Quite by chance, I was the first Western Foreign Minister to have a one-to-one meeting in Damascus with Bashar al Assad days before his father’s death in June 2000, and his succession as Syrian President. He seemed decent if naïve (his elder brother the favoured successor until his death in a car crash and Bashar expecting to remain a London surgeon).
What a brutal contrast with the callous butcher Bashar was to become: driving his people into carnage and chaos instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.
But the horror in Syria is also the product of a monumental foreign policy misjudgement which reached its nadir in the Prime Minister’s humiliation when trying to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike. Current and former foreign Office officials are in despair.
Britain began with a demand for Assad’s unconditional departure – which didn’t work. Then we resourced rebel forces – which failed too. Then we got EU arms embargo lifted and tried to arm the rebels – until cross-party opposition in Parliament blocked that.
And, abhorrent though chemical weapons are, experts estimate they account for just 1 per cent of all the terrible causalities in Syria.
Of course Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror. So have the Saudis and Qataris. But Britain, too, is culpable.
We should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. Assad was reported to be willing to consider the proposal by the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for a ceasefire for the four-day Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday beginning at the end of October 2012.
But instead of urging their friends in the opposition to declare that they would reciprocate if Assad made good on his tentative promise, the Western powers and the Arab arms suppliers continued to demand regime change and resource the opposition.
That was fatal, because this never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people. It’s a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain (or the US and France) treads at deep peril, involving Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran – and, a cold-war hangover, the US versus Russia.
Hezbollah’s intervention, and in turn Israel’s, is another lethal development. Refugees pouring into Jordan could endanger its stability. Iran will not back off because of its key interests.
A ‘good guys versus bad guys’ prism’ is hardly made credible by the increasing presence of Al Qaida fighters amongst the West’s favoured rebels – nor by the barbarous murders of innocent Syrian citizens by some rebels, including most recently Kurds.
Assad and the ruling Shia-aligned Alawite minority form a tenth of the population and were never going to give up power if it meant, as they fear, being oppressed by the Sunni majority, with Christians and other minorities similarly nervous about change. Together those behind Assad amount to nearly a third of the Syrian people; add in the Kurds and the total reaches around 40 per cent. Few of them like Assad or his Baathist rule. But they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism.
Therefore if western military intervention somehow toppled Assad without a settlement in place, the country would descend into even greater chaos.
Russia fears that anarchy because, like the US and UK, it has key strategic military, economic and intelligence interests in the area; for instance Syria provides Russia’s only Mediterranean port in a region where the US is well placed militarily.
Preventing Iran and also Assad from attending a peace conference means it won’t even get off the ground. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience of resolving the Northern Ireland conflict that setting pre-conditions always prevents attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground?
A political solution is the imperative. It is high time for Britain, France, the United States their allies to change course. That would open the door for Russia to use its leverage to ensure Assad negotiates seriously. Like it or not, without engagement by Russia and Iran a Syrian settlement will not happen.
The Guidelines for a Political Transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at the Geneva conference on 30 June 2012 still provide the best road map for a Geneva 2. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call on 9 October 2012 for both a ceasefire and an embargo on more arms going to the opposition as well as government forces, should be heeded.
Transitional arrangements that reach the end point of democratisation are crucial, but their pace must be negotiated, not imposed. In Yemen for instance a hated President did not actually resign but equally did not stand for re-election. However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity in order to get them to sign up: hardly worse than the continuing barbarity and devastation of ancient heritage. All state employees – including the ranks in the armed forces – must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq.
Britain needs to persuade its friends in the Syrian opposition to go to Geneva with a credible plan for compromise: local ceasefires, access for humanitarian relief, and names of prospective members of a new government of national unity that will also include ministers from the current Syrian government. Together they can initiate a process of constitutional reform for new parliamentary and presidential elections with UN observers.
This will all be incredibly, tortuously difficult. But a military strike could provoke retaliation, escalation and civilian deaths and refugees, simply inflaming the powder keg. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria and the region be saved from the current nightmare.