Thanks to Ed Miliband, the chance to deal with Assad was blown two years ago. Britain needs to reconsider its options
Almost two years ago, the House of Commons met to decide whether to take military action against Bashar al-Assad. Few people would have predicted that the vote by MPs, taken a week after the Syrian dictator attacked opposition-controlled suburbs of Damascus with chemical weapons, would set off a chain reaction in the region and beyond, the cost of which we are only beginning to fathom. Keen to exorcise the ghost of Tony Blair and score political points, the Labour leader Ed Miliband marshalled just enough votes to defeat the Government motion. President Obama quickly developed cold feet about punitive air strikes and the rest, as they say, is history.
And what a history it has been. Four million Syrian refugees, eight million internally displaced, and three hundred thousand civilians dead, the vast majority at the hands of Assad’s murderous conventional war machine, tells only part of the story. The aftershock of that vote was felt further afield, as far as Moscow in fact, where President Vladimir Putin felt he could capitalise on the West’s lack of resolve to pursue his expansionist policy in Ukraine.
In Raqqa too people were taking notice. The so-called Islamic State (Isil), then only a pale shadow of what it is today, capitalised on the West’s failure to reign-in Assad to advance their propaganda narrative: the West is in cahoots with Assad and his Shi’ite Iranian backers in a conspiracy to defeat and humiliate Sunni Arabs in the region. Good luck trying to explain the inside politics of the Westminster village to the angry and traumatised residents of those Damascus suburbs.
Between the West’s inaction, Assad’s megalomania, Iran’s imperialist ambitions, Russia’s Cold War revenge fantasy and Isil’s cruelty and madness lay the majority of Syrians whose sole aims in revolution was freedom, dignity and a better quality of life. We in Ahrar Al-Sham and other Armed Revolutionary Groups (ARGs) fight for those Syrians. We raised arms because we had no other choice – either we unconditionally surrender or we fight for the freedom of our people from Assad, Iran and Isil. We choose the latter.
The spirit of those early uprising days still lives on, but we realise that the longer the war goes on, the less there will be of Syria to save. Ahrar Al-Sham wants to see the end to Assad's reign, Isil comprehensively defeated and a stable and representative government in Damascus formed that puts Syria on the path to peace, reconciliation and economic recovery. We would like to see a political system that respects the identity and legitimate political aspirations of Syria’s majority while protecting minority communities and enabling them to play a real and positive role in the country’s future. We want to see Syria’s unity and territorial integrity preserved and an end to the presence of foreign militias on Syrian soil.
We realise that that our vision cannot be achieved by military means alone. There will need to be a political process in place and we know that that means making tough decisions. But there are matters on which there cannot be much leeway: Assad and his cabal of murderous generals must go, Syria’s army and security forces require root-and-branch reform, and we wholeheartedly reject the tutelage of Iran or its meddling in any way in the affairs of our country, notwithstanding the nuclear deal and whatever secret deals may have been struck with the Ayatollahs over combating Isil.
In recent days Prime Minister David Cameron signalled a possible change of the Government's policy towards armed intervention in Syria. He said that the UK should “step up and do more” in the fight against Isil in Iraq and Syria. That’s all fine and well. In Ahrar Al-Sham we have lost 700 of our fighters in battles against IS since January 2014, and we and our allies are holding a 45km front line against Isil in Aleppo. We know what it is like to confront the menace of Isil. But Cameron should be aware that any further undermining of the Sunni Arab interest in the region in favour of Iran and its proxies will only empower Isil. We believe that Isil is not only a security or military threat but a social and ideological phenomena that needs to be confronted on multiple levels and that requires a national Sunni alternative to both Assad and Islamic State.
Ahrar Al-Sham, as a mainstream Sunni Islamist group deeply rooted in the revolutionary landscape, is forging that alternative. But those expecting a “perfect” Sunni alternative according to Western liberal standard are sure to be disappointed. As we should all know by now, political systems and models of government cannot be imported into the Middle East and expected to flourish where historical experiences, political cultures and social structures are so radically different. There needs to be a major role for religion and local custom in any political arrangement that emerges out of the debris of conflict, and it should be one that corresponds with the prevailing beliefs of the majority of Syrians.
Establishing a new political legitimacy requires an organic and pragmatic approach, something that has been lacking in approaches by the international community so far.
Thanks to Ed Miliband’s posturing two years ago, the opportunity to deal an early blow to Assad and bring the conflict to an early conclusion was missed. Two years of inaction have only made things worse. Washington’s current policy of undermining the Sunni interest in the region while pandering to Iran is furthering weakening efforts to defeat Isil, rid Syria of Assad and bring about a political resolution to the conflict. As the RAF readies to join in the military coalition against Isil, Britain’s government would be wise to consider new approaches to fighting the extremist group that goes beyond just dropping bombs.