Everyone has strategic interests in Syria … Syria was enjoying a lifestyle like nowhere else in the Arab world. We were almost free …
Syria was once the underlying bedrock of Arab nationalism; it used to be a source of pride for Arab secularists. At least in Arab eyes, it was a bastion of resistance against Israeli tyranny and American imperialism. But these days the country that exerted such significant political and military clout in the bloody Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) is mortally wounded by its own apocalyptic war, nothing short of a Jihād. On 27 November 2015, the Syrian ambassador in Pakistan, HE Radwan Loutfi gave a talk entitled The Future of Syria in the historic library of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA). The astute diplomat was unforgiving in his denouncement of foreign interests plaguing the survival of his country. But eager to build unity among his fellow Syrians, he explained: “I am Sunni, but I will be the first to protect the shrine of Sayeda Zainab.” Urging world leaders against further warmongering, he called for an immediate ceasefire followed by a strong willed political process “that would leave only Syrians to discuss” and decide the future of their annihilated homeland.
Yet the diplomat explained that a ceasefire in Syria remained “impossible” until the terrorists were rooted out. He also accused Turkey of having trade links with ISIS. His talk comes against the backdrop of the terrorist attacks in Paris, killing 130 and wounding hundreds of others, and the downing of the Russian Metrojet airliner in Egypt causing 224 fatalities. Insofar as military action is concerned, these days an “ISIS first” mentality prevails because its extremists in Raqqa are the “head of the snake” and must, of course, be “crushed”. Despite the rhetoric constantly pouring out of London, Paris and Washington, events in Europe and the spectre of home grown terrorism may have converted the much-loathed regime in Damascus into a potential ally against ISIS (and perhaps even the equally deplorable al-Qaeda leaning Jabhat al-Nusra organisation). Reportage on our event is available below after some coverage of recent events on the world stage.
It is said that 2000 French citizens have gone for jihad in Syria and just yesterday the French government intimated that any future deployment of ground forces in Syria may be in tandem with the Assad regime. on 27 October 2015, Laurent Fabius said in unambiguous terms that: “The bombings, and troops on the ground which could include Free Syrian Army forces, Sunni Arab forces and – why not – regime forces.” While these remarks were welcomed in Damascus, Fabius later qualified his position with the caveat that Assad would have to go. However, as the ambassador highlighted in his talk, Bashar al-Assad is not a person but a symbol of a well-rooted tree; he is not easy to uproot and then throw outside. In response to Fabius, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallem said he “welcomed” the idea but explained that cooperation would come at the cost of “fundamental change” in France’s Syria policy which is aimed at stronger diplomatic measures against Damascus and criminal investigations against the use of barrel bombs. Fabius also revealed that president Putin wants the French military to draw up a map showing ISIS hotspots, which the Kremlin would bomb once the information has been provided/received.
As president Putin incessantly points out, Damascus is the only force in the region really fighting jihadis on the ground. Indeed, unlike France, America and Britain, the Russian armed forces present in Syria are there at the request of the government of Syria, the government of a legitimate sovereign state. The roundup below sets out the background to the unyielding Syrian war and looks at press reports generated by our event.
Notably, peace talks held in Vienna on 30 October and 14 November 2015 by the so-called International Syria Support Group (ISSG) included the Arab League, European countries, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the US but ironically excluded Syrians from participating; neither the Damascus regime nor the Syrian opposition was invited to the talks conducted by influential foreign ministers. Unsurprisingly, western policy in the Middle East is nowhere. As seen below, this sad fact is reflected in the thoughts espoused by the Syrian ambassador in times when CIA “blowback” from the jihad against the Soviets has finally come home to roost in the heartland of Europe – in its glistening capitals with golden skylines.
Jihadis from all parts of the world are present in Syria (and in Iraq) and the Ba’athist Alawite regime in Damascus, which has historically been a mouthpiece for pan-Arabism, rightly insists that an uncountable number of extremists are constantly arriving for holy war. After all, those like fallen ISIS executioner Muhammad Emwazi – a British citizen best known by the moniker Jihadi John and dubbed a “human animal” – who have been killed in drone attacks will need replacement. “I can tell you Daesh doesn’t have the natural incubator, social incubator, within Syria,” said Bashaar al-Assad on 18 November to an Italian broadcaster. Because of the increase of external influences and four long years of devastating war, Damascus is in control of only a fraction of Syrian territory and jihadis ravage the landscape beheading people and destroying historic sites; for all we know, the jihadis – who sell oil to fund their dark “caliphate” – may well have the tacit support of regional players, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In the editor’s commentary below, using Professor Philippe Sands QC’s highly respected views on international law as a compass, light is shed on the legality of potential British military action against ISIS in Syria.
A vote is scheduled in Parliament soon (reportedly on 2 December 2015) and it will be the biggest challenge of David Cameron’s premiership who lost his earlier bid to bomb Assad’s regime in 2013 when British MPs voted against military action. Notably, this time around, anti-ISIS campaigners present on the ground are urging MPs to vote against British airstrikes and they say: “We can’t hide from your bombs like animals.” And, of course, refugees already in Europe report that ISIS will resort to using innocent civilians as human shields. While some such as conservative David Davis MP remain sceptical of the utility of British bombing raids in Syria, others such as the American military analyst Anthony Cordesman have suggested that “it’s the quality of British air power that would make it a critical force, not the number of operations.” Others still, such as ISIS expert Hassan Hassan, are of the view that by joining the fight Britain “could provide a vision of how to mobilise local forces against ISIS.” Notably, in September 2014, the Westminster MPs voted in favour of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq by 524 to 43 – a majority of 481 – and military operations are ongoing in that country.
From the west we have only heard the same wheezing old clichés about how they want to build a democracy in Syria; but now western leaders find themselves playing Russian roulette with president Putin who seems determined not to cede ground to NATO. To his credit, he has behaved in an extremely statesman like way despite Turkey’s recent “planned provocation”, i.e. the shooting down of a Su-24 Fencer plane on 24 November. Moscow has cut off trade with Ankara by imposing sanctions. Agreements have been torn up with Turkish companies in retaliation over the downing of the plane and the death of its pilot, through Russian eyes a “stab in the back” committed by “accomplices of terrorists”.
Moscow has also advised its citizens not to choose Turkey as a tourist destination and has conducted immigration raids on illegal Turkish workers in Russia and has also scrapped visa-free entry for Turkish citizens from 1 January 2015. Quite rightly, the hard line Russian president has accused the illiberal Turkish president Erdogan – who has thus far refused to apologise for the incident – as the “sick man of NATO”. This week, two journalists have been arrested in Turkey for reporting on Turkish arms supplies to jihadis and Sputnik reports that two Turkish generals and a colonel have also been arrested because they stopped military trucks laden with weapons to arm extremists (which Erdogan claims was “humanitarian aid”) from entering Syria. Moreover, at an unprecedented and highly controversial summit being held today, held at Ankara’s insistence, Erdogan will be pressing European leaders over Turkey’s membership of the EU and the cost closing its border. Although ambassadors to the EU are concerned about the “ludicrous” sums of money being extorted by Erdogan for Ankara’s cooperation, the top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini has said that the €3 billion “is not money for Turkey, it’s money for the refugees”. Irrespective of Mogherini’s attempts to pacify events, frustrated EU diplomats can be heard saying: “We are on our knees begging the Turks to close their border.”
News reports covering the Syrian ambassador’s event in our library can be read below.
In the view of the Syrian government, bringing peace to that troubled land hinged on two key factors: an immediate ceasefire followed by a political process “that would leave only Syrians to discuss” and decide their future.
This was stated here on Friday by the Head of Mission of the Syrian Arab Republic in Islamabad, Ambassador Radwan Loutfi, while speaking on the ‘Future of Syria’ at the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs. The programme featured a speech by the Syrian envoy followed by a lively question and answer session in which the extremely fluid geopolitical situation of the Middle East was reflected.
Ambassador Loutfi started his talk by discussing the Arab Spring and its aftermath. “Was it really a spring?” he asked rhetorically. Damascus’ top diplomat in Pakistan said that before the crisis in Syria was sparked in 2011, his country was witnessing an economic boom and there was a big opening towards a market economy. As he said:
Syria was enjoying a lifestyle like nowhere else in the Arab world. We were almost free. There were some restrictions, but they could be managed within the country.
He claimed the Syrian opposition was “moved by international players”. However, he added that a solution to the crisis could only come about “when Syrians understand their country is being destroyed, their history is being destroyed”.
During the Q&A session the consuls-general of Russia and Turkey – two states deeply entrenched within the Syrian quagmire – also offered their respective views.
In response to a question about what Russian and Iranian interests in Syria were, Amb Loutfi said “everyone has strategic interests in Syria”. He added that Iran had good relations with Damascus since the 1970s and that even during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) Syria and Iran maintained relations.
“Iran has a legitimate interest in protecting sacred shrines [in Syria]. I am Sunni, but I will be the first to protect the shrine of Sayeda Zainab [pictured below]. These are figures from Islamic history,” he added.
As for Russian interests, the Syrian envoy said if Moscow is pushed out of Syria, it will lose access to the Mediterranean. To this the Russian consul general later responded that his country wanted to support the political process and international law in Syria.
Regarding the claim that the militant Islamic State group was exporting oil through Turkey, Ankara’s consul general said that “if proof is given to Turkey, we will act according to it”.
To this the Syrian envoy said that while the Turks were “brothers, Turkey is backing or closing its eyes” where the cross-border movement of “terrorists” is concerned.
Regarding the status of president Bashar al-Assad, ambassador Loutfi said Bashar “is a symbol. He has majority support in Syria” including from “Sunni cities” apart from his own Alawite community and others. He lambasted foreign media for “doing a very good job in showing what is not true” in Syria, in particular taking aim at two Gulf-based satellite channels for, in his words, giving a distorted picture of the situation on the ground in Syria.
He urged the international community to join forces with his government to “fight terrorism. When there is security and stability, we can have national dialogue and elections”. In a thinly veiled critique of the Gulf monarchies, ambassador Loutfi said “those who are supporting the introduction of democracy in Syria, are they living with these norms? These monarchies are our brothers, we wish them the best. But this paradox” is flagrant.
The Syrian ambassador observed there was “appreciation in Syria for Pakistan’s positive neutrality in the conflict” as Islamabad did not pull its ambassador after the outbreak of hostilities. However, ambassador Loutfi did point out that along with 4,000 Chechen fighters in his country, around 500 Pakistanis were also fighting his government.
With the Vienna talks involving Iran and Saudi Arabia reached a consensus on renewing efforts to end the civil war in Syria, Radwan Loutfi, the head of the Syrian Arab Republic in Pakistan mission, said on Friday that a ceasefire in his country was impossible until its occupation by “terrorists” came to an end and a genuine indigenous opposition was in place.
“When Turks can see Russian warplanes crossing its airspace for some seconds, how can they fail to see the oil caravans of the Islamic State running between its border?” Loutfi raised the question while speaking to the members of the PIIA.
Lambasting Turkey’s role in the Syrian crisis, he said:
Either they support them or have turned a blind eye to the oil smuggling which was keeping the ISIS finances running.
Loutfi reiterated that the interference of regional states had exacerbated the crisis. But when asked about the role of Iran and Hezbollah in the country’s military affairs, he said Iranians had “legitimate” interests as they were there to protect shrines from the armed group.
“It is a matter of belief; if sacred shrines are under threat, then there will be people coming forward to protect them. It is simple,” he said. “Iranians are obliged to help Syrians as we are the one solely fighting the armed groups.”
- Bashar al-Assad
He said Syrian president Bashar al-Assad was not a person but a symbol of a well-rooted tree which was not easy to uproot and then throw outside. The Syrian ambassador added:
Irrespective of the global negative press which falsely advocates that he is giving power to his own sect, he is not only loved by Alawites, but Sunnis too. In the first year of the crisis, he [Assad] roamed all alone in Sunni-dominated cities. If there are people against him, then there are millions of those who support him too.
- United States
Loutfi said the Arab Spring was coined and introduced by the Americans for their own vested interests.
He claimed that initially when the Syrian president had offered to conduct elections in the country, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had rejected the idea on the grounds that Assad would win. The ambassador thus opined:
We can’t agree on the pre-condition that Bashar al-Assad must go.
The Syrian ambassador was all praise for Pakistan’s role in the Syrian crisis, appreciating the “positive neutrality” showed by the Islamabad’s foreign office. He clarified that:
We know that despite enormous pressure on Pakistan to withdraw its ambassador from Damascus, it has declined to take that direction.
- Syrian refugees
As noted on this blog in a past session with Turkish consul general Onart, the meltdown of postcolonial borders in the aftermath of the Arab Spring has instigated a large influx of refugees into Europe; the majority of whom are from Syria.
The ambassador said it is painful but the Syrian government could not do anything on the issue of the refugees.
“Sadly, the refugees were manipulated to leave their homes to present a negative picture of Syria.”
- Turkish diplomat
During a question and answer session, Turkish diplomat Murat Mustafa Onart asked the Syrian ambassador about the availability of evidence that Turkey had secret relationship with ISIS.
The Syrian ambassador replied that with the Turkish border sealed at all fronts except the 800 to 900 km strip with Syria it was quite obvious that the oil smuggling that funded ISIS had something to do with Turkey.
Analysis and Comment
Syria’s problems show no sign of improvement; its people’s suffering eclipses all other suffering and we can only hope that peace can be achieved through diplomacy and that after the deaths of 300,000 people further bloodshed can be avoided. Quite rightly, the Obama administration’s policy in relation to the conflict has rightly been described as “disgraceful” in wide-ranging press circles. James Rubin (Madeline Albright’s right-hand man under the Clinton administration) chastised Obama in The Sunday Times and on BBC’s Question Time Charles Moore denounced the White House for yawning on the crisis. For their own reasons, they argue that it is crazy to hope that a breakthrough will magically occur when president Obama finally pulls three rabbits out of a hat one day. Obama is ridiculous in his Badmashi (bullying); they want to dictate terms to everyone but have failed miserably in training so-called “Syrian rebels” who have without resistance handed over military hardware over to jihadis.
Complaints and concerns about the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons by the regime are constantly argued in western capitals and corrupt crony states in the Arab world, but the indiscriminate killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children by the west in its dirty wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria dwarf any war crimes committed by any other quarter. The contradictions are infinite and even humanitarian pledges vis-à-vis refugees are withdrawn under domestic political pressure; for example, even after declaring Germany’s “open door” or Willkommenskultur policy for refugees, chancellor Angela Merkel has bowed down to pressure from finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble and interior minister Thomas de Maizière – Schäuble has accused her of being a “careless” skier who has caused an “avalanche” which needs to be contained. Notably, in 2012, HE ambassador Radwan Loutfi was expelled from Germany in a well coordinated western effort to alienate the Damascus government. At the time, former German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has said Germany and its allies hoped “that this unambiguous message does not fall on deaf ears in Damascus”. Loutfi must be having the last laugh on the west now that the tide is turning in Damascus’s favour.
As noted above, in addition to their war efforts in neighbouring Iraq, the British are keen to enter the Syrian quagmire and bombard ISIS in Syria. Greater detail on the renewed British interest in bombing Syria in the wake of the Paris attacks has been cogently analysed by the Royal United Services Institute in its briefing UK Air Strikes in Syria: Time for a Decision?
No matter how symbolic their involvement, the British want to go in and feel that their presence is necessary to achieve the west’s ideological victory over the evil of Islamic extremism. David Cameron, the British prime minister, says he would like to take military action “right now” and even Crispin Blunt, the chair of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, who only recently advised against military action has come round to Downing Street’s way of thinking and varying his former view Blunt now finds that the post-Paris climate demands British military action against ISIS because of “dramatic changes”. Even though his personal views on politics have caused a wrangle in his own party and may cause his downfall as leader, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn is opposed to British military action in Syria and instead he is looking forward to the long-awaited Iraq Inquiry to finally be published so that he can make an even more convincing case against war. Despite the Labour mutiny brewing against Corbyn and irrespective of his inability command the will of his party, the world can still applaud the old socialist for being a reasonable and dignified person.
In his recent article in the Financial Times (11 October 2015) urging the world with the headline that “we need a Syria strategy, not half-baked reasons to drop bombs”, Professor Philippe Sands QC argued that the UK will have to engage with Russia and Iran in the Syrian War. Sands also lamented the lack of due process associated with the extrajudicial killings of two British jihadis in Raqqa in September (see here) by American and British Reaper drones. He remonstrated that Cameron’s dual insistence to rid Syria of both ISIS and Assad did not amount to a “policy”; instead it is an “aspiration” that fails to interlock with international law. When asked by Dr Masuma Hasan (PIIA Chairman) whether or not British involvement in the war would matter, the Syrian ambassador in Islamabad responded that it would make no difference whatsoever and Cameron was blowing his own trumpet.
In particular, Sands warned the UK not to blindly follow others into a “black hole” of foreign policy. He urged 10 Downing Street to desist from “sleepwalking towards a greater disaster”. Explaining that policy, law and action are interlinked, Professor Sands said:
The UN Security Council has in effect ceased to function on the Syrian question, so there will be no authorisation of British bombing from that quarter. Unlike the Russians, who claim that the lawful government of Syria has invited them in — and unlike Iraq, which asked for UK support — in Syria, there is no entity from which Mr Cameron can request a permission slip. So he is left to argue “self-defence” under Article 51 of the UN charter, which allows force in two circumstances. First, an armed attack on the UK must have occurred or be imminent — but we have been given no evidence, only unsubstantiated claims about threats to national security. Alternatively, we might use force in the “collective self-defence” of Iraq — but that too must be backed up by evidence and an assessment as to military utility. Again, we have seen nothing.
The rebuke was repeated by Sands and other academics after David Cameron published a memorandum (watch oral statement) to take military action; criticism was advanced against the prime minister for “skirting legal issues”, not engaging with Russian counterparties and proposing military action pursuant to an “aspiration” rather than a “strategy”; oddly, the French president has of course signalled to the Westminster Parliament, the mother of democracy, that it should join France in bombing ISIS in any event. But all this is bound to end up in more disaster in light of the fact that with hindsight Tony Blair has come to accept that his 2003 invasion of Iraq is causative of the rise of extremism in the Middle East rather than extinguishing it.
David Cameron argues that that the (arguably unprecedented) UN Security Council Resolution 2249 (2015) sets out a clear a legal basis for military action. As others have already noted, however, the Resolution adopted by the Security Council is an unprecedented measure. On the other hand, despite the meaning attributed to the unanimity of its adoption and the words that ISIS is a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security, Resolution 2249 falls short of authorising force in reality. As noted by Sands, whilst the UN Charter allows the use of force, the option is only legal if the use of force is exercised in self-defence in response to an armed attack (under Article 51 of the Charter) or if the Security Council authorises such action within the meaning of under Chapter VII of the Charter. The Security Council is not empowered to impose obligations on states to use military action against other states.
In circumstances where the Security Council finds that a threat to international peace and security exists, it may sever diplomatic relations and interrupt economic relations. In the event such measures prove inadequate, in response to the continuing threat, it is possible for the Security Council to approve all measures necessary so as to preserve international peace.
Please note that the views articulated in the introductory and comment parts of blog posts are merely the views of the blog editor and are not in any way, shape or form representative of the views of the PIIA and/or its members.