Has the UK’s failure to bomb Syria fuelled the refugee crisis?

Submitted by AWL on 23 September, 2015 - 10:18

The increasing numbers of refugees now making their way to Europe from Syria has led some to argue that this crisis makes a retrospective case for Britain bombing Syria.

The editor of Left Foot Forward, James Bloodworth, has argued that in an article in the International Business Times.

The situation in Syria has seen a multitude of rebel groups and militias, mostly made up of Sunni Arabs, go to war against the forces of Syria’s Assad regime, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and Iranian backed Shia forces. The Kurds and other non-Arab and non-Alawite minorities have also been fighting.

The initially peaceful and democratic anti-Assad movement did not have a political leadership capable of stopping that fragmentation on religious and ethnic lines as the rebellion was militarised. Thus there was no simple solution to prevent the breakup of the state, or to end the Assad dictatorship of Assad with minimal violence and replace it with something the left could say was better.

The claim by Bloodworth and other commentators that the bombing of Syria in 2013 (or for some, better arming of rebels in 2012) would have prevented this situation seems extremely short sighted.

In August 2013, the UK Government lost a motion to begin airstrikes in Syria. Whilst we did not cheer like the Stop the War Coalition who celebrated the vote as if the lives of millions of Syrians had been improved, we did not and do not call on the British government to bomb Syria.

We remain opponents of Assad and recognise that the bombing campaigns he has waged have killed far more than any militia, including Daesh. But his immediate overthrow would leave Syria controlled by forces of reaction, split firmly on sectarian lines.

How would these airstrikes have prevented refugees from fleeing? Many of them are leaving the violence of both the Assad state and the militias, particularly Daesh.

A bombing effort would probably not have even been decisive in the conflict. Bombing by the UK would likely have been a token effort to show that action was being taken against Assad and to bolster the UK’s prestige as a power that does not "stand idly by". We cannot endorse a bombing campaign whose actual aim and likely “best” result would be to boost the UK’s relationship with the Gulf states or back the military might of the USA.

Bombing would also probably have provoked a larger mobilisation by Russian forces and an increase in the use of their intelligence and logistics capabilities should military installations come under attack.

Others have argued that earlier support for Syrian’s mainstream rebels in the Free Syrian Army back in 2012 would have helped to build a more moderate and powerful unified opposition to Assad and could have prevented the rise of Daesh.

Even at the beginning of the conflict the FSA was divided. Early in the conflict there were clear divisions between the so called "hotel revolutionaries" who took part in negotiations (often from hotels in Turkey) and those fighting on the ground fighting. The Kurdish forces who were carved out by Arab chauvinists. There were large defections to coalitions like the Islamic Front and even Daesh from previously loyal battalions of the FSA.

Forces might have changed ideology with the promise of greater weaponry and arms from the US and UK? But then an alternative offer from other backers, including individuals in the Gulf states who have funded the ultra-Islamists, could have changed their minds again.

Especially as the conditions imposed by Western powers on the rebels seeking arms would — if the aid were to improve politics — have to have been stricter than those demanded by Gulf states.

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