“Syria is not Iraq” was the slogan of those advocating Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War two years ago. They couldn’t have been more wrong. Syria is Iraq. Or at least with ISIS operating in both countries, they are now effectively part of the same conflict zone. This puts Western powers in a tricky position. Do we attack ISIS in Iraq, but not in Syria? Does this mean we have to work with the brutal Syrian tyrant Assad in order to keep Syrian and Iraqi citizens safe from ISIS rebels?
David Cameron’s response to these questions has been blindingly simple. Britain will fight ISIS in Syria, not by joining Assad, but rather by supporting a different group of Syrian rebels; the Free Syrian Army. Britain’s answer to the threat of ISIS in Syria is therefore regime change; Cameron’s exact words being “what we need is to have a transition in Syria from Assad to the national opposition.”
This seems very short sighted. After all, ISIS’s rise to power in Syria was only possible due to a weakening of the Assad regime. This is not an endorsement of the Syrian human rights abuser, but simply an acknowledgement that ISIS was only able to emerge out of the conditions of a weak Syrian state embroiled in civil war. It should go without saying that it also important to remember that ISIS’s power in the region is partly due to the financial support of wealthy sponsors operating in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Sending arms to rebels in Syria, therefore, is an unlikely solution leading to ISIS’s defeat, as it will reproduce the conditions that allowed ISIS’s rise in Syria in the first place. In other words, prolonging the civil war in Syria and filling it full of weapons won’t lead to ISIS’s decline any time soon.
Cameron’s approach to Syria gives away what we’re really getting ourselves into. Britain isn’t just committing itself to bombing terrorists. Cameron wants to bring about regime change in Syria by backing moderate rebels. This means in Syria we’re not only fighting ISIS, but also Assad. It is much bigger than it seems. Britain, if committed to toppling Assad, won’t be able to just hand Western friendly rebels in Syria a few Kalashnikov guns and let them take care of our enemies for us. The Free Syrian Army after all is in no position to win the civil war independently, particularly being one of the smaller coalitions in the region. At any rate the Free Syrian Army has ruled out joining the West in any action against ISIS anyway. Defeating Assad in Syria would require direct armed involvement. It would cause too much collateral damage and lead to a lot of people in the region viewing the West is their enemy.
Even if we managed to defeat Assad and elevated the Free Syrian Army to the position of the ruling power in Syria, rebuilding the country while fighting the remnants of Jihadist threat would take years, money and, if we were really serious, boots on the ground. The creation of a Western style democracy in Syria, if brought about by Western intervention would be a burden on our army and the treasury for years to come.
Now it may be that Cameron was just posturing. It may be that there will be no attempt to take down both Assad and ISIS in Syria at the same time. But if Cameron was serious, if we’re is planning use the threat of ISIS to bring regime change in Syria, Syria won’t only be the part of the same conflict zone as Iraq. It was also be the same mistake.
By Nicholas Byard