Britain and the West's Syria dilemma

Bashar al-Assad Bashar al-Assad has confounded some by holding on to power for two years in the face of a rebellion

When is regime change not regime change? That in a sense is the dilemma of British and much of Western policy towards Syria.

There is no doubt that Britain - like many other governments - would like to see the back of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But Britain's policy is not "regime change" if by that is meant the forcible removal of President Assad from power by outside military intervention.

The approach taken to oust the Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi is not seen as either practical or appropriate for Syria.

The British Foreign Secretary William Hague has always insisted that the agency of change in Syria must be the Syrian people themselves.

Britain is certainly backing key elements of the opposition forces - those represented here in London at a meeting with Arab and Western foreign ministers - under the umbrella body the Syrian National Coalition.

'Political process'

But Britain's stated goal is a political transition in the country, agreed at the negotiating table, whereby President Assad effectively gives up power.

Start Quote

The fact is that options are limited. There are only a few levers through which influence can be excerpted”

End Quote

Mr Hague reiterated the primacy of the political track in his comments ahead of the London meeting between the Syrian National Coalition and their key backers among Western and Arab governments.

"We want the moderate opposition in Syria to know that we are behind them in going to Geneva," said Mr Hague, "and that we will continue to help them in many ways and to persuade them that this is the only way to solve this tragic and bloody conflict in Syria. There has to be a political process."

Of course there have been moments when Britain has been ready to take a very different tack.

The British government was willing to participate in military action to punish the Syrian regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

But the British Parliament was not ready to sanction military force and neither was the US Congress - when push came to shove, military action was removed from the agenda.

Of course, the real question is whether the British approach to Syria is likely to succeed in leading to a political transition, and more significantly, what kind of Syria would such a transition produce?

The fact is that options are limited. There are only a few levers through which influence can be exerted, and in the final analysis the situation on the ground inside Syria is for now probably just too complex to be amenable to outside diplomatic solutions.

'Moderate' opposition
People use buckets to try and extinguish a fire that ignited at a local fuel station in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood of Syria northern city of Aleppo More than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in 2011

Britain, like many other Western governments, threw its weight behind the moderate opposition in Syria in response to the repression of President Assad's government. Before that, President Assad had been something of a favourite of the West, courted especially by London and Paris.

Policy in the early stages of the Syrian conflict was heavily influenced by the then limited experience of the "Arab Spring", which was still seen as a broadly positive movement under which tyrannical regimes were overthrown by popular pressure from below. Syria was seen as just the latest such regime to come under threat.

Hindsight is wonderful thing. Quite what alternative policy options were open is unclear.

But the initial rosy glow of Arab empowerment has given way to a more nuanced and in many cases conflicted analysis.

The Arab Spring has overthrown governments offering a measure of stability and unleashed forces that in some cases are antithetical to the democratic values many believed the Arab Spring enshrined.

The dilemmas have been seen most profoundly in Egypt where a successor and elected Islamist government was itself overthrown by what many would regard as a military coup.

The problems in Syria have manifested themselves even before the collapse of the government. Jihadist groups hold sway in some areas of the country.

More moderate Islamists with a largely Syrian agenda are increasingly prominent among the armed groups combating the government on the ground. Many of these groups too are not eager to sit down with President Assad's people in Geneva.

Britain is seeking to deal with what it calls "the moderate" opposition. It's an opposition made very much in its own image. Would be democrats, exiles, technocrats, the sort of people Britain and other Western governments believe could create a new open and democratic Syria.

But how representative are these groups of the factions on the ground?

How well are they linked into the fragmented and volatile world of the opposition? And crucially could they hold power against other centrifugal forces if the political process ever does arrive at the transition that Western governments and many Syrians crave?

More on This Story

Syria conflict

More UK stories

RSS

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.