Transcript: Diplomacy evidence session

Wednesday 20th January 2016, 4pm–6pm, House of Commons Committee Room 12.

The speakers were Hussein Sabbagh, National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces; Bente Scheller, Heinrich Böll Foundation; Daniel Levy, ECFR; Jeremy Shapiro, ECFR; Laila Alodaat, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; Ian Bond, Centre for European Reform; Kadri Liik, ECFR.

Chaired by Jo Cox MP.

View and download a PDF of the transcript.

Hussein Sabbagh:
Thank you and good afternoon. My name is Hussein Sabbagh. I am a former diplomat in the Syrian government. I defected in 2013 and currently I am an advisor to the Syrian National Coalition. Firstly, I thank you once again for this opportunity to address this important session. I will begin by saying a few words on the plight of civilians in Syria, and then talk about what steps the international community must take for the peace talks in Geneva, in order to succeed.

We’re now five years into the crisis in Syria and the humanitarian catastrophe facing civilians continues to worsen. Most of you are aware of the situation in Madaya whose 40,000 residents still face severe malnutrition and starvation. This humanitarian crisis has only been partially alleviated until now by recent aid deliveries. Over the past month at least 32 of the town’s residents have died from starvation while hundreds require urgent medical assistance. What we see now is only a glimpse into the devastation inflicted by the Assad regime and Hezbollah: seven months of sieges of the town. Madaya is one of 49 areas across Syria currently besieged by the Assad regime and Hezbollah. Only after intense international pressure, including important contributions from many of you in the UK Parliament, Assad agreed to allow humanitarian agencies temporary access.

However in Deir Ezzor, the Assad regime continues to deny aid agencies access to rebel held areas, while Russia airdrops aid to the government-controlled towns. In Moadamiyeh the entire population has been under siege since 2012.

As someone who previously worked within this regime, I can tell you, its logic is brutally simple. The humanitarian disasters we see in Madaya and across Syria are not collateral damage. They are deliberate outcomes inflicted by a regime which refuses to recognise any form of opposition to its rule, a regime which has systematically used a strategy of collective punishment, used starvation as a weapon of war against entire towns. This is the same logic we saw drawn onto walls by Assad’s forces early in the uprising. They used to write on the wall, “Al-Assad aw nahriq al-balad,” which means “Assad or we burn the country.”

This brutal logic has been clearest in the regime’s campaign of indiscriminate aerial bombardment across Syria. 95% of all deaths caused by Assad’s regime are civilians; not ISIS, nor Al-Qaeda or even moderate armed rebel groups. The Assad regime uses indiscriminate weaponry such as barrel bombs in order to terrorise civilians. Since its military intervention, Russia’s airstrikes have only intensified these efforts with the documented targeting of civilian areas. Indiscriminate airstrikes both by Assad and Russia are by far the biggest killer of civilians, the core drive of the refugee crisis, and a radicalising narrative of extremist groups which threaten the global security.

What is clear through the Assad regime’s indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign is that it has never abandoned its pursuit of military victory without compromise. Assad will not give up power of his own will, or his brutal campaign to secure a military solution to this conflict. A lack of deterrence and the external support of Russia and Iran continue to embolden the Assad regime’s war crimes and misguided belief that it can remain in power. The logic is critical to understanding how the upcoming Geneva talks are to be successful in not only ending violence but in bringing about a genuine political solution.

There are three key steps the international community, including this House, can take to shift the dynamics in favour of a successful outcome from the Geneva talks.

First and foremost, steps to guarantee the protection of civilians in Syria: The international community has repeatedly failed to enforce successive UN Security Council resolutions which explicitly prohibit the targeting of civilians through indiscriminate weaponry such as barrel bombs. A political solution will not be credible if it allows the targeting of civilians to continue. Nor will Syrian opposition groups accept any kind of deal which allows both Assad and Russia to continue bombing civilian areas. Without credible steps to deter indiscriminate aerial bombardment, this current diplomatic effort will lack real leverage to force Assad to negotiate seriously.

This also has a particular relevance for the UK. With the recent Syria vote, Parliament made clear that approval for airstrikes against ISIS was on the basis of intensifying efforts towards a diplomatic solution, including securing a ceasefire. If that is to materialise, the UK and its partners must dedicate their efforts towards a guarantee on civilian protection as part of any political solution.

Secondly, an end to the ongoing and clear use of starvation as a weapon of war: The opposition cannot be expected to negotiate whilst large parts of Syria remain under medieval sieges and the threat of starvation. Again, despite successive Security Council resolutions, which give a clear mandate for the delivery of aid without the regime’s consent, the international community has shown a clear lack of ambition in enforcing this mandate. The reality is that the Assad regime continues to use these barbaric sieges for military gain, demonstrating that it’s under no real pressure to abandon its commitment to all-out military victory. It’s inconceivable that these talks will be successful without unconditional lifting of sieges across Syria.

Thirdly, is the need for a genuine accountability process: I have just arrived to London this morning from Dublin where we exhibited an exhibition on the Caesar photographs. The Caesar file is a series of photographs which show the systemic mass torture of approximately 11,000 Syrians in Assad’s prisons. These photos have been exhibited in the UN, the EU, the Hague, and here in this parliament. With such clear, compelling evidence of war crimes, no political solution can be viable without the inclusion of a genuine process of accountability. However, as yet discussion of accountability has barely featured amongst the current diplomatic efforts.

These three steps will be critical in saving lives and securing the buy-in of the Syrian opposition, both political and armed. But also, these steps are necessary to force the Assad regime to negotiate. On the ground, the regime still has an unchallenged air force, now supported directly by Russian jets. The regime still uses starvation as a weapon of war without fear of reprisals from the international community, and the regime still detains and tortures Syrians on a massive scale with complete impunity. Changing these core dynamics is absolutely vital in forcing the Assad regime to negotiate towards a political solution, which secures a free, democratic, and just Syria. Thank you for listening and I’m ready to answer any question.

Thank you so much Hussein for framing that for us.

So we’ll just continue now. I would like now to introduce Dr Scheller from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, who is the director of their Middle East office.

Bente Scheller:
Thank you very much for welcoming me here today.  As mentioned I work with the Heinrich Böll Foundation which is a German political foundation. We have an office in Lebanon for Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

I was in Syria formerly as a diplomat, and my special portfolio there for the German embassy was looking at Syrian support for fighting terrorism. That was in 2002 and 2003-4 and I’ve dedicated a book to Syrian foreign policy which I think in this context makes sense, and I’d also like to start with that.

My book has the thesis that the Syrian government is always trying to have a kind of waiting game. Whenever they come under pressure they will first not do anything. They will not give in to the pressure, and they will try to sit it out and wait for the international community to change its position on Syria, and often this has paid off for the Syrian regime. This is why they always enter this strategy, and this is why they have been trying since 2011; they will not give in to any demands, they will not perform political reforms, they will have a security response to what they consider a security problem, they will enhance their brutality without changing course, and they will not pay real attention to what the UN or any other international body says, unless the regime itself feels under pressure, unless it becomes essential threat to them.

The country? They don’t care. They care about their own power, and this is what we need to keep in mind when we look at their behaviour in international diplomacy. I think it is something that is really terrible for Syria, this strategy of trying to win time, because time has been beneficial for the regime, for its survival. The pressure on Assad to step down was much higher in 2011 and 2012, and the more terrible the situation became, largely through what the government did, the more eligible it became, obviously internationally, for being rehabilitated, for being a partner again.

 So for the Syrian regime it has been beneficial to choose this strategy. But the impact on the Syrian population obviously has been terrible. The deliberate escalation of the humanitarian situation is one element that Mr. Sabbagh just mentioned. There has been radicalisation, so from a country in which you would not have any Islamist or radical terrorist group that would be worth mentioning in 2011, the fighting of terrorism that Assad has proclaimed has led to a situation where there are a number of groups of this affiliation and where even the so-called Islamic State has carved out part of the territory of Syria to establish its own state. So fighting terrorism the Syrian regime’s way has not proved really successful.

Another thing that we see in our work—we work mostly with civil society—this strategy of attrition of the civil opposition, the non-violent movements, and the strategy of really targeting all those militant groups that are not Islamists, who by this get in a bad situation between ISIS and the regime, has pushed many of our partners—who started as political activists with a political vision for Syria—it has pushed them to enter the humanitarian sector because the needs here are so big that people say, “Why should I aim for a democratic system, for pluralism and all these things? At the moment the most important thing I can do for my country is to work on humanitarian affairs.”

And this, for the future of Syria, and for we who think of supporting a process towards a democratic Syria, is of course terrible.

From this, we also see that the waiting game logic also means that Assad can only look like a lesser evil when there is a worse evil. I think even those who consider him as a potential partner see that he has devastating human rights record: the Assad regime is killing approximately seven times as many people as the Islamic State. It’s difficult to ignore this record, and therefore to appear as the lesser evil Assad is dependent on having a bigger evil and that in this case is ISIS, which is what the West is most afraid of.

This is why he’s not serious about fighting ISIS, which we see when we look at where his airstrikes go, where his fighting goes. He’s not picking a fight with ISIS. If ISIS is picking a fight with the regime, they will get involved in that, but they will normally not take the initiative because the regime needs ISIS; it’s their lifeline. And if we talk about the regime as a partner in fighting ISIS we should keep that in mind; they cannot afford to give up this very important card. They will always make sure it remains at some level. We might achieve some success but to avoid any discussion about Assad stepping down, he will always make sure that it doesn’t go away.

Looking back at how the Syrian regime formerly has been playing with radical groups of any affiliation, especially during the Iraq war, when plenty of jihadists were recruited by the Syrian regime and sent into Iraq, we know how this strategy has worked out before, and the regime is trying to implement the same strategy here again, and therefore I think one really important point is if we want to get rid of ISIS, it is impossible to do so with the regime. It is impossible to do so against the majority of the population in Syria. We need everybody who’s here, we need the people on the ground, and we need especially Sunnis to recognise that ISIS is not their protector against a West aligned with Assad and Iran, but that they  are part of an international effort.

So I think the main thing from our point of view, speaking to civil society organisations that are working on a different Syria, would be Assad is the main problem, the regime as such not so much, there are plenty of people inside the regime who are not as determined on having the security strategy. There are many people who recognise that this is not a way to solve the problem, but this is the way to take us deeper and deeper as we have seen over the past years.  So, it’s more really, whenever we ask people what would need to happen, it is talking about a change of the system, it’s about political reform, it’s about a transition more than about toppling the whole system, but it’s clear that all of them agree, this cannot happen by Assad.

And that they also say with the international non-commitment to really remove him, with the declaration or the demand that he should step back but nobody really willing to commit to do anything practical that this really happens, civil society and our political partners do not trust a transition that keeps Assad in place now because they say, “Well, who gives us the guarantee that in the end he will leave? Who’s now not willing to really do anything to remove him from power? How will these same actors be willing to remove him in six months or one and a half years?” So I think everybody there understands if Assad is not going now and if it’s not a swift removal of him from power, it will never happen.

This brings me to the last point that I would like to mention here, which is the Vienna process and what could the UK do within the context of this process.  I mean, the Vienna process might have flaws and it’s not perfect but it’s probably the best that we have at the moment. So in this process, it’s foreseen that the UN should take a leading role in bringing peace, bringing a ceasefire, bringing in the end a transition. To do this, the UN would first need to show that it is able to do anything, and Mr Sabbagh mentioned the UN resolutions that have not been implemented—Security Council resolutions—Russia has supported them, everybody in the Council has supported them, but nobody is taking steps to implement them. This is about humanitarian access, it is about an end to barrel bombs, it is an end of targeting civilians.

None of this has really been tackled and therefore I think maybe the UK should push within the UN for really having any of it as something that is tangible, something that really improves the situation of citizens on the ground in order to give the UN at least a minimum of credibility. Because otherwise, nobody in Syria can enter the ceasefire process or peace process, because there is no credible guarantor for the parties to stick to their commitments, and if the UN cannot take this role I think it will be an obstacle to even start. So first start something, like an end to aerial bombardment would be a major thing, end all bombardments that are not directly tackling ISIS and we’ll have much less civilian casualties and we’ll much more credibility for the UN.

And the humanitarian access, it’s a game to really focus on one area. All the world’s attention now is on Madaya whereas there are so many other areas that meanwhile are becoming more strangled. It’s a strategy to do that. It’s a strategy to keep international attention busy with that, to escalate the situation further even after negotiations start. so if there is a little bit of the stepping back on that, the international community will be happy with it and praise it, even though a one-time delivery is not what is intended in the first place. But yeah, the Syrian regime is taking the lead on that, and is weakening the UN by that, so I think if we look at the UK’s potential, maybe this would be the most important thing to do in order to give the UN the chance to lead such a process. Thank you.

Dr. Scheller thank you very much. Lots of questions I’m sure. That was very helpful.

Daniel Levy from the European Council for Foreign Relations, the head of the Middle East North Africa programme. Over to you Daniel for your insights.

Daniel Levy:
Thanks very much, Jo and to the co-chair and to the members of the group for existing, for trying to drum more interest and ideas, for holding these sessions, and for putting me on this platform.

My point of departure in terms of what you’ve brought us here for, I suggest, is not to kind of revisit and reiterate the debate you all had here and that you voted on late last year, but perhaps to remind ourselves what actually the Prime Minister said in his response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report. He said, “I’ve always been clear that defeating ISIL requires action on two fronts, military and political,” and he committed to putting Britain’s full diplomatic weight behind the Vienna process. I hope that what we haven’t seen is Britain’s full diplomatic weight because that wouldn’t be a very happy reflection on what Britain’s full diplomatic weight consists of these days.

And so, the fear is, and you actually wrote about this prior to the debate a couple of months beforehand, was that your concern was that Syria also becomes part of an exercise in UK parliamentary point-scoring. And I think that reached a height when you had the military strikes debate here, but I also fear that in having that debate, in focusing on that, it was almost a box-ticking exercise: OK, we’ve done Syria now, we’re doing something serious in Syria. We have the aircraft flying over Syria, they’re not stopping at the border, so we can move on.

We’ve got an answer to the question now: What are you doing on Syria? And we’ve got a second answer to the question, because we’re hosting a donor conference. The Kuwaitis have magnanimously stepped aside, they’ve been hosting donor conferences until now, and the UK will host a donor conference so we’ve done our bit. But the acknowledgement all along is that the humanitarian side is crucial—and credit to HMG for stepping forward, for being the second-biggest donor—so the humanitarian side is crucial, so that’s a band aid.

The military side actually isn’t very important, absent other things, and people aren’t focused on it anymore. But it hasn’t had much impact—which I think many people anticipated at the time—the fact that we’re now involved in military strikes.

So I think the challenge is to belatedly address what could putting one’s full diplomatic weight behind the Vienna process actually mean? And I think all along in that ‘are we going to bomb Daesh in Syria or not,’ you can’t have an ISIS first strategy, you need a Syria first strategy. There was a back and forth here on this number that the Prime Minister put forward of 70,000 moderate fighters. Very dubious, but it actually doesn’t matter if there are 7,000 or 700,000 if their focus is fighting the Syrian civil war. And their focus has not been and will not be Daesh. They won’t be the ground troops to our air force as long as their focus is defending themselves from the regime or trying to go on the offensive vis-à-vis the regime, so I praise this group for persevering in pushing that. What I want to do in the time I have is just briefly look at the current situation and the current circumstances on the political and diplomatic front, and then have a go answering your exam question on what British diplomatic strategy can do.

So firstly if one is looking at the political and diplomatic options, obviously the International Syria Support Group, the ISSG, the Vienna process, is the starting point and I’m going to make a couple of comments on that.

First of all, and on the positive side of the ledger, you now have, on paper at least, a plan: a  transitional government, a constitution, elections. You have  key protagonists in the region around the table. You have even today the Russians and Americans  meeting again at the highest level to see how one advance that process. You have a  UN Security Council resolution that reflects the conclusions of the Vienna process.  Against the backdrop of where we have been I would suggest that’s not nothing.

The other side of that ledger is equally clear, and lets not make light of it and pretend that what you have on paper is likely to be implemented any time soon, certainly not in the time frame that’s given. If anything, since the launching of the Vienna process things have, some of the tensions have become exacerbated. There has been a loss of momentum, first of all when the process was first launched there were two meetings at the senior ministerial level in the space of a month, and they haven’t met since; I mean they  met to pass the UN Security Council resolution, but there hasn’t been another meeting of that forum.

The Iran-Saudi situation has escalated rather than gone in the opposite direction. They’re duking it out in the pages of the New York Times right now, the foreign ministers, but probably more significantly for this room they’re doing so in much more devastating ways on the killing fields in Syria.

The Turkey-Russia situation has gotten significantly worse and that could have serious knock on effects, and of course the situation on the ground, the hopes that if you couldn’t resolve the big  ticket political items maybe you could make progress on the ceasefires and the humanitarian access, that has not really been borne out.

And the key dilemmas remain on all sides. On the opposition side, the attempt to form a delegation, a so-called Riyad process. And, it was referred to earlier in this panel, on the regime side a kind of consensus that one doesn’t want to see state collapse, and a repeat of mistakes made in Iraq, but not a consensus on: Can you avoid state collapse without Assad, and can you go anywhere with Assad? That’s a key fault line between the different protagonists of course, but that issue has assumed a symbolic significance beyond its weight.

But let me get to trying to be a bit prescriptive, and let me do so by just trying to think about three areas. And more a thought exercise, let me also make that clear, that I’d like to share. And I do so while acknowledging with humility the complexity of the situation, the difficulties, and one has to acknowledge also that Britain, or even Britain with European allies, is unlikely to be the decisive arbiter of what goes on in Syria. But I think that is not good enough, it’s not good enough to say well, it’s complex, and we are doing these other things, and we haven’t got that much leverage. I think this group is right to  ask the questions that it’s asking, it is right to try to come up with those answers.

So three ideas, then. First of all, I think we should acknowledge there is a British and European interest here that is not identical, not with the Syrian opposition, not with the  Syrian opposition’s regional backers, and not with the United States. And my colleague from ECFR Jeremy Shapiro will be with you later. This looks different from London or Paris to how it looks from Washington. And obviously our interests aren’t coincidental with the Assad-Russia-Iran side of this equation.

And so I would say that if the main vehicle right now of doing politics and diplomacy is the Vienna  process, is the International Syria  Support Group, well five of the twenty actors in that room—there are seventeen states and three international institutions—five of those twenty are European, but we haven’t tried to convene as a  set of Europeans who bring a particular need, and interest, and analysis, and set of ways of pushing this forward to the table.

The French have convened a group of like mindeds in advance of these meetings but we haven’t sung from the same hymn sheet, so to speak. And I think there is a message that we could come up with and try and advance with the Russians, with the Americans, and with the regional actors. And so let me first put that out, is to act more effectively as a caucus within this process, and to come up with what is our distinct position.

Number two: While  we may not have decisive leverage, we also do not have zero leverage, and we shy away away from using the leverage we do have with the different protagonists in this conflict. Let me just briefly run through what some of that might look like.

The equation of Britain—or the European five that I mentioned, which by the way is the EU, Britain, France, Italy, and Germany—the equation of our relations with the Gulf is not as unbalanced in their favour—the Saudis, other GCC states, who are deeply embedded in the Syrian conflict—is not as one sidedly stacked in their favour as we sometimes like to think. Our support has been important on Yemen—I think  that is problematic in its own right by the way, but if we think about leverage it’s relevant in this context—and we sell them stuff but it’s stuff they want to buy, and they might not necessarily have immediate alternatives.

It’s a hard choice, and I’m not saying Riyad is doing everything wrong; they played this role with convening the opposition, they have come to the room with Iran, and that wasn’t simple. But is our role to stiffen the spine of maximalism of the external regional actors or is our role to nudge and push them in the direction of compromise? My reading of the Americans is sometimes they look at us and they say, ‘We don’t really want you in a more intimate room because you are going to side with some of the opposition’s backers; when we are trying to get them to accept compromise, you are going to be telling them why not to accept compromise.’ That may be more true of the French, but I think it’s also not untrue of HMG, and we shouldn’t be selling them the false illusion that we will solve their problem for them. And I think that applies not only to Syria but to other things in the region.

On Iran, and I don’t how far one can go in trying to shift in any way the Iranian position on Syria, but we have a potential role, we collectively, and the UK is not in a unique position here, unlike in certain respects with the Gulf, but we as the Europeans have a certain access and a position to carry forward a diplomatic dialogue that the Americans don’t. I think America remains very constrained on what it can do diplomatically with the Iranians.

With Turkey, have we now basically bought into a deal where they can do what they want on Syria as long as they prevent people getting on boats, and we give them three billion in exchange? And do we actually create a perverse reverse incentive structure where you will let people on boats if not enough money is going, or you want more money? I think we have to have a much harder headed conversation with Turkey on its priorities, ISIS a general Syria solution, PKK etcetera.

Russia, are we prioritising—my other colleague Kadri is here, and she’ll go into much greater depth on Russia—but what is the prism through which we deal with Russia on Syria? Again, what hard choices do we have to make?

And in suggesting that we use this leverage more, the other thing I’d say is, we should be more in everyone’s face; Hollande, off the back of the tragic Paris attacks, went to Washington and Moscow. Off the back of this House authorising  the British military involvement, I didn’t see a stepped up diplomatic effort from our Prime Minister. I didn’t see an effort to say, ‘Well let’s go as an E3, let’s go as a European Five, to Moscow, to Washington, to the regional capitals.

And there is something to the idea of simply being a nuisance, being dogged, staying in people’s faces. My own experience speaks of this, which I won’t go into, but when you turn up, there is something  to turning up when it comes to situations like this and I think it is a bad situation when there is a higher intensity  of high level diplomatic engagement between the Gulf and Russia, who are ostensibly on  opposite sides—the Qatari Emir was in Moscow just this week—than there is between us and the key protagonists on Syria. It simply seems that putting our full diplomatic weight doesn’t consist in much.

 Finally, we can come up with our own ideas. We can bring resources and expertise to the table beyond the humanitarian—important as it is—relief, and beyond the military effort. If we’ve got ideas about how to devolve power, about what a power structure should look like, we shouldn’t be saying it’s not our job to bring this to the table  because the Turks, the Saudis, the Iranians might not like it, and the Americans have got their own ideas. We should not shy away from putting our own ideas on the table.

How can we help if there is a relevance—and I know there are questions marks because it may encourage this dreadful phenomenon of  sieges—but I think there is a relevance to more equitable local ceasefires, and to use that to achieve humanitarian access. We should be willing to back that up, we should be backing up de Mistura’s team, we should be offering monitors, we should be offering external  gaurantees. So I think there are other expertise and ideas that we can try and bring to the table.

Thank you Daniel. We’ve got a little bit of time for some questions to our panel. I’m just going to kick us off with one, taking the chair’s perogative. I think it was you, Dr Scheller that said that the regime in Damascus does respond to pressure, or you alluded to that, so my question to all three of you would be what kind of pressure, and what kind of role could the UK play in negotiating some kind of international pressure point strategy.

So that’s my starter for ten. Does anyone else have any questions for our panel? Yes, please.

Fadel Moghrabi:
Hi, my name is Dr Fadel Moghrabi, I’m a Syrian British doctor. I would like really to bring attention to something really very important. We are now talking about Syrian complexity, it’s really getting to be about four, five years of not really getting anywhere. Now we are talking about the last UN resolution, 2245, it’s come by agreement by the main UN members, especially the Permanent Members, including Russia, that we have to stop the fighting, have to stop the bombing, we have to actually open humanitarian access, and all of these things. What we see on the ground is completely the opposite. Has anybody actually noticed that Russia is actually running a lot more aggression than the Assad barbarity? They are actually bombing schools, they are bombing hospitals, they are bombing innocent civilians, mainly on the opposition side and not even in the ISIS areas, and that has even been brought forward by the Foreign Minister, Mr Philip Hammond. This has already been published so many times, and by the highest prestigious British newspapers—I’m talking about that Russia is driving the country to even more madness, and even more barbarity is going on. Is this not actually considered a war crime? And by one of the permanent seats on the UN Security Council that is supposed to be protecting the Resolution, and protecting the humanity, not actually driving a lot more madness.
Thank you.

Thank you. Any other comments or questions?

From the audience:
I’m sure I’m saying absolutely the wrong thing, like it’s a taboo subject, but the Kurds—I came a bit late, but nobody has talked about the Syrian Kurds, about the PYD, what’s happening in Rojava, the YPJ and the YPG, and they’re not even going to be—they haven’t been part of anything happening. They’re always out of it, because it’s our relationship with Turkey, and as we know that Turkey got the OK from NATO, but actually spent more time killing and bombing Kurds than it ever did with ISIS.

And there is that—nobody seems to understand it, but I think it’s so that that model that Rojava has, that you know that Sunni Muslim idea of a Syria which is going to be pluralistic for everybody, so it wasn’t just about the Kurds. Often there is this idea because of our press that the Kurds want a separatist state, but in fact they keep saying they don’t, and actually Rojava is now home to masses—maybe two million—of IDPs, who are Christians, Copts, Syrian Azeris, Arabs, so why haven’t any of you talked about that?

Because when we keep saying here in this country, oh it’s got to be local groups on the ground, the Americans are now equipping the YPG and the YPJ, who actually defended Kobani and rescued the Yazeris from Mount Sinjar, but we don’t. Can we just—I hope I’m not being terribly irrelevant but I’m really worried about that one.

Thank you very much. So we’ve got the pressure point, a little more on Russia, although we have an expert to talk more on Russia later, and the point about the Kurds, and anything else you want to say?

Bente Scheller:
Regarding the pressure, if we look at former decisions, and ways the Syrian regime has been handling difficult situations, I’ve basically studied all the situations after 1990, after the end of the Cold War, and there were only two instances when the Syrian regime has changed its behaviours significantly: one is in 1998 when Turkey threatened to intervene militarily in Syria because they wanted the PKK leader Ocalan to be handed over to them basically; and then 2005 when the Syrian regime came to be accused of having had the lead in assassinating the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

These were situations in which it was clear that the international community would be determined to pursue this, and this is the only time when we see significant changes of Syrian foreign policy, and therefore when I’m talking about pressure I mean a pressure that is with military threat, a pressure the Syrian regime lately felt after having used chemical weapons on its own population. In this one week where it was not clear whether an intervention would happen or not, was really a time where we saw so much movement inside Syria; we saw many factions, we saw many people from military hugh ranks, secret service, of the police, of the political part of the regime, really defecting, and going home, and saying now the time has come that things will change.

It was really obvious that this very serious military threat was percieved as something essential to everybody who was part of the regime, and therefore I’m convinced that before there is clear readiness of the international community to do a commitment, to if necessary apply military force, we will not see the regime moving voluntarily, we will not see Assad backing down or changing course.

As for the Kurds, I think you’re totally right, we have not mentioned them, and mainly I think because of the complexity of the whole issue. I think ISIS has been used as a pretext for Turkey to really do its own policy there at the expense of the Kurds, and I think in many regards we look at what’s happening in Rojava as potentially a model of how it could work in terms of setting up institutions, because this is the area in which this has worked best, but then at the same time I think it’s difficult to apply one model over all Syria. We might rather start from the point that they want to stay part of Syria, and maybe a different setting than a centralised state might be the direction in which this is pointing us.

Thank you. Mr Sabbagh.

Hussein Sabbagh:
I just would like to mention that as a former diplomat who worked with the regime, I get to understand maybe more than others how the regime and how high top officials really think. And even in private conversation, they always used to say that we don’t have any other choice but to win this battle, to win against the revolution. And we can ask just this simple question, without pressure why would the regime compromise? Why would Bashar al-Assad give up his place and position while he has the support from Russia and Iran, and the opposition has just a very little kind of support; I’m talking about military support.

We Syrians, whether in the opposition, or even normal Syrian citizens, we would love to have a simple political solution, but unfortunately under the current conditions a political solution is a myth. Without supporting the opposition, including military support, there won’t be a political solution.

And the pressure was very clear in the chemical deal. The regime only gave up the chemical weapons, well, the declared chemical weapons I would say, only when they saw that the UK Parliament is voting, the Congress is voting, that’s when the chemical deal happened, and it’s a very clear recent example.

Now just a small word on the Kurds: I mean, maybe Kurds were not mentioned because they’re part of Syrians, they also saw the same atrocities by the regime. But we don’t see the Kurds as one entity. A part of the Kurds in the Kurdish National Council are part of the Syrian National Coalition, but there are reports, and many reports, talking about YPG in particular targeting the Free Syrian Army and the moderate armed groups, and even some reports talk about ethnic cleansing in some villages, so the way that we see part of the Kurds, we see them as close to the regime, not close to the opposition, and it’s not because of a Turkish position.

Thank you very much. And Daniel, any last comments from you?

Daniel Levy:
I think it’s very instructive to both hear the background from Dr Scheller and the perspective of someone who was inside the system from Hussein Sabbagh. I’m not sure this will be a popular thing to say, but here’s my hesitation. First of all, we’re now in a different reality where Russia is ready to militarily deploy, which is different a ’90s or early 2000s reality. And I think that poses us with the following dilemma: If we want to say there’s a military outcome here that we can drive, and that we can generate sufficient pressure on Assad and those around him, I think we have to be honest with ourselves. We will only achieve that if we are willing to take ownership, real ownership, of the military solution of the situation in Syria.

It is not good enough to say that there may be 70,000 moderate fighters floating around somewhere for our struggle against Daesh. We actually have to own the removal of the regime.

And we are I believe correct in being very reticent about who we are willing to arm in Syria. I absolutely understand the desperate circumstances under which the fighting opposition exist. To me, there’s still a line when it comes to saying we’re going to make a local coalition with Jabhat al-Nusra which is the Syrian wing of Al Qaeda—they’re not as bad as ISIS, more of their fighters are Syrians—sure, the attenuating circumstances are very significant, but do we really want to be aligning ourselves with that? And I think the answer is no, and therefore I think that the hard, honest question we have to ask ourselves is are we willing to own and occupy Syria for a period of time.

That’s the alternative; we either have to double down militarily, and stop deluding ourselves that there are relatively easy to achieve no-fly zones, or shifts in the balance of power that we can drive forward, or we have to acnowledge the limitations of the military role, and hard as it is to see a way through, I still think it’s not as hard as seeing how we come out of militarily owning Syria better, hard as it is to see a way through we have to double down with the diplomacy and on the politics, which is what I therefore find myself advocating.

Because I think what we have is a situation of escalation and counter escalation, and there’s this ongoing cycle, and it’s of course never the right time therefore to broker a political compromise, because either our escalation is on the up, and therefore why would you make a compromise now, when we’re you know one last roll of the dice away from taking Aleppo away, from collapsing the regime, or the regime is on the up and therefore how could we possibly make a political compromise when the regime has the upper hand, because they’ll have a stronger position in negotiations. That is where you need hard-headed political realism from the external actors who aren’t as wedded to the symbolism that I think regional actors and local actors understandably are, of what one outcome or another looks like.

And therefore when I think in the current circumstances about leverage on Assad, the premise of Vienna is the following: We always kind of had this idea, well maybe Russia has enough ownership, has enough leverage on the Assad regime, that they can deliver some kind of compromise. Now Russia may well say that wasn’t true, but it is true now. It is true since they’ve undertaken this direct military intervention. I think we now have to test that hypothesis, and I think the only way we can test that hypothesis is if we can bring the opposition and their external backers to the table with a willingness to also compromise.

Let’s test what it means to have a transitional government, without preconditions. Is there a real option—well we’ve argued somewhere in a paper for ECFR to devolve power horizontally and vertically from the presidency to other organs of government, from Damascus to the regions, maybe that’s not the best way of doing it—but let’s put that theory, that the Russians can deliver something, to the test.

One comment on the Kurdish situation, first of all, when we talk about effective fighting forces on the ground, as the West, quite often that is who we are principally talking about. We should understand that for very real and ledgitimate reasons the PYD has limited territorial ambitions in Syria, and therefore they will only go so far in being our fighting force vis-a-vis Daesh.

I do think that in the context of what I’ve just described about leverage with the key external actors, the role they are assuming, and the extent to which we are now closer to the YPG, and therefore by extension to the PKK, I think that might be a point of leverage with Turkey, and I think it’s already being used as a point of leverage.

Thank you very much. Thanks to all of you very much.

We’re just going to drill down a little bit now with the next round of panellists on Russian, US, and Iranian policy and engagement in the Vienna process.

So we’re going to start with Jeremy Shapiro who was a member of the US State Department some time back. And it would be great, Jeremy, to hear from you—we have the broad context—a little bit more on the US’s strategy, particularly in light of the restart of the Vienna process, how engaged really is Kerry, and just generally your thoughts on the next few months.

Jeremy Shapiro:
Okay, I think I can try to do that. I’m new to town so my Washington view is somewhat fresh, so I think I should probably use it while I have it. I guess I wanted to talk—leading up to your questions—about how the US sees the state of play in three dimensions, one on the ground, the second in the Vienna process,  and finally what the US wants and maybe even expect from the UK.

So the first part is on the ground: The US sees two battles there which we have been talking about. They are conceptually I guess distinct, but not really very practically distinct: they are the anti-ISIS fight and the anti-Assad fight. It’s sometimes I think said that the US is really only participating in the anti-ISIS fight; that’s not really correct, that’s certainly not from their perspective correct. They’re different types of struggles and anti-ISIS has clear priority in Washington, but the US is actually I think a lot more involved in the anti-ISIS fight than people generally understand, and most importantly, perhaps, for better or worse it has not to changed its view that the Assad regime is the main cause of the continued civil war and that practically as well as morally it can’t really be part of the solution.

So in terms of the anti-ISIS struggle, I think for the US the view is that this was always going to be a long-term struggle. That was very present in President Obama’s speech in August of 2014 when that started, but there is in fact a sense that it is going reasonably well, at least in Iraq and Syria. They have in the past year and a half-ish stopped the ISIS momentum, they have been rolling back ISIS in Ramadi and Sinjar and elsewhere, taking away 40% of the territory they once had, and they’ve been slowly squeezing Raqqa and Mosul, and killing key leaders. And in fact the US has been engaged for the past two plus months in an escalation in the anti-ISIS fight throwing more resources, including resources on the ground, into it. The issue here is that there quite explicitly has never been a plan beyond the destruction of ISIS, and if ISIS is destroyed then in Iraq and Syria it’s not clear what follows.

The anti-Assad fight is seen as much more problematic and complicated. It’s often phrased, and it has been even here, as a resource or a political will problem. But in the Washington view I think the fundamental problem in this part of the struggle is in fact not resources, or will. Syria, or the anti-Assad struggle in Syria at least, is a proxy war. That means that escalation unfortunately is beside the point if it provokes a counter escalation from external supporters of the other side, and that just increases the violence. I think both Russia and the United States understand that a political solution is needed, at least they say it constantly, but both want to negotiate that political solution from a position of strength, and so they precede negotiations with escalation. The Russians are currently in a more confident phase, they have seen incremental advances around Aleppo and the south, but to my mind the broader story of the last four years is that escalation doesn’t really work for either side; there have been many rounds of escalation, it brings some momentum but it tends to dissipate when the external supporters of the other side counter-escalate. And what that means is that ending the war, ending the violence, will require concessions particularly on Assad, but for a variety of reasons in terms of allies, in terms of credibility, in terms of the morality of the question, the US government is not yet prepared to make those concessions, so the cycle at least with Russia continues on.

The current focus in the US—and this is maybe a little bit detailed but I think it’s really important to understand—the current focus is on a little strip of northwestern Syria called the Azaz corridor. This is a key corridor in northwestern Syria for supplying the opposition forces, particularly around Aleppo, from Turkey. It is now only about 8 kilometres wide at its narrowest point; if it’s cut off and the Turkish border is sealed, Aleppo will probably fall. It’s not clear who it will fall to actually, but fall it will. And that would mean more massive refugee flows and suffering. Aleppo, at least before the civil war started, was Syria’s  largest city. The Russians are helping both the regime and the PYD to cut off this corridor, and so the very—this is a very small piece of territory—the very complicated interaction between the Kurds, the Russians, the Turks, and the Americans, and the opposition of course, in the Azaz corridor risks and very serious escalation whether on purpose or by accident between the Russians and the Turks, or between the Russians and the United States. And the have already been some close calls in that regard. The US is faced with the reality in this region of Syria that the opposition, as Daniel was mentioning, is really an amalgam of moderate and extremist forces  that includes some rather extremist unsavoury forces from a US perspective including the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra. And it’s frankly simply impossible, or at least the United States has never figured out how, to disentangle them. So in the Azaz corridor the US policy essentially risks going to war with Russia in order to protect Al-Qaeda. And that is not an ideal situation from a US policy perspective.

So that brings me to the Vienna process which is seen as the real way out, which is the general agreement, and there is I think not much optimism in the short term about that process, but it is still viewed as very important as having a place to go for when events on the ground permit progress, and when the next counter escalation makes you strong. There are a lot of disputes right now over representation. And you know the Russians and the Turks and the Saudis have, from a Washington perspective, all been varying degrees of unhelpful.

But there is a determination to hold the Russians to the decisions that were made in the Riyad process about who should represent the Syrian opposition in the Vienna process, perhaps allowing others that the Russians want in as observers including the Kurds, but that that was the process that was agreed on and it should be stuck to, and John Kerry has been advancing that line with great perseverance as he is wont to do. And there is I would say determination to hold these meetings even if they do get delayed and even if the timetable slips.

So what does the US want from the UK in this situation? In terms of the anti-ISIS fight it has mostly got what it wanted when the UK decided to expand the fight to Syria. But frankly mostly what it wants is political support. The military is important too for some of its capabilities, I would say, but it’s not the essential feature. The essential feature given the somewhat shaky legal basis of the anti-ISIS fight is that lots of countries are on board, and that other countries are participating. There are also big financial needs for rebuilding in retaken areas, particularly in Ramadi and Sinjar which I think the United States would like the UK and others to contribute. And maybe most importantly there is increasing worry about ISIS in Libya particularly, affiliates generally but Libya particularly. The US doesn’t view the anti-ISIS fight as purely about Iraq and Syria. Iraq and Syria is clearly central, but the US would love European leadership—and that’s fine if that’s UK—on the issue of dealing with ISIS in Libya as it feels it’s taking leadership in Iraq and Syria.

On the anti-Assad fight and in Vienna it’s the usual, I would say, US-UK story about what is wanted. Washington wants political support but not really independent opinions. There is a strong temptation to work bilaterally with the Russians in part for just reasons of efficiency; we’ve already seen some tendency toward this. I think, as my colleague said in the last session, that this should be a problem for the UK. There is not enough awareness of the geopolitical risks to Europe from refugees and terrorism that are coming from Syria and Iraq, and I think it would be not the height of diplomatic responsibility to assume that the United States will represent UK interests adequately in that process.

Jeremy, thank you very much for your insight. We’ll come back to you with questions. I would like to invite Leila now, Laila Alodaat, Syrian human rights lawyer.

Laila Alodaat:
Thank you very much. Thank you for forming this group, and for being here. It’s really a privilege to speak here.

I’m going to discuss these events from the point of view of the civil society who is working in Syria and around Syria. We have been working very closely with them, in Syria and Iraq mainly, on the new emerging threats that they are facing. And I want to highlight three points. One of them is the situation of civil society and how UK policy can capitalise on them, on what they can do to reach common goals. The second point is on the disproportionate impact of this conflict on women, and what the UK can do about that, and the third one is on civilian protection. I’ll do that as quickly as I can.

On the civil society, the thing that we don’t hear in this country is that there is an amazing civil society that is still operating in the most dangerous country in the world. They’re organised, they manage to survive some of the worst perpetrators that you can think of, from the Assad regime to ISIS and everything in between them, they continue to achieve some sort of normality in the most abnormal place in the world. And by that I mean there’s groups for work under ISIS, or in Damascus under Assad, and who are still able to provide some sort of healthcare where this is being denied systematically, some sort of secular education under ISIS when that is the biggest crime that can happen, they are providing some support to women who are victims of the violence; these kind of things are completely overlooked, and those are the normal and the natural resistance of ISIS and should be capitalised on.

Unfortunately when the military option was chosen to fight ISIS there hasn’t been enough investment in the non military options, in the non-violent means. Had there been the same or similar investment in these, the situation would have been very different. It’s time to ask after a few months from the vote here on attacking ISIS, and also after over a year and a half of actually attacking ISIS by other countries, what have we achieved? What has the military option achieved? Is ISIS eliminated? Does it control less territory? Most of us know the answers to these questions, and from the point of view of people who live under their control, things are even worse. While on the other hand the very few groups who still work there, with very little support, managed to make some sort of development, so investing in these is an absolute necessity.

It’s also very important to, regarding the civil society who don’t necessarily live under ISIS, to look at their mobility. These people keep some sort of access for us to know what’s happening inside, and also for the people inside to be able to run away when they need to, to survive if they have to, and to exchange information, humanitarian aid and so on. And unfortunately with the blockage that Syria is going through, now most recently with the visas of Turkey; this shouldn’t be looked at as a visa decision, as a logistical issue of a country, it’s a human rights issue, because now Syrians inside Syria have absolutely nowhere to go to, whether to flee, whether to get information, or any of the things I mentioned, and it has to be changed. Unfortunately the EU deal with Turkey hasn’t been to give better options to refugees; it has been to provide a longer wall around them, and that wouldn’t help anybody. So that is very important, finding solutions for mobility and investing in civil society organisations, particularly grassroots organisations.

On the disproportionate impact on women, we hear about a few women as victims in this conflict, as victims of sexual violence, or some sort numbers, but what we don’t see is the disproportionate impact on them. Some of our research showed that 74% of girls in Syria are killed by explosive weapons, mainly used by the regime. And that’s a huge number. They form most of civilians, women are most of civilians because most fighters are men, and it reflects what sort of threats civilians face. And with the fact that they have less options, they have less access to healthcare, less access to education, it’s a very scary situation and exceptional measures should be taken to give women an option to survive inside Syria but also to give refugee women in areas around Syria an option.

Mainly what we call far is a shift of attention from emergency measures, which are very important and they do serve some people at a particular point in time, to long-term measures, mainly ensuring a safe and a dignified voluntary return, which is never on the table. Nobody is mentioning this, this is what the refugees want. There is no way for them to continue living in the countries around Syria, and nobody is discussing how could they go back.

A few issues that they face, that impact women particularly, are for example that none of the countries around Syria have taken responsibility for registering births, marriages, divorces, and so on. And that has an immense impact on them because it’s causing an exponential increase of statelessness. This country is a party to the convention on reduction of statelessness, and it’s a very, very important commitment, and nothing is being done regarding that. The UK is one of the biggest donors when it comes to the UNHCR, and this is a recommendation that should be put on the table.

On the civilian protection, thank you for the earlier presentation, it’s exactly what I wanted to say, in most of it. There are two issues that we need to highlight. The talks that were supposed meant to happen on Monday, and that probably are not going to happen because Russia decided that they want to decide who’s going to negotiate on behalf of the opposition, since they have already decided who’s going to negotiate on behalf of the regime, so it seems that it’s not going to happen. And that is problematic on so many levels, because exactly as Bente said it’s not good but it’s the only option we have. It is the political solution we’ve been hoping for and we need it to work.

And we need what we have finally achieved to be put in a Security Council decision, which is a ceasefire. And I interpret it a bit widely to include all use of tactics of war against civilians, against unarmed people who have no option, to cease immediately, and none of the people in that room will raise that. The opposition is being convinced that raising this is going to make the negotiations cease immediately, so they better not raise it, and that also applies to accountability, and the other countries don’t take that priority.

And we expect the UK to take the lead on this. To make sure that Security Council Resolution 2254 is implemented, and that a ceasefire, ending all the tactics of war used against civilians, is unnegotiable, has to start, has to be monitored, and that has to be international monitoring mechanisms, and the UK can provide personnel or funds to support that.

The other thing is accountability. Unfortunately it’s always been looked at as an obstacle to political change, that if we mentioned prosecution or any form of accountability then why would Assad want to make any sacrifices if he’s going to go to the ICC, and so on. That is if we look at it as a reduction of all accountability measures into punitive, into prosecution, when it’s much more than that. Prosecution might be an obstacle at this point in time, but collecting the information, an independent fact finding mission is a necessity because this information is the right of the people, of the victims, the survivors.

And all other accountability measures that are related to victims and survivors, reparations, giving them something as simple as them having access to their lands, to land registry and so on, which is completely destroyed. All the area in the centre of Syria, Homs and everywhere around it, all the documents have been completely destroyed systematically so people don’t have any land registry. And so on.

Reparations, fact finding, at least acknowledging that they have some rights, so we would like accountability that revolves around the victims to be back on the table, not only revolving around the perpetrator. And I want to stress a very important point that I mentioned: We have to stop looking at protection as one driven by the perpetrator we don’t like. We will not be able to protect groups just because, or shedding light on groups that need protection, just because ISIS is the perpetrator, it needs to be civilian-centred protection measures.

And that takes me to the Kurdish issue. First, it’s very important, I’ve worked with ethnic minorities for a very long time in Iraq and Syria and I claim to know a little bit about that, and it’s such an offense to the core of Kurdish people to mix it with a fighting group like the PYD. Disregarding what I think of them, the way that the issue of minority groups in Syria is being put now, that they have been okay and suddenly in 2011 there have been threats against them either  by the opposition, or by ISIS, is actually offensive to minorities. They have been systematically persecuted for so many years, whether ethnic minorities or religious minorities, they have been denied almost all of their rights as communities. Unless that is addressed, and it has to be addressed by independent groups and by the state as a unit, and I’d rather not look at solving the Kurdish issue which is very important and a priority by supporting an armed chauvinist group, because we know that armed men don’t solve problems of groups or individuals or civilians. They haven’t, and just recently unfortunately there has been another attack on civilians and on human rights activists by the PYD, and I don’t think that overlooking this is good for anybody.

And I will stop here.

Thank you very much Laila, really helpful. And Ian, Ian Bond, British diplomat of many, many years. Ian, it would be great to hear from you your perspective on both the US and Russia, but also your general thoughts on other regional players and what happens next.

Ian Bond:
Okay, well I think I’ll focus mostly on Russia, and I should say former British diplomat lest anybody think I’m speaking for the government.

Starting with the role of Russia, there are a wide variety of views on what Russia is up to. If you take President Putin at face value then what he wants us to think of is that we should join some sort of anti-Daesh coalition which would be like our great alliance during the Second World War. I’m rather suspicious of his motives in this. So what I think is going on I will try to describe in these three ways.

The first is, Putin is showing unlike the Americans he stands by his allies. Putin I am sure is sending the message to the Egyptians and others: The Americans will desert you in a crisis as they did with Hosni Mubarak; I on the other hand will stand by you. He is not a fan of expressions of popular will like Tahrir Square or like the Maidan in Ukraine, and he generally regards them in any case as being organised by the CIA. So his message to strongmen in the region is you can’t trust the Americans but you can trust me. I don’t think anyone should assume that Putin is ready to voluntarily give up Assad. He has never shown any compunction about backing people who are pretty bloodstained dictators. I mean if you look within Russia at the situation in Chechnya, and I’ll return to this in a moment, being a war criminal is not a bar to high office or to Putin’s favour. So I don’t see why, particularly at a time when actually Assad with Russian help, is doing rather well on the battlefield, Putin would take the risk of trying to engineer what could be quite a messy transition or succession within the current regime in Syria.

That’s the first element. The second element is Putin I believe wants to help Assad implement a variation of what Putin himself did in Chechnya, which is to say clearing the middle ground. The first Chechen war ended with a peace deal with a relatively moderate nationalist leader in Chechnya, and if things had been allowed to unroll I suspect that after a few years most of the world, and perhaps Russia itself, would have accepted Chechnya as an independent structure of some sort. What actually happened was the moderate and those around him were assassinated, and the new face of Chechen nationalism was a sort of crazed Islamist terrorist and mass murderer called Shamil Basayev and suddenly Putin could go to his Western colleagues and say look, okay you don’t like what I’m doing in Chechnya, you don’t like the fact that I’m flattening Grozny and that people are disappearing and so on, but your choice is my way or this crazy radical who beheads British engineers, so we all hold our noses and we accept the way that Putin does business.

And I think that’s exactly what he’s aiming at in Syria, is you clear everybody off the battlefield except Assad and Daesh, and you say: Assad is up to his neck in blood, but at least he’s not going to come after you and your sisters. Daesh may have killed by comparison with Assad only a tiny fraction of the number of people, but they are more of a direct threat to Western interests. And I think he’s counting on us saying: Okay, Assad is a son of a bitch but he is only a threat to his own people, he’s not a threat to us.

The third is Putin wants to show that even if he can’t solve the Syrian crisis, he can certainly make it worse for us. It’s quite interesting looking at the UNHCR data on refugee flows since the Russians began their bombing campaign, and the fact that people are moving away from the areas that the Russians are targeting, for example around Aleppo. And meanwhile the Russians are making it harder for the Coalition to do what it wants to do, with the introduction of a lot more anti-aircraft defences and so on into Syria, which means that in a way you’re almost in a situation where you have to ask Russia’s permission before you can launch operations. Now I don’t know to what extent that’s making a practical difference to what we can do or what others can do in air operations against Daesh, but if for example we ever started to think about creating a no-fly zone where, you know,  barrel bombs could no longer be dropped and so on, then obviously if we can’t enforce that because our aircraft are constantly under threat from anti-aircraft defences, we can’t do it.

So I absolutely agreed with the Defence Secretary who said in Paris today that he was increasingly disturbed by Russian bombing and the effects that it was having, but I thought it was wishful thinking on his part to say that Russia should use its influence to make clear that Assad has no future in Syria. I think that’s absolutely the opposite of what the Russians are aiming at.

And a kind of final side thought on Russian aims: I think that the collateral damage on Europe from the refugee crisis may not be part of Russia’s original intentions, but it is certainly quite welcome. If you look at the way the Russian news agency Sputnik, and the infamous RT, are stirring up even more tension than already exists, and at the funding and the other links between Russia and extreme right anti-migrant groups in Europe, there is a clear interest there in playing on the cleavages that already exist in Europe on how to handle the refugee crisis.

Now Russia could certainly do something to help with the refugee crisis; according to some Oxfam figures, Russia is providing about 3% of the aid that you would expect a country with its GDP to be providing for Syrian refugees. By comparison, the UK is providing about 150%, and the Kuwaitis about 450% of what you might estimate based on GDP. And it’s not as though like, say, the Germans who are also not spending that much in the region, it’s not as though the Russians are making up for that by taking a lot of refugees. In the first nine months of last year they apparently granted refugee status to two Syrians. So they’re not really doing much burden sharing there, but they are helping to feed the enormous numbers of refugees who are coming into Europe, and they’re playing on the strains that’s creating.

Quick policy conclusions that I would draw:

The first is we can’t avoid talking to the Russians about Syria, because whether we like it or not, they have the ability to block anything that we would like to do there. We might have been able to avoid that two or three years ago, we didn’t, we’re sort of stuck with them as one of the actors at the table. That doesn’t mean we have to agree with them.

So the second thing is we have to base our policy on the assumption that the Russians are pursuing fundamentally different objectives to us. We want Assad out, we might be able to find tactical areas of cooperation with the Russians, but basically they do not want Assad out, and it’s not clear to me how you find a compromise between those two objectives.

Third thing, if you are going to find a compromise you’ve got to create incentives and disincentives, not only for the Russians but for all the patrons and their proxies in the region. Now does that come in the form of more sanctions, whether against Russia or against others that we think are playing an unhelpful role? I mean it might do, or it might come in the form of better enforcement of the sanctions that we already have, or it might mean more help for the groups on the ground in Syria that we think have some long term potential to be able to contribute to a solution, or it might be about finding other things that Putin really wants from the West.

One thing I think it should absolutely not be about is making a trade off between Syria and Ukraine. You know, there have been suggestions from some European politicians that basically because Putin is helping us in Syria, even if you accept that he is, but let’s say that Putin is helping us in Syria, we must therefore lift the sanctions on him in Ukraine even though he remains in occupation in Crimea and there are still Russian troops on the ground in eastern Ukraine, so there’s a tradeoff there that we mustn’t make.

And the very last point that I would make is about the importance of Western, and especially European unity, and I think Daniel Levy in the first session made a very, very important point there. We are never going to solve the refugee crisis that preoccupies European politicians so much unless we can solve the Syrian conflict which is causing the refugee crisis, and the more that we spend our energy on wrangling over who is going to take how many refugees, the less we are actually getting to the fundamental question which is the root cause of the conflict.

Thank you very much Ian, that’s really helpful. Kadri, over to you. We’re running out of time, but over to your insights.

Kadri Liik:
Thank you. I’m also a lifelong Russia watcher, so I will try to give you my understanding of what drives Russia’s policy in Syria.

To start with I think it is rooted in three contexts: One is domestic, one is transactional, one is strategic. The latter is the most interesting for us, but just briefly on the domestic front: Putin needs something to mobilise the society to provide the regime with necessary legitimacy now that living standards are falling, so some sort of action abroad is likely to, or maybe not abroad, maybe internal, is likely to be part of Putin’s modus operandi for the coming years.

Transactional: Russia probably hopes that by opening a front in Syria it will widen its conversation with the West and get out of the dead end it had reached in Donbass, and the sanctions. They are not posing it as a clear quid pro quo, they’re not explicitly trying to trade Syria for Donbass, but you can see how they hope that just by a changed context things will somehow sort themselves out there too.

But the most interesting of course for us is the strategic context. One component of that is really Russia trying to show the West that Russia is capable of more decisive action in Syria, basically punishing the West for its mishandling of the Middle East and showing how things should be done. But I don’t think it is solely about Western policy. And it’s not also solely about a Russian base in Syria, although clearly they want to keep it, that’s their only base in the Mediterranean, and the fall of Assad would have brought that under question. But I think they really are trying to bring about a solution in Syria, but that solution is very different from the Western desired solution.

How is it different? A few points: On a very fundamental level, the West has tried to sort out problems in the Middle East by making these countries more democratic. Sometimes it has been horribly mishandled, but that has been the intention, to give all groups representation, deal with political corruption, establish some sort of more law based environment, and hope that this deals with sources of terrorism in the Middle East. Russia does not believe in democratic stability as such. Russia’s instinct in the Middle East is to support the strong man, to push the genie of popular revolution back into the bottle and hope it goes away.

That has been their thinking ever since the First Gulf War. I have had conversations with Russian analysts about the fate of Saddam, they would argue that Saddam is what keeps Iraq together. They haven’t—that’s important to know—they haven’t experienced democratic stability themselves in Russia, that has never existed. What was called democracy was chaos for them. So they can accept that democratic stability exists somewhere in the West, but they don’t think it possible elsewhere, least of all in the Middle East in the foreseeable future.

They do see Assad as a solution rather than a problem, unlike us. Their aim in Syria is to preserve the state, they see preservation of the regime as the key to that, and Assad’s power as key to preservation of the regime. It is also, yes, as Ian said, about protecting vassals, that is very important, they don’t want to be seen as abandoning their allies, and they want to to take care of them.

Russia is also against transitional justice, people being punished for their crimes, and yet again something Russia is against also on its own soil. I mean Stalin’s crimes have not been addressed in Russia the way they should be. So it’s a pretty principled position.

But I tend to believe Russians when they say they are not personally wedded to Assad, that under certain conditions they might let him go. But these conditions are different, that would not be an exit of a disgraced dictator, rather a wealthy retirement of a prominent statesman, and only if they think that the regime is not endangered by his departure. If they find so to say Assad’s Medvedev to take care of Syria, then they might allow Assad to go.

I think there are also limits as to how far Russia wants to tackle ISIS. Russia’s position towards ISIS is pretty dual track. On the one hand they really see it as a serious problem, undoubtedly so. On the other hand it’s also semi official thinking in Moscow that we need to keep ISIS busy in the Middle East lest they come to Russia. Russia’s North Caucasus is basically a (?) region in Russia, and what they have been doing, they have tried to get extremists to leave North Caucasus for the Middle East rather than vice versa, and they say that right now there are 4,000 Russian citizens fighting with ISIS, and 6,000 people from Central Asia, who have visa-free access to Russia, so they all could come to Russia, and that’s why I think Russia is actually interested in creating additional battle fronts for ISIS in the Middle East for at least some time.

Then there have been some hopes in the West that terrorist attacks, namely ISIS downing the Russian passenger plane, has changed their thinking and made them take action against ISIS; that is naive, that is not how terrorism influences thinking in Russia, be it the population or be it the government.

The population has seen some pretty bad terrorism in the last decades. People have been blown up in their apartment blocks in their sleep. Schoolchildren have died in their first day of school. Often it’s unclear who has caused the attacks, and there are some very ugly suspicions. In the society that basically creates an instinct to steer clear and pray it doesn’t come our way. They are not going to go out to demand an intervention.

Government then again has used terrorism, be it at home or be it abroad, to advance the policies that were already in the pipeline; it has used them as openings but they have never been policy changers. Even 9-11, some people see it as a policy changer, I would argue it was not. Russia was looking to improve its relationship with the West, and then this thing happened and that was used as a big PR move. A good opening, but it doesn’t change policy.

So what is Russia’s plan? Exactly as Ian described: Support the regime, eliminate the middle ground. Basically make them surrender, although Russia accepts that in order to get Western acceptance for the plan, and that is part of their plan, that the West who doesn’t have better alternative solutions and is desperate because of the refugee situation, will need to accept Russia’s policy as the only workable one.

So they are probably willing to make some concessions to the West and Western allies, say Free Syrian Army for example. They will probably agree to see that as part of a future settlement, they might agree to put some pressure on Assad to that end, but that will all be limited in nature. They will not go against their basic vision of what works and what does not, and for them inviolability of regimes is a very strong notion that I think they are going to defend even if we were willing to trade our policy on Ukraine. I don’t think we have anything as such to offer to Russia that would make them change their basic positions.

And ISIS they would leave for later.

Can this policy change? Maybe if it runs into the ground if it doesn’t work, if it becomes a boring war with no exit strategy, but that will be many years and many lives later.

Also, things could change if emotions take over; that is another important thing to know about Moscow. The Kremlin’s thinking is very ideological and very emotional. Russia’s current Syria policy, fairly exceptionally actually for Russia, is largely shaped by specialists. Russia has very good specialists on the Middle East, and they have grown through political ranks, so if you look at Russia’s policy in different geographical directions then on the Middle East they probably are better in understanding the situation on the ground than anywhere else. But it is fragile, it could be that the Kremlin being personally offended by something or someone, say Turkey downing its plane, will embark on revenge, and just push the expert advice aside. Then of course the situation will change.

Or the way we might change it is to have a credible, workable Syria policy of our own that would compel Russia to correct values. Our policy so far to try to persuade Russia to persuade Assad to leave is simply not good enough.

Kadri, thank you very much. We’re out of time but let’s just give a little bit of time if anyone has any questions. I do have one that I’d be really interested in. We haven’t spoken about Iran. I think that there were Iranian experts who couldn’t make it. If any of you have any reflections on the role of Iran, either in terms of bilateral relationships that we’ve talked about, or their key role as a regional player, that would be very interesting. And anyone else if you have any questions—yes please.

Wael Aleji:
Yes, we talk a lot about the international and regional players, and about the conflicting interests, but rarely do we speak about the Israeli factor. I think it is a major factor and it is influencing the course of events, but it hasn’t been addressed properly when we talk about the Syrian conflict, so I would be interested in hearing something about it.

Great, any other last questions or reflections? Any last reflections on anything you want to be reflected in the report that we will ultimately write and send to the Prime Minister? But also, your reflections on Iran, and actually just one question for you Jeremy, on the personal dynamic between Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov, I’d be really interested to know if you have any insight into how that’s going.

Jeremy Shapiro:
Sure, I guess on the direct question, you know Secretary Kerry is somebody who believes very deeply in the ability of personal relationships to transcend diplomatic realities, to a degree which is both admirable and touching. And I think that his relationship with Lavrov is reflective of that. It has been important to him from the very first day.

I would point out that Secretary Clinton, who I worked with in the State Department, had a very very bad relationship with Lavrov, which touched on his incredible misogyny. And Kerry was determined, not suffering from that debility I guess, to improve upon that relationship, and honestly he has. They have a good relationship on a personal level, they smoke cigars together, they drink some sort of brown liquid, cognac or something, together frequently, and they feel as if they have a relationship not exactly of trust but of an effective ability to working together. At least that’s how Kerry views it. I think it’s probably true; it doesn’t matter. Lavrov is not the solution to Russia’s problems, he is an effective Russian diplomat, he is a representative of Putin, but he is not a decision maker, he is not someone whose opinion on John Kerry really matters to Russian policy, so my personal view is that, at least in the case of Lavrov, maybe Kerry has over-invested. There’s no negative effects of that, except possibly on his liver, but I don’t think it’s been an effective mechanism.

And anything on Iran?

Jeremy Shapiro:
Sure, I think it is a shame that we have neglected Iran here, because it is a critical player. Until Russian intervention it was a significantly more critical player than Russia, and I think that there is a struggle between Russia and Iran for influence in Syria even though they are allies. And that does tell us something about Russia’s ability—even absent all of the points that Ian and Kadri made—about Russia’s ability to make concessions here. Because Iran has much firmer, much more direct, much less ideological interests in Syria. It is engaged, in its view, in a regional power struggle with Saudi, and it has critical elements within Syria that it wants to maintain, particularly access to Lebanon, and ensuring that no hostile power, particularly Saudi Arabia, has control over Damascus.

And they will fight to the very last Syrian for those aims, and if the Russians don’t support them, they will fight anyway. And they have a lot of capacity and will to do that. So they are a critical piece of the solution even though they have faded a tiny bit, not really but at least in our consciousness they have faded a little bit into the background. Just as though there is no solution to Syria without the Russians being on board at the moment, so there is no solution without the Iranians being on board because they have the capacity to spoil anything we do in opposition to them.

On the lifting of sanctions, on the sanctions deal with Iran, does that have any impact on Syria?

Jeremy Shapiro:
No, I don’t—I mean, let’s say it has a minor impact in the US domestic political situation, because someone in the first panel referred to the fact that it’s very difficult for the US to interact with Iran at all, and that obviously inhibits the capacity to do diplomacy on something like Syria. The Iran deal has reduced that a little bit, and I think the events over the past week have reduced that a little bit, and so to the extent that the US and Iran are at least able to talk to each other, that is I think a minor but significant step to them being able to reach some sort of agreement on Syria.

But there is from neither side, neither the Iranians, nor the Americans, nor the Europeans or anybody else, any sense that having solved, or having at least reached agreement on the nuclear programme, that they are then going to move on in the spirit of cooperation to the Syria problem. In fact those problems in the Iranian negotiation, by the mutual consent of all sides, were very well cabined from each other, and there was really no progress on the Syrian front. And it’s the US view that, not just in Syria but in vast parts of that region, the Iranian role remains very very negative. There remain sanctions on Iran for that role, for their sponsorship of terrorism, for their troublemaking in places like Iraq and Yemen, as well as Syria and Lebanon, and so I think that that remains a significant problematic area concerning relations.

Thanks Jeremy. Kadri, a similar range of questions to you.

Kadri Liik:
Thank you. Yes, on Lavrov and Kerry, I largely agree with what Jeremy said. I think Lavrov also respects John Kerry, but that doesn’t translate into Russia’s policy because Lavrov really is not a decision maker, or he is a decision maker on matters that are left in the hands of the Foreign Ministry but these are not very important matters, and even on those not always.

What I disagree slightly with, I think there has been some harm done at certain junctures, say Kerry’s visit to Sochi this summer may have accidentally sent some wrong messages to Russia. Russia thought the world needs Russia and cannot stick to sanctions against Russia, and that may have made it harder for sanctions to work because our unity or our resolve in sticking to them was seen as in doubt because Kerry was sending some other signals. So I think he should restrain that every now and then.

On Iran, Russians stress always that they are accidental allies with Iran, that they are not taking sides in a sectarian conflict in the Middle East, they are not siding with Shias. That is quite self-evident actually when one thinks that Russia’s own Muslims are Sunnis etcetera, but somehow this question seems to arise. They acknowledge Iran for having paid attention to Russia’s interests in most of the conflicts of the last decades; really the faring of the Caspian is the only struggle between them. And they also know how to treat Iran; to pay respect, to make symbolic gestures.

So that looks like pretty win-win for now, but it does not necessarily last because in a way the relationship with Russia and Turkey looked the same; they managed to compartmentalise, they managed to agree on certain things and agree to disagree on other things, and that was pretty unique in the context of Russia’s international relationships because that kind of pragmatic compartmentalised relationship is rare for Russia. They tend to classify countries into friends or foes, or vassals or enemies when it comes to neighbours. So I wonder how lasting that relationship with Iran is; as we have just seen with Turkey, it lasted a long time, but then it suddenly did not any more.

Thank you—Laila.

Laila Alodaat:
Two things. First of all is there is a window for change in the Syrian conflict now. The talks that are supposed to happen, maybe not next week but soon, are an important stage and there is a lot of influence that can be made, and Britain is in a great place to make that influence, to bring the extra dimension of civilian protection and accountability back to the table. That should be capitalised on.

The second thing, on ISIS, the actor that will defeat ISIS is the Syrian and Iraqi people. Others might make them weaker, changing the territory they control, but the ones who will defeat and exterminate them are the Syrian and Iraqi people, and for that they first need to be allowed to be there, they need access to their country, and that their country should not be flooded with arms. And unless some sort of protection is secured for the Syrian people and for the Iraqi people, and some accountability is done towards those who have done so bad to them over the past few years, I don’t see how ISIS would actually lose the cities they have, the communities that are now hosting them.

Ian Bond:
Well, there isn’t much really that I can add to what Kadri said. One thing that I would say on the relationship between Russia and Iran, also between Russia and Saudi Arabia, is particularly at the moment they do have conflicting interests in the oil market. Now at some point do they get round the table and try to sort out their differences on that issue, or does that actually make it harder for Russia and Iran to continue to cooperate, when basically the more oil Iran sells on the world market, the more stuffed Russia’s economy is. That’s a question which I don’t know the answer to yet, but it’s certainly I think in the coming months going to be a very interesting one to watch.

And on Kerry and Lavrov, I agree that one should not over-invest in Lavrov, he does a very good job for a brutal and unpleasant regime, but he is the monkey, not the organ grinder.

Great, thanks Ian, and thank you to everyone for your insights and sharing today. We’ve got our next session of this APPG on the military role the UK is playing in the civil war on the 9th of February, and we’ll then shortly look to publish a report to the Prime Minister which will take into account your evidence. Thanks ever so much for joining us today, and thanks everyone for attending.