While Russia launches airstrikes, Britain’s position on Syria remains an inglorious failure of diplomacy

So what next? We are not the movers of events, we are being moved by them. But there are, maybe, ways to wrest back some initiative

Paddy Ashdown
Wednesday 30 September 2015 18:00 BST
The aftermath of a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo
The aftermath of a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo (Getty Images)

Russia is giving us a masterclass on the penalties of a foreign policy based only on high explosive. We are picking up the tragic human costs of war in Syria, but are now almost powerless to stop the conflict, or influence it in any way. Today, Russian planes opened fire against opponents of Assad, having granted the US just an hour’s notice of its intentions.

We may want Bashar al-Assad to go, but cannot make it happen. We may want Isis stopped, but two years of bombing have made little, if any, progress towards its defeat. We bluster in the UN, Washington and London about willing the ends, but we have nothing left but bombs to will the means. The levers to make things happen in Syria now lie in Moscow and Tehran – all we are left with is a bomb-release button at 30,000ft.

This is a diplomatic failure of inglorious proportions. Historic proportions, too, since the result will inevitably be another ratchet down in the West’s influence, already grievously diminished by our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. One would have thought that we would have learnt the lessons of those defeats. But, still – sadly, stupidly – when the West sees a problem in the world its first instinct is to bomb it.

There are four reasons why we have landed in this baleful position in Syria.

We have forgotten the dictum of Clausewitz – war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. We always remember the war, but forget the diplomacy. As we now see in Syria, war only makes sense within a diplomatic strategy – and we didn’t have one. Post “shock and awe” we tried to create order in Iraq by purely military means, failing to engage the neighbours and refusing to address the burning coal at the heart of the Middle East conflagration – Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. And so we lost. We did it again in Afghanistan, making enemies of the neighbours, instead of making them allies – and lost again. And in Libya we bombed our way to “victory” but forgot to create the regional coalition to bring order and reconstruction afterwards.

To choose only bombing again in Syria, without first getting Russia on board, was to invite folly being turned into humiliation. For Vladimir Putin, with a military presence on the ground, could always up our ante and leave us looking foolish. Which he just has and we now do.

Our obsession with military options and blindness to diplomatic ones, also led to a myopic failure to see that what we were dealing with was not a conflict in Syria, but a growing Sunni/Shia war in which Syria was just a front line. The danger was that the West and Russia would be drawn into a regional conflict, us on the side of the Sunni and they on the side of the Shia – which is exactly where we have now ended up – with all its terrifying implications.

The great Foreign Secretaries, Canning and Castlereagh, would have known what to do. They would immediately – I mean three years ago – have started building counterbalances with Tehran, Ankara and yes Moscow too (despite Ukraine). There would have been sacrifices of course: an earlier and perhaps less congenial deal with Tehran; an uncomfortable acceptance that, though we share no values with Russia we do share a common interest in Syrian peace and defeating Sunni jihadism too; and a deal with Turkey would have been tough, because of Kurdish separatism.

Of course, none of this would have been easy – but all of it could have led to an outcome where now, three years later, we would have influence in what is happening in Syria, rather than just planes flying over it.

To choose as our first purpose in Syria the removal of Assad was folly, since we had no means to make it happen. While Russia and Tehran backed Assad, bragging about removing him was never going to be more than empty words. If, as initially in Libya, we had made our aim humanitarian rather than regime change, then success in the first would have led to the second – as with Gaddafi. If in the end, as now, we would need Russian help, then demanding the removal of their only friend in the region betrays clumsiness and lack of strategic foresight in equal measure.

Finally, the moment that Isis moved into Syria, we should have realised that our game was up. We could either (perhaps) get rid of Isis or we could (perhaps) get rid of Assad. But we could not get rid of both simultaneously. We should have seen that choice two years ago instead of embarrassingly stumbling across it now. Then we could have had room for manoeuvre and perhaps a little leverage to extract concessions. Now, forced to choose with Russian fighters already attacking Isis positions in Syria, we have none.

So what next? We are not the movers of events, we are being moved by them. Our options are limited. But there are, maybe, ways to wrest back some initiative.

We should be holding Russia to account for Assad’s barrel bomb excesses. We will have, for the sake of our own face, to leave Assad’s future hanging in a fog of diplomatic ambiguity. But we could – and should – move fast and purposefully to anchor Russian offers of help with Isis within a wider formal coalition which brings in Tehran and Ankara.

British aircrafts joining the action over Syria as part of that wider coalition, might make better sense than it does now. In these more fluid diplomatic circumstances there could be a role for protection zones or, perhaps most interestingly – not a no-fly zone – but a no-bombing zone.

For three years the Syrian tragedy has remained stuck in a blood-soaked quagmire, as thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled in terror. Things are perhaps moving in Syria – though this confers little credit and no comfort on the West. There are diplomatic opportunities now and humanitarian ones too. We should not compound three years of failure, by failing to seize the moment, even if that moment is not of our making.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in