The Problem with Coalition Airstrikes in Syria
The Problem with Coalition Airstrikes in Syria
Interview / Middle East & North Africa 4 minutes

The Problem with Coalition Airstrikes in Syria

Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO, comments on the possible risks of airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, explaining why putting an end to the civil war could help contain the terrorist threat and help solve the refugee crisis. This is an edited translation of an interview given to the French magazine L'Express.

Can bombing the Islamic State (IS) in Syria help end the war and reduce the flow of refugees to Europe? The answer is a simple no. The idea of bombing, popular among many Western politicians, is an absurd misconception of the current situation. Airstrikes against IS will neither stop the war, nor will they solve Europe’s biggest headache, the wave of refugees at its borders. In fact, the opposite is the case.

In recent weeks, France became the latest country to announce airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. French President François Hollande had long hesitated striking IS in Syria for fear the attacks would bolster Bashar Assad, the jihadists’ main enemy. As he put it: “Nothing should be done to consolidate or keep Assad in power in Syria”. .

When France decided in favour of airstrikes, it failed to realise that this might lead to precisely what Hollande feared. Even where airstrikes give Western-backed rebels an occasional tactical advantage against the jihadists, these are quickly undone by what the IS gains in terms of propaganda.

Most Syrians see airstrikes against IS as helping the Syrian regime. It looks like the West is attacking IS but not doing anything against the government side, which is responsible for most of the civilian casualties in this war. From the perspective of ordinary people it appears as though Europeans are solely concerned with their own security and potential IS attacks in Europe, while ignoring the fate of Syrians trapped in the war.

What Western politicians often fail to recognise is that IS is the product of a long and radicalised war. Syrians started fleeing the country long before IS came into play. And IS’s rise to its current size and importance in Syria was only possible thanks to the regime’s actions, just as the Syrian refugee crisis is a result of Bashar Assad’s war against his own population.

Citing self-defence to justify airstrikes against IS, as Hollande did, is illusory. It’s worth noting that the IS-inspired terrorist attacks in Europe were committed by Europeans. The war in Syria attracts and inspires these western Islamists, but they are also, ultimately, children of the West.

An exclusive focus on IS is therefore short-sighted. It is impossible to beat IS without tackling the foundation on which it builds its advances. The priority must be put more squarely on ending the Syrian war.

Yet today we are faced with a situation where none of the conflicting parties have any interest in negotiations. The rebel groups and their sponsors, the gulf monarchies and Turkey, have noted that the regime keeps losing territory. They hope that it will eventually crumble under military pressure. In turn, the Assad regime has felt pressure from the West diminish since the rise of IS. The regime benefits from Russia and Iran’s increased support and believes its days are not yet numbered.  

What the West needs to do is convince both camps that there is no military solution to this conflict. But before negotiations start, it needs to send out strong signals that it does not and will not tolerate the regime’s strikes against civilians. Several options are on the table.

Some are calling for a no-fly zone. This is a radical measure and difficult to implement without the consent of the UN Security Council. Clearly Russia would veto it. Some kind of timely retaliatory measures against planes bombing civilian areas would be easier. This would not mean a declaration of war against the regime, but significant action to make the regime pay for its attacks on civilians. Every time Assad’s army bombs civilian targets, for instance, an attack against a Syrian airbase could follow in retaliation. With a bit of determination, this is possible.

Only then can negotiations start. No side will agree to negotiate as long as it has reason to fear a total defeat, or feel certain of victory.

This time, talks have to include all stakeholders in the conflict. In the past, the West shut Iran out of the Geneva I talks in June 2012 and Geneva II in January 2014, fearing that Tehran’s participation would reduce western pressure in negotiations for a nuclear agreement with Iran. But Iran is part of the problem and must be part of the solution. Now that the nuclear deal is done, the way for Iran’s inclusion is clear.

Russia’s decision to expand its military presence in Syria is dangerous but could also become part of a solution. One does not achieve peace without security guarantees for all parties. The Russian forces could be that guarantee for the majority Alawite regions.

Finally, regarding the refugees, the West should significantly increase aid for Syria’s neighbours, which are home to over 3.7 million displaced Syrians. It should help Lebanon and Jordan strengthen their institutions before they crumble. The West should give them - and others bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, like Turkey - the money and technical assistance they need to prepare their refugee camps better for the winter. And everyone needs to put their diplomatic weight behind the UN’s efforts for a mediated solution in Syria before things become even worse.

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