Despite the involvement of several world powers, there is no imminent military solution in Syria. To bomb or not to bomb? This should not be the question but sadly it is. The British Government will push for parliamentary approval to bomb Isis in Syria. Of course, Syria needs yet more bombs. So far, 12 air forces have dropped bombs on Syria in the past four years, while boots on the ground have come from more than 100 countries. Some are just so keen to join in they even argue that bombing Isis will help solve the refugee crisis. Of course, Syrians will stop fleeing and just wait for the shells to fall.
Changing this question matters. How can Britain help end the conflict in Syria, effecting a meaningful political and economic transition? Only this will accelerate the defeat of Isis, unseat the Assad regime and solve the refugee crisis. If extra UK bombing of Isis in Raqqa will achieve this, few will complain. Yet all the evidence suggests otherwise. American and European politicians are all too fond of speaking about a political solution and not what it actually could be, beyond the simplistic and faulty logic of a choice between supporting President Assad or Isis.
Doing nothing is unacceptable and not an answer. Threats to Europe will escalate.
There are two disastrous processes that need to be reversed. First, the internationalisation of the conflict. The international and regional actors are recklessly exacerbating the war to the extent that Syrians alone have no chance of ending it. Russia and Iran ratcheted up their involvement. The US and Saudi Arabia escalated the arms race. Syria has become the tragic theatre for their disputes and power games. The Syrian civil society leader Zaidoun al-Zoabi summed up many Syrians’ feelings on CNN: “Please end this war. Do something to end this war. What wrong have we done to endure such a bloody stupid war? It is enough for us, for God’s sake.”
The second devastating process is the growth of the war economy. In the topsy-turvy world of Syria, war pays better than peace. Syrian politics and its economy are all now dependent on the war. External powers are almost all fuelling that dependency. End the war and too many will lose their security and sources of income. Politically, the Assad regime needs the war to survive. It is the perfect excuse to avoid questions about poor performance, human-rights violations and abject failure. The regime is under no pressure from its loyalist base to put the country back together again in the midst of this horror. Figures close to the regime admitted to me that an end of fighting would be the day of reckoning for the Assad entourage.
Isis benefits from the conflict by preying on those areas most weakened by poor governance, collapsed economy and infighting. Until taking Palmyra in May, Isis had not captured an inch of territory that had not been contested before. Ending the war in Syria would deprive it of its fertile recruiting grounds. The other Syrian fighting groups depend on regional coffers remaining open to them. They need the weapons but are at the mercy of their backers.
But also the Western-backed part of the Syrian political opposition benefits from war through funding and status. With no war, who will back them or listen to them? Their fruitless meetings at luxurious hotels have been funded by external patrons.
Financially, the war economy has largely replaced formal economic life. Incomes are increasingly conflict-dependent, whether it is through smuggling, selling weapons, kidnapping, even distributing aid. You can buy or rent a checkpoint for the day or for an hour. Hezbollah, for one, profits through control of checkpoints. Border control by armed groups is hugely lucrative. Fruitful earnings are made from forged documents such as passports and ID cards. The Syrian regime benefits from and encourages this trade, especially if it means opponents can flee abroad.
How can communities stop their young men joining Isis when it pays $400-$1,000 (£260-£650) a month, two to five times what a headteacher at a Syrian secondary school earns? Most Syrians despise the Isis agenda but such salaries can ensure their survival in the absence of any alternative.
International and regional differences must no longer be settled in Syrian blood. The UK must cajole the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and others to abandon war as their means of politics. Staying out of the war might allow Britain to mediate this using our extensive diplomatic expertise as a non-polarising force. Deinternationalising the crisis can allow a Syrian-led solution focusing on Syrian needs, not those of external players.
The war economy can be challenged by refashioning a peace economy, using our aid to promote livelihoods and jobs rather than dependency. This is what Syrians ask for. Target such assistance to the areas most vulnerable to Isis expansion and you can constrain that expansion with communities resistant to its agenda.
Fuel must be included as an essential item in aid deliveries. Crudely, Syrians get pasta as aid but no fuel to cook it. Guess where Syrians in many opposition areas have to get their fuel from, to heat their schools, homes and tents or to power their farm vehicles? From Isis. Taxpayers’ money funds projects that need fuel procured from Isis oilfields. Supply the fuel direct, cut the dependency and shrink the Isis treasury. Fuel can also help revitalise the agricultural economy, the traditional mainstay of Syrian economic life.
Syrians want to see one major international actor trying to end this awful war, not join it. Britain can be great for once by staying out of a conflict in order to work to end it.
This article by Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab British Understanding was originally published in The Independent