Friday, 2 October 2015

Just what Syria needs: more bombs

It's obvious, isn't it: what Syria really, really wants, after four years of war, an estimated 250,000 deaths and 12 million people forced to flee from their homes, is more foreigners dropping bombs.

Well, lucky Syria -- because within the last few days, both France and Russia have joined in, which means that by my count, there are now warplanes from no fewer than nine nations engaged in the skies over Syria. (The others are the US, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Turkey.)

And who knows? Soon the UK may be there as well, although, with no disrespect to the RAF, I cannot imagine what British bombs might achieve that isn't already being tried (other than killing more people, of course). The whole thing is utterly ludicrous.

It is also horribly dangerous, because President Putin seems not to be bombing the same people as the US-led coalition, nor does he have the same goals. The US and its allies say they're targeting the Islamic State group; but the Russians appear to be more interested in pummelling other rebel groups whom they regard as more of a threat to President Assad's survival.

Russia's first air strikes on Wednesday hit a rebel group that had been trained by the CIA, in an area where there are not believed to be any IS bases at all. I dread to think what could happen if a US-backed group were to shoot down a Russian plane -- or indeed, if Assad's troops, newly armed with modern Russian weaponry and aided by Russian "advisers", managed to shoot down a US plane. We are entering, to use an inappropriate metaphor, very dangerous waters.

So I suppose we should be duly grateful that the Americans and Russians are at least trying to work out a way to avoid their various warplanes getting in each other's way. They should, of course, be talking about much more, and this is where -- don't laugh -- the EU might have a useful role.

In the tortuous negotiations with Iran leading to the landmark nuclear agreement last July, the six other governments at the talks (US, Russia, China, UK, France, Germany) used the EU's then foreign policy chief, Cathy Ashton, as their lead coordinator and negotiator. Iran is President Assad's key regional backer -- so why not use the same formula again?

Cathy Ashton's successor in Brussels, the former Italian foreign minister Federica Mogherini has already made a start. Last weekend she met the Iranian foreign minister in New York, and there's talk of trying to get UN-sponsored peace talks off the ground again, coupled with the formation of an international contact group including Iran.

Washington is reported to prefer a format that would exclude the Europeans, on the grounds that we are not "directly involved". Perhaps someone should remind them of the refugees who have been heading into Europe in such huge numbers over recent months -- and anyway, both Russia and Iran quite like the idea of having Europeans at the table.

It comes down to this: should the UK use what little international influence it still has to encourage the resumption of international peace talks -- and could David Cameron and Philip Hammond bring themselves to champion the cause of the EU as an essential part of the mix?

Or would they rather ask the House of Commons to approve RAF bombing raids in Syria, even though they must know full well that a few more bombs -- even if they carry "Made in Britain" markings -- are unlikely to make a blind bit of difference?

We may be suspicious of President Putin's motives in Syria -- clearly he's aiming to prop up his client Mr Assad, but just as important, I suspect, is his burning desire to persuade the Western powers to drop their policy of trying to isolate him because of his adventures in Ukraine (which, incidentally, has gone very quiet of late. Funny, that …).

Fine. Bring him in from the cold, while maintaining the Ukraine-related sanctions. And encourage Iran to use its influence on President Assad to stop his forces' indiscriminate barrel bomb attacks on civilian areas. According to Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times, Tehran has already had some limited successes: "Where convenient, Iran has … played a role in truce negotiations on the ground. The most significant ceasefire, covering some northern villages and a southern town, was reached days before Syria dominated the UN debates. Iran represented the regime and Turkey acted on behalf of the rebels."

That, surely, is a better way forward. Because if Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have taught us anything, it is that dropping bombs on people to remove their leaders tends not to have the desired effect. It's a lesson Mr Cameron should have learned by now.

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