Syria: the worst foreign policy catastrophe of modern times?

The horror in Syria is not simply the result of the regime's brutality, but also of monumental foreign policy misjudgements in Britain.

The Syrian horror has been unfolding since March 2011, and it is estimated that there have been more fatalities per head of population than any recent conflict in the region, with a death count averaging 117 per day. Government forces have unleashed waves of terror, while their Jihadist opponents, affiliates of Al Qaeda, have imposed their own medieval barbarity.

The death toll is widely believed to be well over 100,000 (the last figure the UN released in July 2013 before conditions made further accurate estimates impossible). The Oxford Research group has reported 764 cases of summary execution of children. In the Damascus suburbs that were hit by chemical attacks, people are still dying from starvation. The number of Syrians in need of food aid is estimated to be as high as 10.5 million, which is almost half the population.

It’s estimated that there may be almost 100,000 Islamist fighters in Syria fighting outside of the Western-backed Syrian Free Army, which in turn has its own Sunni factions. How, then, did we get into this murderous morass?

Quite by chance, I was the first Western foreign minister to have a one-to-one meeting in Damascus with Bashar al-Assad days before his father’s death and his succession as Syrian President in June 2000. In our conversation, he seemed decent, even sensitive – if rather naïve. What a brutal contrast with the callous butcher he has become.

But the horror in Syria has not simply been the result of the regime’s brutality and unspeakable indifference to suffering in its attempts to crush the resistance. It is also the product of a monumental foreign policy misjudgement here at home.

I have never been a pacifist. I was a cabinet minister when the decision was made to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was Africa minister when we sent troops to save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000. As a government minister I backed the 1999 intervention in Kosovo to prevent genocide of Muslims. But as a former foreign office minister responsible for the Middle East policy, including Syria, I was from the outset vehemently opposed to British military intervention of any kind in Syria. I had warned, both repeatedly in Parliament and in the Guardian on 21 October 2012, that there could be no military victory for either side in Syria.

Even well intentioned humanitarian interventions can cost too many lives. If Western military intervention had somehow toppled Assad without a settlement in place, violent chaos would have endured – some analysts argue it could have been even worse than before.

It goes without saying that, in backing Assad, his main allies Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror. But Britain, too, shares the blame, with a stumbling, strident and in the end abortive strategy. But the real problem is that Britain and the West should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise.

Instead of urging their friends in the opposition to declare that they would reciprocate if Assad made good on his tentative promise, Western powers and the Arab countries – principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar – continued supplying arms to the resistance and continued to demand regime change.

Another fatal error by the West was to try to prevent Iran as well as Assad from attending a peace conference. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience of resolving the Northern Ireland conflict that setting pre-conditions always prevents attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground?

The subsequent agreement by the regime to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community demonstrated the value of a robust negotiating stance. It showed how international actors can work together in a manner that actually delivers results. It was also in stark contrast to the kind of headline grabbing posturing to the gallery that our Government had practised. 

A political solution was always the imperative. Britain, France, the United States their allies should never have started down the road they did – demanding complete regime change. Britain needs to continue to persuade its friends in the Syrian opposition – and critically their external regional backers like Saudi Arabia – to promote a credible plan for compromise

Like it or not, without Russia and Iran helping push Assad towards genuine compromise, a Syrian settlement simply will not happen. However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity in order to get them to sign up to a deal. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria and the region be rescued from a nightmare that, if anything, threatens to get still worse.


Peter Hain is MP for Neath and former UK Middle East and Cabinet Minister

A draft of the full lecture text that this post draws from, held at the University of South Wales on 21 March, can be found here

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.