The House of Commons’ Contract with Syrians

Just over a week ago – on Wednesday 2nd December ­ – the House of Commons voted to support British participation in the Coalition bombing of ISIS in Syria. The discussion that preceded the vote was lengthy and wide ranging. However its quality was highly variable. Some MPs, like Gerald Kaufmann (a former Shadow Foreign Secretary), demonstrated a clear understanding of the nature of the Assad regime, who he described as” murders” that he “would be delighted to see got rid of”.

There were good contributions from MPs who had visited the region recently: Mary Creagh (Shadow International Development Secretary ) who had visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, expressed regrets that she had not voted for action against the Assad regime in 2013 and urged “We need a ceasefire, a political settlement, and a path to democratic elections”; while Natalie McGarry who had visited the Kurdish region of Syria, called for “the creation of a safe no-bomb zone in Syria”.

However other MPs set themselves up as instant “experts” on contentious questions, making snap judgements with very little knowledge to back them up. There was widespread scepticism voiced across the House in the government’s claim of 70 000 moderate armed oppositionists who could follow up coalition bombing and move into areas liberated from ISIS. Jeremy Corbyn drew on the briefing he had been provided by Patrick Cockburn to make an ill-informed reference to “the FSA, which includes a wide range of groups that few, if any, would regard as moderate and which mostly operates in other parts of the country”. But no one seemed to have read the article by Charles Lister, probably the leading expert on jihadist groups in Syria, that provided a detailed catalogue of “moderate” forces in Syria closely tallying  with the 70 000 figure, despite the fact that it had appeared 5 days previously.

In other discussions Syrians were treated like political footballs: Jeremy Corbyn quoted from a letter that had been sent by a Syrian to bolster his case against participation in the Syrian bombing, while  Conservative MP Antoinette Sandbach quoted another letter that had been sent to MPs by Syrians to support her arguments in favour of bombing ISIS in Syria. But neither displayed much interest in the real issue concerning Syrians – that of protection of Syrian civilians from the ravages of the Syrian regime and its allies.

However there was one red thread that ran through many of the speeches – a promise that as much effort would be put into the resolution of the Syrian conflict as into the dropping of bombs on ISIS.

The resolution adopted by the House of Commons stated:

This House … notes that military action against ISIL is only one component of a broader strategy to bring peace and stability to Syria; welcomes the renewed impetus behind the Vienna talks on a ceasefire and political settlement

A similar message was conveyed by Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn:

We all understand the importance of bringing an end to the Syrian civil war, and there is now some progress on a peace plan because of the Vienna talks. Those are our best hopes of achieving a ceasefire that would bring an end to Assad’s bombing, leading to a transitional Government and elections. That is vital, both because it would help in the defeat of Daesh and because it would enable millions of Syrians who have been forced to flee to do what every refugee dreams of—they just want to be able to go home. (my emphasis)

These fine words, and the many like them, will probably be forgotten in the coming months by those who uttered them, but in uttering them the House of Commons has effectively entered into a contract with Syrians:  ­ they have promised them relief from the terrible violence they are currently subjected to, and a clear movement towards a political order in which the aspirations that took them to the streets in 2011 can be realised – freedom, dignity, and democracy.

Will Vienna provide that? I remain highly sceptical, but whatever happens we should hold the House of Commons – especially Cameron, Benn and Corbyn ‑ to their word. if Vienna starts to fail Syrians and their supporters have the right to demand forthright actions that will deliver what has been promised.

The timetable for the Vienna process is lengthy, but there are clear milestones that can be used to track its progress. It promises immediate “confidence building measures”, the first of which is the unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid. To this we can add steps which are self-evident although not spelled out in Vienna: the release of detainees; and an end to the bombing of civilians. Nobody in their right mind could imagine a peace process unfolding without these minimal conditions being met.

But we cannot assume that the orators of last Wednesday will have the attention span necessary to monitor whether or not these things are actually happening. That is a task that must fall to civil society activists in Syria and the solidarity movement internationally.

Let me start that monitoring by reporting what happened in Syria on 2 December 1015 while Parliament was deliberating:

  • 26 civilians were killed, including 8 children: 16 at the hands of the regime and 10 under the impact of Russian bombs
  • 12 Free Syrian Army fighters died in combat with ISIS (not only from the “non-existent” FSA but in a place where according to Corbyn they don’t exist ‑ Northern Aleppo)

Over the coming months I plan to continue tracing the progress of the Vienna plan and  to provide periodic reports on this blog, under the heading Vienna Watch.


8 thoughts on “The House of Commons’ Contract with Syrians”

  1. I wonder if you could do a piece on this recent poll of Syrians:
    It’s actually one of a couple. they vary in quality but the one linked appears to be reasonably scientific under the circumstances. What the polls seem to show is Assad’s support is not only strong, but stronger than any other force in the Syrian civil war. You’ll also find one from Le Figaro claiming 70% support for Assad (or something, I haven’t bothered to look into it yet).

    The issue of what Syrians think is crucial to any analysis of the conflict. We are certainly hearing the Baathist “left” trumpet the findings as a vindication of the “critical” “support” (whatever that is) for Baathism. Curious to hear the other side of the argument.

    1. I do follow the available poll data on Syria and, as you say this is probably the best of them (although a bit difficult to understand how they managed to poll people in Raqqa about their attitude to ISIS). I have been meaning to do something on this for some time. Its not top of my list at the moment, but I will put up a substantial comment in the next few days – my reading is somewhat different from yours. I suspect that the Figaro story is another of these urban myths, but I will check it out. If you have a link please let me have it.

      1. Yeah sorry for being unclear about the Figaro poll: i was not recommending you to look into it. I just dismissed the figaro poll on the hunch that it was worthless, which it was.

        As for the orb international poll, it does seem like a very serious affair. One could easily make the observation that political actors poll well in territories under their control, for several reasons, of which political intimidation is only one. A major reason is probably that Syrians are tired of war and increasingly welcome any credible authority (though no actor commands majority support in the country as whole) Unfortunately, Assad is winning the war and the public attitudes follow suit. Not exactly good news for the opposition.

        The key question is whether Assad really does command more popular support than the rest of the opposition combined? If so, how long has Assad been in the lead? There is no way the opposition can win against Assad, Russia, and ISIS if it does not command majority support. And if it can’t win, what’s next for the Syrian Revolution?

        I would urge you to take on the issue. There is a good reason why the ORB poll is being cited by the Assad-lovers. Ostensibly, it’s great news for them because it means TINA.


  2. As someone who has engaged fairly often with pro-Asad elements, I know that their claim is of “overwhelming support” for Asad, which they usually define as 70% (based on a non-existent “NATO study” (the 2014 Presidential election result of 88% seems to be too implausible even for them). From that perspective these poll figures provide fairly cold comfort.

    If we treat the general question about whether something is a positive or negative influence as a proxy for supporting or not-supporting, then we get a figure of 47% supporting Assad and 50% not (and only 26% are real enthusiasts.) True, the evaluation of the opposition is more negative but that is a separate issue. (The FSA is a military organisation and the Coalition has little real presence on the ground.)

    If we look at the political geography of Asad’s support then the striking thing is the polarisation of the country – Assad has a net positive evaluation in 7 of 14 governorates and a net negative in the other 7. The picture here is of a deeply fractured country (again very different from the picture presented by regime apologists.) Asad has 73% support in Government controlled areas but only 20% in Opposition areas (there are several other ways of expressing this: e.g. over 75% of Assad’s support comes from areas under his control.) Another fact worth noting is that he has only 26% support in areas controlled by the YPG – despite the concessions he has made to Kurdish autonomy.

    If you take the question about whether the country is headed in the “right” or “wrong direction” as about policy rather than personalities, then Asad’s weakness is sharper: 57% think the country is headed in the “wrong direction”; only the Alawite heartland is happy with the current state of affairs, there is large scale unease in Damascus; and the gap on this question between government and opposition areas is surprisingly small (54% and 59%

    It’s also worth looking at the May 2014 version of this poll which asked different questions. (There is of course a time factor here, but I think the main reason for the differing result is the different structure of the questions) The main question then was “Who do you feel best represents the interests and aspirations of the Syrian people?” with respondents asked to choose one from a list. That gave the Regime a total of 37% and the Opposition 48%. But this involved adding up different choices- the Regime support represented 20% who chose “the current regime” and 15% who chose “Bashar al- Assad”; while the opposition was the sum of the armed groups, the Coalition (which got a derisory 3%) and a series of opposition personalities. (And this poll also omitted – probably for security reasons – two of the strongest opposition areas – Quneitra and Deir Ezzor.)
    It seems potentially ominous for a regime which is built around a strong, dynastic cult of personality that more people chose to identify with the anonymous “regime” than with Assad. Indeed the most prominent opposition personality – Moaz al-Khatib – received slightly more support nationally than Asad (16%). Even the Alawite heartland was divided on identifying with Asad personally.

    I guess in the current situation defined by the Vienna process the big question is could Assad win a genuinely free election? It’s not out of the question: the regime appears to have a substantial socio-political base, and the opposition, whatever the numbers, suffers from fragmentation and a lack of high profile figures or well established political organisations.
    But it’s also very far from certain. A genuine transitional election would factor in some 2 million + refugees, who could produce a 3-4% swing against Asad. And with regimes like this it’s always difficult to know how much the support for the government is genuine and how much coerced, so the first free elections often hold big surprises (an instructive example is the Polish election of 1989 in which a very confident Polish United Workers Party lost every seat that was contested.) And new political actors will appear with their own political capital (e.g. the unexpected eruption of the salafist Nour party which gained almost 28% of the vote in the 2011 Egyptian election.)

    I suspect, however, that the issue won’t arise: taking part in competitive elections is just not part of the Baathist DNA. And of course the opposition could throw a spanner in the works and reject a Presidential constitution – if the Baath were forced into multiparty Parliamentary contests it would probably self-immolate.
    So, interesting times ahead- let’s just hope the Syrian people don’t have to pay too high a price for them.

      1. At some point I’ll expand this and incorporate other Syrian polling material I have on file. But it looks as if I’m going to have other fish to fry for the immediate future. The 2014 Orb poll is here:
        You might also be interested in this fascinating study of Aleppo two years ago – there’s some opinion data on pp. 65-67.

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