The Government is under increasing pressure today to repair Britain’s relations with the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as senior politicians and military leaders insisted that he held the key to defeating the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said forging an alliance with President Assad would not be “practical, sensible or helpful”, arguing that Britain should instead work as part of an international coalition to combat the militants operating in Iraq and Syria.
But Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, told The Independent that IS could only be defeated if it was driven out of both countries. “You cannot allow them to be attacked in northern Iraq and then find a safe haven in Syria,” he said.
“If there are not to be American or British troops on the ground, ultimately one is drawn to a very unpleasant conclusion, but it’s a conclusion which we can’t shirk – and that is that although the Assad regime are very nasty people, we may have to have a relationship with them in order to deal with even nastier people."
He added that “Churchill and Roosevelt had to work with Stalin to defeat Hitler, not because they had any illusions about Stalin’s regime, but because Hitler was the more important and overwhelming objective”.
Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, said it was important that the UK built diplomatic bridges with the Syrian leader. “The Syrian dimension has got to be addressed. You cannot deal with half a problem,” he told the BBC.
“The old saying 'my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ has begun to have some resonance with our relationship with Iran – I think it’s going to have to have some resonance with our relationship with Assad.
“I think whether it is above the counter or below the counter, a conversation has got to be held with him. Because if there are going to be any question of air strikes over Syrian airspace it’s got to be with the Assad regime’s approval.”
Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the United States, argued that holding talks with President Assad could be justified as the progress of IS was threatening to destabilise the Middle East. “The uprising against President Assad in the name (for some) of democracy has led directly to the creation of IS. We are, like it or not, in de facto alliance with Assad against IS,” he wrote on the Huffington Post website.
“It is time for a root-and-branch review of the principles of British foreign policy, so that they reflect two essential things: the world as it is and not as we would wish it to be; and the British national interest. If this means hobnobbing with dictators, so be it.”
However, Mr Hammond insisted that collaboration with the Assad regime was not an option. Asked if Britain would consider an alliance with the Syrian leader, he replied: “No. We may very well find that we are fighting, on some occasions, the same people that he is but that doesn’t make us his ally.”
He continued: “We are not going to do this on our own, except in terms of our strictly domestic security situation in the UK, we are going to do it as part of an international coalition led by the United States working with the Iraqis, because the problem has to be tackled first of all in Iraq where [IS] has made its recent gains.”