh, and the entering into the conflict of regional and world powers, the situation has become increasingly multi-dimensional, and locked in stalemate. At least 14 nations, including all the permanent members of the UN Security Council bar China, are now militarily engaged in Syria.

• It is estimated that between 250,000 and 470,000 have been killed in the conflict to date, and around 4.5m have fled the country. The UN has also estimated that 4.6 million civilians are trapped in both besieged and hard to reach areas.

• Most notably in Aleppo, where mixed rebel groups hold the east of the city and the Assad regime holds the west, successive attempts by both sides to encircle and besiege each other have left hundreds of thousands of civilians in the city trapped without running water, electricity, medical support, or humanitarian relief.

2. The US-Russian ceasefire

• After 10 months of negotiations, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced on 10 September that they had reached an agreement on a temporary ceasefire, due to coincide with the Eid festival, on the following basis:

– Assad’s forces and the Russians would suspend their air strikes on territory controlled by non-Jihadist rebel forces, effectively grounding themselves;

– Those rebel forces would take action, with US support, to isolate themselves from Jihadist forces, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front;

– Once isolated, the US and Russia would coordinate on air strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Daesh; and

– Meanwhile, humanitarian corridors would be opened for the relief of civilians in Aleppo and other besieged areas.

• In response to criticism of the proposed military cooperation with Russia, John Kerry said: “Going after Nusra is not a concession to anybody. It is profoundly in the interests of the United States to target…Nusra, an organization that is opposed to a peaceful transition, an organization that is an enemy of the legitimate opposition, an organization that is currently plotting attacks beyond Syria’s borders, including against the United States.”

• However, the ceasefire was violated almost immediately, before being fatally undermined by the attack on an aid convoy entering East Aleppo by Russian/Syrian forces, and then definitively buried by their ongoing, devastating assault on East Aleppo.

• During the early phase of the ceasefire, US planes also accidentally attacked Syrian ground forces advancing on Daesh positions at the Al-Tharda mountain, killing more than 60 and injuring hundreds. Assad called the attack ‘definitely intentional’, and Syrian state television said it was evidence that the US was secretly supporting Daesh.

3. Defence Select Committee report

• A Defence Select Committee report, “UK Military Operations in Syria and Iraq” (21 September 2016), gives the most up-to-date, independent analysis of the effect of the UK’s intervention in Syria, and the strategy that underpins it.

[see https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmdfence/106/106.pdf]

• They said it is “disappointing” that the MoD has been unable to provide the Select Committee with full statistical analysis of UK airstrikes in Syria, which the Committee requested. Although the MoD’s rationale for doing so may be sound, their inability to provide detail may still undermine the Government’s assertion that “the bombing campaign in Syria is in support of credible moderate ground forces”.

• On this basis, the Committee recommends that: “If the Government is to continue to justify and validate its policy of airstrikes in Syria, it should provide the necessary detail on what is being targeted. We therefore recommend that the MoD put this information, as far as possible, into the public domain so that realistic judgements on the effectiveness of the UK’s air operations can be made.”

• It says it is “much less certain” that the UK’s efforts in Syria are succeeding, in comparison to efforts in Iraq – this is because the goals in Syria are too ambitious to be realised by military means alone; that is, to not only defeat Daesh, but to also establish a government that will be “neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other”. To this end, the Committee recommends the Government outlines “exactly how it intends to help ensure that political reform is achieved and what action it is planning to take to keep it in step with the military campaign”.

4. Steffan De Mistura plan

• The UN’s Syria Envoy Steffan de Mistura last week appealed directly to the forces of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to leave the city of Aleppo “because 1,000 of you are deciding the destiny of the 275,000 civilians.”

• The US estimates there are around 800 Jabhat fighters left in Aleppo; de Mistura says 1,000; Russia says 3,000, although it is in the latter’s interests to talk up their presence as a pretext for the bombardment of East Aleppo.

• De Mistura offered to physically accompany the terrorists out of the city in order to remove that pretext, and provide the basis for restoring the Kerry/Lavrov ceasefire. He said: If you did decide to leave, in dignity, and with your weapons, to [Jabhat stronghold] Idleb, or anywhere you wanted to go, I personally, I am ready physically to accompany you”.

• There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.

• Sergey Lavrov said on Friday the proposal deserved further exploration: “We are ready to support this approach for the sake of Aleppo and will be ready to urge the Syrian government to agree”. The US and the UK are yet to comment on the UN proposal.

5. Calls for war crimes charges against Russia and Syria

• Following the Russian veto of a Franco-Spanish UN Security Council resolution calling for an end to the bombing in East Aleppo, France is now pressing for Russia to face war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court for their role in the bombardment.

• “These are people who today are the victims of war crimes,” said President Hollande. “Those that commit these acts will have to face up to their responsibility, including in the ICC. If I do receive him [Mr Putin, due to visit Hollande next week], I will tell him that it is unacceptable. It could also seriously affect Russia’s image.”

• French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had previously said France was working to find a way for the ICC prosecutor to launch an investigation into attacks on rebel-held eastern Aleppo, one difficulty being that neither Russia nor Syria belongs to the ICC.

• Last week US Secretary of State John Kerry also called for war crimes charges, saying Russian and Syrian government attacks on hospitals were “beyond the accidental” and part of a deliberate strategy.

• Commenting on September’s attack on the aid convoy entering Aleppo, Boris Johnson has also said: “We should be looking at whether or not that targeting is done in the knowledge that those are wholly innocent civilian targets. That is a war crime.”

6. Latest humanitarian situation in Aleppo

• The United Nations latest summary of the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo (compiled last week) is as follows:
– “Access to potable water remains limited despite service resumption of one of the water stations and repairs of water network”;
– “Civilian casualties reported in both parts of the city despite a limited reduction in the number of airstrikes”;
– “Medical items, such as anaesthetics, IV fluids, ICU supplies, surgery and trauma supplies are urgently needed in eastern Aleppo.”;
– “Distribution of remaining food rations will be split in half to increase coverage”.

Suggested questions:

• Does the government support the proposal from the UN’s Syria Envoy Steffan de
Mistura to ensure a safe escort from Aleppo for fighters belonging to Jabhat Fateh alSham, formerly the al-Nusra front, in order to remove one clear obstacle from the chances of securing a lasting ceasefire in the city?

• Will the government urge their American counterparts to support the De Mistura plan, as a basis for getting the Russian government back around the negotiating table?

• By what process does the government envisage those responsible for violations of International Humanitarian Law in Aleppo and more widely in Syria being brought to account for those violations?

• The Defence Select Committee has said that the UK’s goals in Syria are too ambitious to be realised by military means alone; that is to establish a government that will be “neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other”. What is the government’s strategy to square that circle?

• What is the government’s current assessment of the numbers of non-Jihadist rebel fighters in Syria, and the extent to which they are trained and equipped to play the role for which the government told this House they are capable?

• What impact has the fighting in Aleppo and elsewhere had on the number of nonJihadist rebel fighters in Syria, especially in light of recent evidence that Russian airstrikes have systematically targeted groups like the Free Syrian Army?

• What progress has been made with coalition efforts to expand the number of nonextremist Sunni opposition fighters in northern Syria in order to reduce the dependence of the ground campaign on Kurdish forces?

• It is incumbent on all sides in this conflict to avoid civilian casualties from airstrikes, especially when we are holding others to account for the casualties they have inflicted. The government has said all ‘credible’ reports of civilian casualties from UK airstrikes will be investigated; how many such investigations has the government carried out?

——————

Grossly inadequate EU Foreign Ministers Statement On Syria 17th October 2016

The  EU Foreign Ministers Statement On Syria 17th October 2016 can be obtained from  http://www.consilium.europa.eu/press-releases-pdf/2016/10/47244648963_en.pdf

It displays a gross mismatch between the situation described in Syria, and the proposed actions. Here are some extracts:

Section 2 ……The EU therefore strongly condemns the excessive and disproportionate attacks by the regime and its allies, both deliberate and indiscriminate, against civilian populations, humanitarian and healthcare personnel and civilian and humanitarian infrastructures and calls on them to cease indiscriminate aerial bombardments. The EU condemns the continued systematic, widespread and gross violations and abuses of human rights and all violations of international humanitarian law by all parties, particularly the Syrian regime and its allies….The EU looks forward to the findings of the internal UN board of inquiry. Those responsible for such violations and abuses must be held accountable.

Section 3. In these deteriorating circumstances, the EU calls urgently for: an end of all military flights over Aleppo city; an immediate cessation of hostilities to be monitored by a strong and transparent mechanism; sieges to be lifted; and full unhindered sustainable country-wide humanitarian access granted by all parties……

Section 4. ….The use of starvation of civilians through the besiegement of populated areas for which the regime bears the greatest responsibility, as a tactic of war, and forced population transfers are a clear breach of international humanitarian law and must stop…..

Section 5. The EU firmly believes that there can be no military solution to the conflict. The EU reiterates its commitment to the unity, sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of the Syrian state. Recalling its Conclusions of 23 May 2016, the EU actively participates in the ISSG and its taskforces and fully supports the UN Special Envoy de Mistura in the efforts to create the conditions for resumption of intra-Syrian talks, noting his proposal for Eastern Aleppo. The EU recognises the efforts made to re-establish a full cessation of hostilities and regrets that they have not yet succeeded and encourage further attempts to do so…..The EU urges again the Syrian regime to finally lay out its plan of truly implementing a genuine political transition…..

Section 6. The Council calls on Russia, including as co-chair of the ISSG, to demonstrate through policies and actions all efforts, in order to halt indiscriminate bombing by the Syrian regime, restore a cessation of hostilities, ensure immediate and expanded humanitarian access and create the conditions for a credible and inclusive political transition.

Section 7. …………The EU and its Member States will seek to explore possibilities of concerted action inter alia [among which other things?] through the UN General Assembly. In this context, the EU will act swiftly, according to established procedures, with the aim of imposing further  restrictive measures [ie sanctions] against Syria targeting Syrian individuals and entities supporting the regime as long as the repression continues.

The EU foreign ministers statement describes the catastrophe in Syria caused by the Assad and Putin regimes. Then it condemns, calls and urges and will impose further sanctions. It is painfully obvious that this is gravely inadequate.

They state there is no militarily solution in Syria. This does not mean there is a purely non military solution in Syria. Assad and Putin will only take the political process seriously when they have no hope of a military victory. This means there must be the threat of military retaliation for gross war crimes, such as the bombing of civilians in Aleppo. A mechanism for this is clearly described by Syria Solidarity UK briefing http://www.syriauk.org/2016/10/briefing-how-can-no-fly-zone-work.html .

The problem of Putin’s regime  (allegedly with Chinese financial backing) backing for Assad regime’s brutal mass murder against a population demanding representative government  cannot be confined to Syria. Embattled dictators, in a post cold war ideologically neutral world, will have an ally in Putin for mass murder, with a regime  who has no restrictions. Ignore effective action in Syria and there will be a growing number of these crises, with a greater danger attached to action by the West.

 

Recent ideas for an itinerary of strong effective action to empower the Syrian people to end the crisis

syriaaction-copy

[updated 10/10/16] Here are some recent articles for strong effective actions to counter the war crimes of the Assad Regime.

Starting with Jo Cox the UK Labour MP’s insightful speech to Parliament in October last year advocating for action to create a “no bomb zone” in Syria.

Jo Cox: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that, and we do share common cause on the need for humanitarian protection for civilians in Syria.

Let me get back to my point about a myopic focus on ISIS being counterproductive. If selective air strikes against ISIS are the only action the west takes in Syria, we will never defeat ISIS—and we could even strengthen it. At least 75% of all civilian deaths in Syria are a result of action by Syrian Government forces; aerial bombardment by the regime is by far the biggest killer, taking around 200 lives every week. It is horrifically indiscriminate; 95% of the victims are civilians. For these reasons, and in the light of the fact that an ISIS-only approach will not protect us from the threat it poses, our objective must be to stop the indiscriminate aerial bombardment in Syria. Not only would that provide much-needed relief to Syria’s embattled population, who are still being bombarded by 50 to 60 barrel bombs a day, but it could help empower Syria’s remaining moderate opposition, who are essential not only to finding a political solution but to holding back and ultimately defeating ISIS.

Stopping the bombs would also take away a significant radicalising factor in the conflict and could breathe new life into the political process, changing Assad’s calculations and forcing him to the negotiating table. As we saw in 2013, the Syrian Government’s response to the credible threat of force was to make a political deal, not to risk escalation. As such, I believe it is time for the Government urgently to consider deterring the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians in Syria through the willingness to consider the prudent and limited use of force.

A no-fly zone would be an enormous military undertaking, and would entail significant risks, particularly now that Russia has joined the regime in the Syrian skies. But what I call a no-bombing zone, enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences, would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process……..

Jo Cox: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. I agree that we should try to secure a UN Security Council resolution, but I do not think we should limit ourselves to not acting without one. I believe a no-bombing zone is feasible if it is enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences. This would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process. A well-designed deterrence operation would impose a cost on the Syrian regime for any indiscriminate bombing of civilians—for example, by targeting the military airbases where barrel bombs are stored and flown from. Any attempt by the regime to escalate would trigger additional punitive strikes, rendering aerial bombardment counterproductive. In those circumstances, it is far more likely that Assad and Russia will be forced to the negotiating table.

To conclude, this conflict has proved time and again its propensity to escalate month on month, year on year. For moral reasons—and national self-interest—we can no longer afford to ignore Syria. Indeed, inaction will only see a growth in the number of Syrians killed, the number of refugees fleeing and the potential threat to British national security from ISIS. I urge all Members to look to the best traditions in the history of their parties and to think about the personal role that they can play to protect civilians in Syria and further afield.

The voices of Syrians have been absent from this debate for far too long. They have been asking for protection for years and no one has been listening. It is now time for us to listen and to act.”

Jo Cox presents the “no bombing zone” idea in which if Assad or Putin bombs, then Syrian military assets are knocked out by missiles. Hence making the action counter-productive to strengthening the Assad regime. This idea is also clearly illustrated in a twitter video “Sensible and feasible military No Bomb Zone option in Syria explained (31/8/2106):” https://t.co/JSFTJmSZlW

She was then tragically murdered by a far right extremist in June 2016. Thomas Mair who is linked to a far-right UK group called “Britain First”. This group follows a deeply Islamophobic line, loves Putin and echoes Assad’s propaganda (see a typical example: http://www.britainfirst.org/nato-warns-russia-stop-attacking-syrian-opposition-i-e-al-qaeda-and-other-jihadists/).

In the article “Obama’s Syria Strategy Is the Definition of Insanity” by Charles Lister in “Foreign Policy” magazine 21/9/2016 he explodes the insanity of the Obama administration’s ineffectual policy on Syria. (see https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/21/obamas-syria-strategy-is-the-definition-of-insanity/ copy text only https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/obamas-syria-strategy-is-the-definition-of-insanity/).

Charles Lister makes this astute observation: “Second, there will be no purely military solution to Syria’s conflict — a negotiated settlement is the only feasible path toward stability. However, Assad will never treat a political process with any level of seriousness until placed under meaningful pressure, which the United States has thus far done everything in its power not to do.”

The essay by Charles Lister “A Plan for Winding Down the Syrian Civil War: Surge, Freeze, and Enforce” on the website “War On The Rocks” Charles Lister (30/9/2016) explains how effective meaningful pressure can be applied to the Assad Regime.  (see: http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war/ copy text only https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war-surge-freeze-and-enforce-charles-lister-30-september-2016/)

The principle behind the strategy is described: “Civilian protection must be the centerpiece of any holistic strategy that aims both to create conditions that are more amenable to meaningful political negotiations between Syria’s warring parties and to undermine the dynamics that feed extremism. That the international community has consistently focused on introducing a cessation of hostilities is the right approach, but such attempts lacked any enforcement mechanisms or clear consequences for violation.” His concept of civil protection includes unhindered flow of humanitarian aid to all civilians, including those in besieged areas. It also implies a “no bomb zone”.

Firstly: “…. amid continued hostilities in Syria, the United States and allied nations would initiate a substantial increase in assistance to vetted opposition groups.” This continuing process of strengthening the military capability of the opposition, should also “include support for civil, judicial, and military factions of the mainstream opposition.”

From Day 20 a new enforced cessation of hostilities would be negotiated. “In contrast to previous cessations, this one would have to contain within it the explicit threat of highly limited and targeted punitive consequences for especially flagrant violations, to be conducted by stand-off U.S. military assets [ie submarine launched missiles].”

A counter escalation by Russia is unlikely because “Russia’s intervention in Syria has been conducted at minimal cost, given the country’s economic struggles and the fact that its economy may now be no bigger than that of Spain.”

Then: “From the 30th day onwards, the enforced cessation of hostilities would begin and all assistance to any party on the ground would contravene the agreement.”

Charles Lister sums up this suggested approach as: “This policy proposal does not seek to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Instead, it seeks to constrain his freedom of military maneuver while sustaining his ‘strong-enough’ negotiating position so as to ensure negotiations appear a viable consideration…….Within this hypothetical context, the Assad regime would be in a strong enough negotiating position, backed up by its respective backers, to not be negotiating its own total defeat, although some extent of transition would necessarily have to be included within an extended roadmap.”

He then goes on to say: “Given that the cessation itself would be aimed at freezing the conflict and hardening semi-permanent frontlines, the process itself would appear to be facilitating a soft partition in so much as the resulting temporary boundaries would provide delineated zones of decentralized governance by different local actors throughout what would inevitably be an especially prolonged negotiation and transition process. For that phase to last a decade or more would be entirely within the realm of possibility.”

The mention of the word “roadmap” reminds me of the endless Israel-Palestine so called peace talks, which go nowhere because Israel holds all the military cards. The Assad Regime (which is a clique of vested financial and security interests that controls the wider Syrian Government) has committed mass murder and mass torture. It has a 45+ year history of the use of systematic torture to intimidate Syrians. When you examine these atrocities in detail it must be impossible that the Assad Regime can do anything but attempt to cling to absolute power. It has crossed the threshold of any possible redemption or future acceptance.

This means the Syrian Government and Army must be threatened with utter defeat, so that that those outside the Assad Clique will be the pushed towards removing it from power. This also requires that the security of those not part of the Syrian Opposition can be assured. The Assad Regime has exploited sectarianism from its beginnings. It has used atrocities by Alawite and Shia militias during the Syria Crisis to turn this into a chronic problem.

Surely Western and Syrian Opposition leaders have to be make a clearer policy stance against sectarianism in the MENA. Effective opposition to the Saudi war on Shia Houthis in Yemen (beyond not selling the authoritarian Saudi monarchy weapons) must be essential. Sectarianism is and has always been a tool of authoritarianism.

Also the West must provide more support than Charles Lister describes, to be able to demand a professional structured Syrian Opposition with a central command structure, that is capable of being restrained in a situation charged with an understandable  desire for revenge.

The Syrian Revolution has a lot of enemies, apart from the obvious suspects (Shia Fundamentalist Militia,Iran,Russia,China) there are the Sunni autocracies (Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council) and many Western elites, who have vested interest in authoritarianism in the Middle East. This makes transition hard but more worthwhile, as it will be a victory against sectarianism and authoritarianism, as well as a victory for people power. It is therefore essential for us to pressure our politicians to give full support to the Syrian Revolution, that goes well beyond the fall of the Assad Regime and continues until a stable society is created.

In summary Charles Lister’s article is excellent suggestion for an effective policy. It describes a journey plan, that is an itinerary, rather than just a roadmap of shifting possibilities. The West and particularly the Obama administration has provided quarter measures in Syria. This article describes a three quarters measure. However a full measure is the minimum required to avoid failure, and is the most rational and ultimately humane response.

**** It seems incredible that  tamper-proof GPS and time constrained portable air defense weapons cannot be supplied to the Syrian Opposition.  Given the dependence of air defense weapons on electronics, it is incredible that  they cannot be relatively easily modified with a system that fries the chips into a fail safe mode when they are tampered with, used outside a given area, or overrun their use by date. This was being openly discussed in  2012 see https://www.csis.org/analysis/syria-us-power-projection-and-search-%E2%80%9Cequalizer%E2%80%9D. Surely the technology exists, and even if it sometimes disables weapons by mistake, it is infinitely better than the situation now, in which helicopters hover above with barrel bombs, while the potential victims can do nothing except attempt to run.

Going further …. cutting out the Assad cancer and creating an itinerary for ending the nightmare

syria-16-07-12-neyestani-un-bloodshed-copy

Here are some recent articles for real measures to combat the Assad Regime.

There was Jo Cox the UK Labour MP’s speech to Parliament in October last year:

Jo Cox: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that, and we do share common cause on the need for humanitarian protection for civilians in Syria.

Let me get back to my point about a myopic focus on ISIS being counterproductive. If selective air strikes against ISIS are the only action the west takes in Syria, we will never defeat ISIS—and we could even strengthen it. At least 75% of all civilian deaths in Syria are a result of action by Syrian Government forces; aerial bombardment by the regime is by far the biggest killer, taking around 200 lives every week. It is horrifically indiscriminate; 95% of the victims are civilians. For these reasons, and in the light of the fact that an ISIS-only approach will not protect us from the threat it poses, our objective must be to stop the indiscriminate aerial bombardment in Syria. Not only would that provide much-needed relief to Syria’s embattled population, who are still being bombarded by 50 to 60 barrel bombs a day, but it could help empower Syria’s remaining moderate opposition, who are essential not only to finding a political solution but to holding back and ultimately defeating ISIS.

Stopping the bombs would also take away a significant radicalising factor in the conflict and could breathe new life into the political process, changing Assad’s calculations and forcing him to the negotiating table. As we saw in 2013, the Syrian Government’s response to the credible threat of force was to make a political deal, not to risk escalation. As such, I believe it is time for the Government urgently to consider deterring the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians in Syria through the willingness to consider the prudent and limited use of force.

A no-fly zone would be an enormous military undertaking, and would entail significant risks, particularly now that Russia has joined the regime in the Syrian skies. But what I call a no-bombing zone, enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences, would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process……..

Jo Cox: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. I agree that we should try to secure a UN Security Council resolution, but I do not think we should limit ourselves to not acting without one. I believe a no-bombing zone is feasible if it is enforced from maritime assets in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid engaging Syrian air defences. This would save lives, uphold international humanitarian law and breathe life into the political process. A well-designed deterrence operation would impose a cost on the Syrian regime for any indiscriminate bombing of civilians—for example, by targeting the military airbases where barrel bombs are stored and flown from. Any attempt by the regime to escalate would trigger additional punitive strikes, rendering aerial bombardment counterproductive. In those circumstances, it is far more likely that Assad and Russia will be forced to the negotiating table.

To conclude, this conflict has proved time and again its propensity to escalate month on month, year on year. For moral reasons—and national self-interest—we can no longer afford to ignore Syria. Indeed, inaction will only see a growth in the number of Syrians killed, the number of refugees fleeing and the potential threat to British national security from ISIS. I urge all Members to look to the best traditions in the history of their parties and to think about the personal role that they can play to protect civilians in Syria and further afield.

The voices of Syrians have been absent from this debate for far too long. They have been asking for protection for years and no one has been listening. It is now time for us to listen and to act.”

Jo Cox presents the “no bombing zone” idea in which if Assad or Putin bombs, then Syrian military assets are knocked out by missiles. Hence making the action counter-productive to strengthening the Assad regime. This idea is also clearly illustrated in a twitter video “Sensible and feasible military No Bomb Zone option in Syria explained (31/8/2106):” https://t.co/JSFTJmSZlW

She was then tragically murdered by a far right extremist in June 2016. Thomas Mair who is linked to a far-right UK group called “Britain First”. This group follows a deeply Islamophobic line, loves Putin and echoes Assad’s propaganda (see a typical example: http://www.britainfirst.org/nato-warns-russia-stop-attacking-syrian-opposition-i-e-al-qaeda-and-other-jihadists/).

In the article “Obama’s Syria Strategy Is the Definition of Insanity” by Charles Lister in “Foreign Policy” magazine 21/9/2016 he explodes the insanity of the Obama administration’s ineffectual policy on Syria. (see https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/09/21/obamas-syria-strategy-is-the-definition-of-insanity/ copy text only https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/26/obamas-syria-strategy-is-the-definition-of-insanity/).

He makes this astute observation: “Second, there will be no purely military solution to Syria’s conflict — a negotiated settlement is the only feasible path toward stability. However, Assad will never treat a political process with any level of seriousness until placed under meaningful pressure, which the United States has thus far done everything in its power not to do.”

The essay by Charles Lister “A Plan for Winding Down the Syrian Civil War: Surge, Freeze, and Enforce” on the website “War On The Rocks” Charles Lister (30/9/2016) explains how effective meaningful pressure can be applied to the Assad Regime.  (see: http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war/ copy text only https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/08/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war-surge-freeze-and-enforce-charles-lister-30-september-2016/)

The principle behind the strategy is described: “Civilian protection must be the centerpiece of any holistic strategy that aims both to create conditions that are more amenable to meaningful political negotiations between Syria’s warring parties and to undermine the dynamics that feed extremism. That the international community has consistently focused on introducing a cessation of hostilities is the right approach, but such attempts lacked any enforcement mechanisms or clear consequences for violation.” His concept of civil protection includes unhindered flow of humanitarian aid to all civilians, including those in besieged areas. It also implies a “no bomb zone”.

Firstly: “…. amid continued hostilities in Syria, the United States and allied nations would initiate a substantial increase in assistance to vetted opposition groups.” This continuing process of strengthening the military capability of the opposition, should also “include support for civil, judicial, and military factions of the mainstream opposition.”

From Day 20 a new enforced cessation of hostilities would be negotiated. “In contrast to previous cessations, this one would have to contain within it the explicit threat of highly limited and targeted punitive consequences for especially flagrant violations, to be conducted by stand-off U.S. military assets [ie submarine launched missiles].”

A counter escalation by Russia is unlikely because “Russia’s intervention in Syria has been conducted at minimal cost, given the country’s economic struggles and the fact that its economy may now be no bigger than that of Spain.”

Then: “From the 30th day onwards, the enforced cessation of hostilities would begin and all assistance to any party on the ground would contravene the agreement.”

Charles Lister sums up this suggested approach as: “This policy proposal does not seek to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Instead, it seeks to constrain his freedom of military maneuver while sustaining his ‘strong-enough’ negotiating position so as to ensure negotiations appear a viable consideration…….Within this hypothetical context, the Assad regime would be in a strong enough negotiating position, backed up by its respective backers, to not be negotiating its own total defeat, although some extent of transition would necessarily have to be included within an extended roadmap.

He then goes on to say: “Given that the cessation itself would be aimed at freezing the conflict and hardening semi-permanent frontlines, the process itself would appear to be facilitating a soft partition in so much as the resulting temporary boundaries would provide delineated zones of decentralized governance by different local actors throughout what would inevitably be an especially prolonged negotiation and transition process. For that phase to last a decade or more would be entirely within the realm of possibility.

The mention of the word “roadmap” reminds me of the endless Palestine-Israel so called peace talks, which go nowhere because Israel holds all the military cards. The Assad Regime (which is a clique of vested financial and security interests that controls the wider Syrian Government) has committed mass murder and mass torture. It has a 45+ year history of the use of systematic torture to intimidate Syrians. When you examine these atrocities in detail it must be impossible that Assad Regime can do anything but attempt to cling to absolute power. It has crossed the threshold of any possible redemption or future acceptance.

This means the Syrian Government and Army must be threatened with utter defeat, so that that those outside the Assad Clique will be the pushed towards removing it from power. This also requires that the security of those not part of the Syrian Opposition can be assured. The Assad Regime has exploited sectarianism from its beginning. It has used atrocities by Alawite and Shia militias during the Syria Crisis to turn this into a chronic problem.

Surely Western and Syrian Opposition leaders have to be make a clearer policy stance against sectarianism in the MENA. Effective opposition to the Saudi war on Shia Houthis in Yemen (beyond not selling the authoritarian Saudi monarchy weapons) must be essential. Clearly sectarianism is and has always been a tool of authoritarianism. Also the West must provide more support than Charles Lister describes, to be able to demand a professional structured Syrian Opposition with a central command structure, that is capable of being restrained in a situation charged with an understandable  desire for revenge.

The Syrian Revolution has a lot of enemies, apart from the obvious suspects (Shia Fundamentalists,Iran,Russia,China) there are the Sunni autocracies (Saudi Arabia and Gulf Cooperation Council) and many Western elites, who have vested interest in authoritarianism in the Middle East. This makes transition hard but more worthwhile, as it will be a victory against sectarianism and authoritarianism, as well as a victory for people power. It is therefore essential for us to pressure our politicians to give full support to the Syrian Revolution.

It seems incredible that  tamper-proof GPS and time constrained portable air defense weapons cannot be supplied to the Syrian Opposition.  Given the dependence of air defense weapons on electronics, it is incredible that  they cannot be relatively easily modified with a system that fries the chips into a fail safe mode when they are tampered with, used outside a given area, or overrun their use by date. This was being openly discussed in  2012 see https://www.csis.org/analysis/syria-us-power-projection-and-search-%E2%80%9Cequalizer%E2%80%9D. Surely the technology exists, and even if it sometimes disables weapons by mistake, it is infinitely better than the situation now, in which helicopters hover above with barrel bombs, while the potential victims can do nothing except attempt to run.

In summary this is an excellent article. It describes a journey plan, that is an itinerary, rather than just a roadmap of shifting possibilities. The West and particularly the Obama administration has provided quarter measures in Syria. This article describes a three quarters measure. However a full measure is the minimum required to avoid failure, and is the most rational and ultimately humane response.

A Plan for Winding Down the Syrian Civil War: Surge, Freeze, and Enforce Charles Lister, 30 September 2016

syriacasualities-copy[Original article with links = http://warontherocks.com/2016/09/a-plan-for-winding-down-the-syrian-civil-war/]

Five years of horrendous conflict in Syria has given birth to a menacing array of threatening and destabilizing repercussions. From the rapid proliferation of terrorist groups, to mass civilian displacement and an international refugee crisis, not to mention the disintegration of a major nation state at the heart of the Middle East, the consequences of the conflict’s apparent intractability are clear for all to see.

Until now, the United States has adopted an inconsistent and largely half-hearted approach to the crisis. Despite publicly proclaiming that President Bashar al-Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, the Obama administration has not once determinedly sought to push that political statement towards being a reality. Despite near-daily war crimes for over 1,800 days in a row, the United States has done little to prevent their continuation. Diplomatic statements of concern and non-binding and open-ended initiatives for dialogue based on non-existent trust have all fallen far short of what is necessary to at least slow the rate of killing and destruction.

The inherent mismatch between U.S. rhetoric and practical policy has contributed in part towards the prolongation of Syria’s conflict and to the amplification of its deleterious consequences — locally, regionally, and internationally. The perceived vacuum created by a lack of full U.S. commitment has been filled by Iran, Russia, and countless terrorist organizations. The consequences of that are clear for all to see, particularly this past week around Aleppo.

This is not to say that the United States and the Obama administration have not done anything in response to the conflict in Syria. They certainly have, but not nearly enough. Obama’s insistence on pursuing a diplomacy-first approach is right, brave, and something to be lauded. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to operationalize that diplomacy-first approach, without the threat of any harder U.S. power behind it, are nothing short of extraordinary. However, when diplomacy by itself demonstrably fails for five years in a row and as the consequences of continued conflict worsen by the week, new and alternative policy approaches must by necessity be considered.

To many American policymakers, the Syrian crisis may be seen as distressingly violent, but it is not perceived as an issue of immediate strategic importance. Unfortunately, this ignores the long-term effects of seeing a country at the heart of the Middle East gradually consume itself and begin to destabilize surrounding countries and regions. Terrorism and immigration may be the immediate consequences of concern in the U.S. homeland, but more and much worse may still be on the horizon, if Syria is not dealt with more resolutely.

In line with existing U.S. strategy, the objective should not be unilateral or rapid regime change. Instead, the focus should be setting the conditions on the ground that would best enable a meaningful and extended process of intra-Syrian dialogue and political negotiations. There is no single actor in Syria that has the capacity to win outright and, even if there were, an absolute victory on either side promises only further conflict and instability. It is also wholly unrealistic to expect any future political settlement to result in the sudden re-uniting of opposing territories. In the medium term, the U.S. focus should be on freezing the conflict and its frontlines through a firmly enforced cessation of hostilities, in effect, forcing already fatigued actors to the table.

Civilian protection must be the centerpiece of any holistic strategy that aims both to create conditions that are more amenable to meaningful political negotiations between Syria’s warring parties and to undermine the dynamics that feed extremism. That the international community has consistently focused on introducing a cessation of hostilities is the right approach, but such attempts lacked any enforcement mechanisms or clear consequences for violation. Given the track record of the Assad regime and the highly problematic behavior of its two state backers in Russia and Iran, the feasibility of such trust-based initiatives is questionable. Precedent shows that such arrangements do not work and, in all likelihood, will continue not to. Moreover, each effort that fails makes the next even harder to secure and sustain.

Faced by the increasing complexity in Syria and the challenges of starting a political process, the Obama administration has shifted towards a counter-terrorism focused posture. This is, in effect, a strategy of containment, which seeks to treat a symptom without challenging the disease: the continued brutality of the Assad regime and its stalwart refusal to negotiate. So long as Assad remains in power in Damascus and as long as his armed forces and foreign backers continue to commit daily war crimes against his own people, terrorism will exist and grow for the foreseeable future across Syrian territory. In securing a political transition – even a prolonged one – the United States and the international community would at least be removing a key obstacle to an effective effort against extremism and terrorism.

Under today’s conditions, having an external state intervene solely to fight terrorism will only create more extremists and make an ultimate solution that much harder to attain.

An Alternative Policy Approach

The United States must accept that it is now necessary to buttress a policy that seeks civilian protection with discernible consequences for violators. It can no longer be morally, ethically, or diplomatically acceptable for the international community to stand by and watch such brazen acts of indiscriminate brutality being conducted by a government against its own people. Adopting a more assertive approach to Syria would undoubtedly bring with it risks, but if managed carefully and aimed in justifiable directions, the benefits could potentially be manifold. Perhaps more importantly, the risks that result from continuing to push the existing policy approach may eventually outweigh those posed by a more assertive approach.

Certainly there are no “good” policy options at this point, but at the very least the idea of enforcing a ceasefire and punishing those conducting war crimes within a cessation of hostilities should be considered for the value it would add. At its core, the policy approach spelled out below would be U.S.-led, but its framework would aim to ensure that as many state and non-state actors retained or assumed positions of influence over determining the ultimate objective: political negotiations.

What is presented below is one of a number of potential avenues for increased U.S. assertiveness on the Syrian issue. Rather than aiming to directly induce the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad or even to invade Syria and force his rapid removal, this policy proposal aims to strengthen the administration’s current approach with some necessary “muscle.” Without a doubt, some will deride the suggestions made herein, but to dismiss them out of hand would be to ignore the need for a debate on this urgent issue. Five years of failure shows clearly that a re-think of some sort is necessary and consequently, this article aims to encourage an urgent policy review and the consideration of alternative options.

Day 1 to 20: Opposition “Surge” and Sanction Expansion

On Day 1 and amid continued hostilities in Syria, the United States and allied nations would initiate a substantial increase in assistance to vetted opposition groups. This would principally take the form of increased supplies of small-arms and light weapons, mortar and medium-range artillery systems, as well as anti-tank guided missiles. To add to the existing supply of semi-portable BGM-71 TOW anti-tank systems, the United States and allies should consider adding shoulder-launched anti-tank systems for added tactical in-theater utility. Until now, there has been little indication that the United States plans to end its long-standing veto on the provision of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) to opposition forces, given their risk of proliferation. Providing less portable anti-aircraft systems appears a potentially viable option, but remains unlikely given the taboo they represent.

In addition to U.S.-led assistance, allied regional states would be encouraged to supplement this with additional support to independent opposition groups (without links to Al-Qaeda or Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) with whom they maintain strong relationships. The inclusion of regional states within this strategy would help continue to restrain them from sending MANPADS themselves, which remains a possibility amidst the continued deterioration of conditions on the ground.

This effort would focus on two battle fronts: southern Syria through the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front and northwestern Syria through the region’s collection of FSA factions. For a period of two-to-four weeks, this enhanced assistance effort would aim to exert discernible pressure on Assad regime positions around Aleppo city and south of Damascus. A supplementary assistance effort could also be added to vetted FSA factions involved in the Turkish-led Operation Euphrates Shield offensive against ISIL, with the objective of sending a signal to the regime that the opposition will expand its de facto safe zone and to eventually re-open a meaningful front in Aleppo city’s northern periphery.

Thus far, the CIA has been responsible for managing the United States’ support to “vetted” opposition forces in Syria in coordination with regional allies, while the Department of Defense has attempted to run its own train and equip program for solely anti-ISIL purposes. For the CIA, its program of direct military assistance to over 70 armed opposition groups (at my count) across the country comes as part of its covert “Timber Sycamore” program, though this has never reached a sufficient level to have a truly qualitative effect. The majority of these 70 factions would fall under the scope of an expanded assistance effort such as the one described above. Although they may be collectively weaker than Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and its Islamist allies, all CIA-vetted factions remain deeply rooted within their respective societies. And it is these exact communities that we need most to reject extremist narratives.

In Idlib province, where Jabhat Fateh al-Sham is especially strong, the most powerful remaining vetted factions —commanding at least 4,000 fighters, at my estimate —recently came together and merged, founding the Free Idlib Army. Meanwhile, the leadership of the conservative Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, long an invaluable military ally of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra before it, has begun pivoting increasingly close to Turkey and to the mainstream opposition, thereby creating escalating tension at a rhetorical level with the jihadi group and other extremists. Such developments reveal potential cleavages worthy of exploitation.

Given the immediacy of battle, military cohesion has long been prioritized by armed groups across a range of ideological spectra in Syria. Although they rarely fight directly alongside each other on the battlefield, CIA-vetted FSA factions and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are known to coordinate within broader operational fronts, particularly in the north. Absent a major change (such as large-scale Western intervention) this broad-spectrum tactical cooperation is unlikely to diminish significantly, though it can potentially be reduced over time through a holistic and more assertive policy, such as the one proposed here. That the FSA’s Southern Front has long maintained a noticeably more wary and distant relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra amid an internationally unified and determined assistance effort to its constituent forces demonstrates a nuanced potential for practical distancing from extremists.

Enhanced levels of U.S. support to the opposition should not be limited to the military sphere, however. In fact, rather than solely seeking to coerce the Assad regime to enter negotiations and shift the calculations of its international backers, the objective should be to combine support for civil, judicial, and military factions of the mainstream opposition. This would best ensure the formation of a more cohesive and resilient opposition movement and narrative, that in times of calm and negotiations, would have an advanced chance of out-competing extremist competition.

Though it breaks all foreign assistance taboos, this support should be provided because the military, civil, and judicial spheres are intrinsically interconnected and interdependent. Islamist governance has succeeded to a greater extent in opposition Syria at least partly due to the fact that regional states supportive of such groups instinctually accept this dynamic. To continue today’s distinctly separate channels of assistance to the various strands of opposition activity in Syria may be motivated by a desire to safeguard traditional ethical concerns for the independence of civilian governance initiatives. However, in reality, it forces the “moderate” opposition to exert its influence with one hand tied behind its back.

In parallel to the expansion in opposition assistance, the United States, coalition partners, and allies should substantially expand sanctions targeting (1) the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), (2) Hezbollah’s activities in Syria, and (3) Russian arms exporters involved in bolstering Assad regime capabilities. With regards to the first component of sanctions, the objective should be to impose escalatory sanctions on SAA officers known to be or to have previously been involved in criminal actions, beginning at lower ranks and steadily over time rising to higher levels of command. This would seek to induce a level of internal pressure within the single most important structure for Russian influence in Syria; lowering morale and confidence and undermining Russia’s own position of leverage.

Day 21 to 30: Negotiate an Enforceable Cessation of Hostilities

Provided that this 20-day expansion of opposition assistance resulted in a discernible level of increased pressure on regime positions, the United States would convene all respective members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) for a meeting. In that meeting, the United States would seek to negotiate the introduction of a new cessation of hostilities in Syria, beginning from Day 31. In contrast to previous cessations, this one would have to contain within it the explicit threat of highly limited and targeted punitive consequences for especially flagrant violations, to be conducted by stand-off U.S. military assets.

This cessation of hostilities would cover all territories not controlled by ISIL or that are under ISIL attack. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would not be invited to be a party to the ceasefire, but given its embedded nature within broader mainstream opposition dynamics and the practical impossibility of de-coupling it within current circumstances, its fighters should not be targeted in the early stages of this plan.

In addition to seeking immediate protection of civilians, this potentially more durable cessation of hostilities would seek to freeze battle frontlines between the opposition and regime. In the ISSG negotiations, mutually-agreed mechanisms for the verification and assessment of violations would need to be designed. Ideally, this would take the form of a multilateral structure that included at minimum both the United States and Russia as well as, beneath them, a body of four additional actors: the U.N. Special Envoy, the United Kingdom, France, and Iran. In the event that Washington and Moscow were to disagree on an alleged violation, these four actors would assume responsibility for secondary verification and assessment, by majority vote.

Were Russia to resolutely veto an ISSG-led enforcement mechanism, the United States and allied “Friends of Syria” governments would necessarily then consider forming a “coalition of the willing” to enforce the very same agreement — an enforced cessation of hostilities — under the principle of humanitarian intervention. Although such a justification is situated within a blurry legal space, even the intensely legalistic President Obama declared himself as being in a position to unilaterally intervene in Syria without Congressional approval in the immediate aftermath of the August 2013 Sarin gas attack outside Damascus. Although the United States would likely end up being the lead military actor, such a joint initiative would also lend the effort more legitimacy and send a unified signal to Russia, Iran, and President Assad of the international community’s determination to stop the violence.

For the United States, pre-selected targets could include non-critical Syrian military infrastructure located far from populated areas, excluding Damascus or the coastal provinces of Tartus or Latakia and areas staffed by Russian personnel. This objective would be to select targets significant enough to send the necessary signal to the Assad regime, but not so critical as to over-escalate. To avoid any airspace conflicts, the United States would plan to use stand-off military weapons, like cruise missiles, for any necessary punitive measures after Day 15. Such assets would likely be launched from sub-surface vessels deployed in the Mediterranean, so as to avoid geopolitically sensitive use of Turkish or Jordanian airspace.

Given that Russia would be unlikely in such a scenario to freely share the locations of all of its deployed military personnel, a mechanism would also be put into place through which Russia’s military headquarters in the Latakia-based Hmeymim Airbase would be pre-informed several hours in advance of any U.S. cruise missile strike. The plan to issue warnings to Russia would be made explicitly public to prevent Russia from moving its forces or even civilians or prisoners to an intended target in a cynical attempt to deter a strike. The United States would also make clear that once a warning had been issued, the planned stand-off strike would take place. That any such strikes would be targeting non-critical regime military infrastructure away from populated areas or otherwise sensitive areas would also minimize the necessity for Russia to take what would be an extraordinarily bold move in counter-escalating.

Since Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015, the threat of force has undoubtedly acquired an additional level of risk. However, the question remains: to what extent does Russia have any interest in counter-escalating against the United States and risking open conflict with a superior military actor? Skeptics of an assertive U.S. approach to Syria have frequently used this question as an automatic veto, but they themselves have never justified in any level of detail why they think Russia itself actually would seek a “World War III” scenario.

Certainly, the U.S. threat of punitive military action against the Assad regime would need to be credible enough as to deter any Russian advocates of counter-escalation, but the logic behind the Russian counter-escalation argument appears extraordinarily minimal at most. Russia’s intervention in Syria has been conducted at minimal cost, given the country’s economic struggles and the fact that its economy may now be no bigger than that of Spain. To militarily counter limited punitive measures against non-critical regime military infrastructure resulting from especially flagrant violations of a ceasefire would seem to contradict Russia’s own calculated intervention in Syria.

Turkey’s 2016 intervention against the Kurdish YPG and against ISIL in northern Aleppo demonstrates the strategic limits of Russia’s action and presence in Syria. Although framed as an operation targeting ISIL, Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield has directly undermined the YPG’s geopolitical project, which Russia overtly supported because it threatened the opposition’s standing in northern Syria. More importantly, the operation’s core fighting force is composed of more than a dozen explicitly anti-Assad armed opposition groups, who have now effectively established a slowly expanding safe zone, over which Russian and Syrian aircraft no longer fly. While maintaining a long-term eye on re-opening a front against the Assad regime on Aleppo city’s northern boundaries, opposition forces in the area are more immediately seeking to establish a stronghold of the internationally-recognized political opposition that is both located inside Syrian territory and explicitly protected from external attack. Despite what this represents in terms of an overt challenge to the Assad regime, Russia has been in no position at all to counter it.

Up until now, and despite its highly problematic military actions and diplomatic posturing, Moscow has made it patently clear that it wants to be seen as a great power alongside the United States and as a partner in solving the crisis in Syria. Russia has also shown no indication that Assad is ultimately a critical long-term component of its strategy, and recent reports would suggest that Moscow has also become increasingly skeptical of the durability of Syria’s armed forces as a long-term partner. It is therefore extraordinarily hard to imagine any scenario whereby Russia would risk jeopardizing its prominent status in Syria over what would be a limited intervention focused on protecting civilians amid an enforced ceasefire. Syria in this policy scenario is not being invaded and President Assad’s most critical assets in the capital and on the coast would be explicitly excluded from the potential target set. Consequently, it is time that the United States called Moscow’s bluff.

Both during and after the agreed upon cessation, Russia and Iran would have until day 30 to prepare conditions on the ground to ensure the Assad regime abided by its terms. Having declared its intent to conduct limited military strikes on non-critical Syrian military infrastructure in the event of flagrant violations, one would hope that assessments made by both supporting countries would be qualitatively more serious than with previous cessations containing no consequences for violation. During this time, sanction expansion would add further to that pressure, indicating additional costs to spoiling actions.

Day 30 and onwards: Conflict Freeze and Enforced Cessation

From the 30th day onwards, the enforced cessation of hostilities would begin and all assistance to any party on the ground would contravene the agreement. Given the nature of ceasefires, its first hours would undoubtedly be messy and unclear, but within 24-hours, the threat of punitive military measures should ensure a more meaningful level of calm than seen before. Throughout the cessation, the previously agreed-upon ISSG mechanism for monitoring reported violations — by any Syrian or non-state actor — would receive reports, verify and assess them, and determine any necessary response. Such a process would clearly be a challenge given the lack of clear on-the-ground intelligence, but this would be why only the most flagrant examples of violation (such as an airstrike on a hospital, but not a mortar strike on recognized battle frontlines) would qualify for potential punitive measures.

Ultimately, civilian protection means a reduction in violence and the free flow of humanitarian aid to all corners of the country. Should it prove possible to sustain, this would in and of itself result in conditions at least more amenable to discussions over Syria’s future. In addition to simply saving lives and freezing frontlines, the more immediate benefit from an international standpoint may also be the effect that an internationally-enforced calm would have on the balance between moderate and extremist actors on the ground.

Extremist groups like Jabhat Fateh al-Sham rely intrinsically upon intense levels of conflict and perceptions of international inaction to sustain their relationship of interdependence with mainstream opposition forces. At their core, these relationships are highly unlikely to suddenly disappear, although a re-empowered moderate movement can discernibly undermine extremist narratives over time. That protesters so quickly re-took to the streets during the first cessation of hostilities earlier in 2016 underlined this counter-extremist potential. This was added to yet further when some protesters held placards opposing Al-Qaeda for the first time since 2011.

It is for this reason that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham would – at least at first – not be a target of continued military action during the cessation of hostilities. A more durable strategy for countering this de facto Al-Qaeda group should focus on creating conditions in which mainstream Syrians re-realize that the jihadi group’s military value on the battlefield is in fact not sufficient to make it a long-term political partner. During the first cessation of hostilities earlier in 2016, some Syrians in Idlib came to this conclusion in a matter of weeks but this ended when a lack of enforcement mechanisms meant violations were consequence free..

With a more durable cessation of hostilities, backed up by discernible enforcement mechanisms, the undermining of extremist narratives stands a better chance of being more than a temporary dynamic. Moreover, the likelihood of extremists lashing out against the empowerment of moderate actors and their non-extremist vision would also increase, thereby encouraging armed factions to express their positions of support or opposition to foreign intervention. These kinds of behaviors will help identify the salvageable Syrian Islamists from the unsalvageable and committed jihadists.

Consequently, it would be within an enforced and hopefully more extended period of calm that mainstream civil, political, and armed actors would find a more amenable operating space in which to begin forming a more Syrian alternative to extremist narratives that thrive in times of intense conflict. While ISIL would remain explicitly outside the frame of this scenario, the role of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham in anti-Assad operations has the potential to pose challenges to a ceasefire. However, should any international initiative to enforce a cessation of hostilities be credibly and determinedly presented, Syria’s mainstream opposition would be highly unlikely to oppose it. From the moment that opposition forces saw a Western cruise missile strike neutralize a regime airstrip, severe limitations would be placed upon Jabhat Fateh al-Sham’s ability to actively spoil the initiative, given the resulting loss of favor it would inevitably suffer from doing so.

Calm across regime-opposition frontlines would also provide a window for Turkey and allied states to encourage vetted opposition forces to reinforce the Euphrates Shield operation against ISIL in northern Aleppo, thereby expanding what appears to be a de facto safe zone. Should that safe space then prove sizeable enough, the arrival of Syria’s political opposition and the establishment of a forward-deployed Interim Government office would allow the beginnings of a genuinely credible moderate alternative to opposition Islamist governance to begin taking shape.

Assuming that the credible introduction of an enforcement mechanism did guarantee a more durable period of calm in Syria, the influence of extremist groups would almost certainly decline after a period of months. As that trend developed, the likelihood for tensions to develop between Syria’s mainstream opposition and extremists alongside them would rise, thereby presenting opportunities to encourage their isolation.

Over an undeterminable period of time, this process could eventually “re-sort” insurgents, whereby all those willing to abide by a continued ceasefire and engage in an eventual political process would become more and more distinguishable from those who would not. It would only be after such a process played out that external military strikes could be considered against those unsalvageable extremists more clearly delineated on the ground. Delaying this phase of kinetic operations against Al-Qaeda-linked factions would give the international community a better chance of ensuring that opposition forces would not perceive such action solely as a counter-revolutionary move. It would also ensure that as many insurgents as possible had an engaged and [hopefully] constructive role in a political process, while certain spoilers would be both constrained and minimized. Isolated from this dynamic, extremists would become outliers in determining the political trajectory of the crisis, rather than militarily taking the lead as they have until now.

Placed within a period of more durable calm facilitated by strict enforcement mechanisms, the Assad regime in Damascus would arguably for the first time be presented with clear limits of maneuver. Provided Russia and Iran were at best also constrained in terms of their potential to spoil, one would hope that Bashar al-Assad would be in a position in which he had to treat a political process with an extent of seriousness.

After all, If the Assad regime does have one weakness, it is sensitivity to genuine pressure. In September 2013, following the Sarin gas attack outside Damascus, merely the threat of limited punitive U.S. military action sparked a near-total collapse in regime and state unity, with as much as half of the country’s parliamentarians packing up their homes and fleeing to neighboring Lebanon. It would be under such a scenario that a more meaningful political process may have some hope of beginning. This does not necessarily require a vast military effort, but merely the integration of a punitive strike mechanism for flagrant ceasefire violations.

By placing Assad and his backers under a heightened level of pressure framed not around ‘regime change’ but civilian protection and a political process, this policy would also explicitly aim to empower the vast “gray zone” of Syrians whose voices are drowned out by the loyalist and opposition camps during conflict. Substantial portions of Syrian society have hedged their bets amid five years of conflict, but would advocate for at least some minimal level of change in their country. Amid all-out war, Assad is in a position to present much of this “gray zone” as belonging to his loyalist camp, but in reality it represents a critically important third party. Should an enforced ceasefire help to encourage some of this largely invisible populous to engage more publicly in the discussion over Syria’s future, Assad’s capacity to simply veto any political process would also be constrained.

No Certain Options

To re-iterate, this entire alternative policy scenario is not aimed at overthrowing Assad from power militarily, but it instead merely seeks to generate an improved context for a potentially more viable negotiation process. In the event that Assad still refused to engage constructively with a political process, the United States and its allied partners would re-energize hard-nosed diplomatic efforts to constrain the regime’s room for maneuver, while sustaining the threat of punitive measures for flagrant war crimes. Over time, it is hard to imagine this increased pressure not having at least induce some recalculation of interests.

This policy proposal does not seek to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Instead, it seeks to constrain his freedom of military maneuver while sustaining his “strong-enough” negotiating position so as to ensure negotiations appear a viable consideration. In short, it would be an attempt to force negotiations, but not necessarily his immediate defeat or removal from power. That would become a decision for a broadly representative negotiation process, led by Syrians and guaranteed and protected by the international community. Within this hypothetical context, the Assad regime would be in a strong enough negotiating position, backed up by its respective backers, to not be negotiating its own total defeat, although some extent of transition would necessarily have to be included within an extended roadmap.

Given that the cessation itself would be aimed at freezing the conflict and hardening semi-permanent frontlines, the process itself would appear to be facilitating a soft partition in so much as the resulting temporary boundaries would provide delineated zones of decentralized governance by different local actors throughout what would inevitably be an especially prolonged negotiation and transition process. For that phase to last a decade or more would be entirely within the realm of possibility.

No approach to “solving” Syria can be perfect, especially given the consequences resulting from the previous five years. However, the United States is currently faced by two options: stay the course and risk further diplomatic failure, which by itself will make an eventual solution even harder to attain; or initiate a more assertive policy aimed at coercing actors into more responsible behavior and at manipulating conditions on the ground so as to undermine extremist narratives.

The time to act is now. To suggest that an Assad regime victory is either inevitable or would lead to an enforced stability in Syria is nothing short of fantasy. Whatever is or is not done to save Syria, the country will experience intense instability for many years to come. The challenge that we face now is to ensure that what comes next is at the very least manageable. Though fraught with risk, more must be done to rescue what – if any – hope remains for an eventual resolution to a crisis whose menacing effects continue to be felt further and further afield.

After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States seems keen to absolve itself of the “global policeman” label, but with great power comes great responsibility. We are already five years too late and our chances of success diminish every week, but the killing machine in Syria must be stopped. The price for doing so today will almost certainly fade in comparison to what we may face five more years from now. Contrary to Obama administration loyalists, there are other options available to us today – it is up to us whether we choose to acknowledge them or not.

Charles Lister is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and a Senior Consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Syria Track II Dialogue Initiative. He is also the author of the critically-acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford: 2016). The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of his employers.