The multiple and competing foreign agendas that have prolonged the conflict in Syria

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Around the same time that Britain was indulging in a national exercise in backslapping over the country’s role in defeating Hitler in Europe 75 years ago, we were confronted with the truth about the country’s sordid and decidedly inglorious role in the conflict in Syria, now into its ninth year.

In an exclusive at Middle East Eye on 11 May, Ian Cobain and Alice Ross reveal that from 2013 the British government began funding ‘propaganda programmes’ in Syria with the objective of undermining ‘both the Assad government and the Islamic State group and bolster elements within the Syrian opposition’. The codename ascribed to these programmes was Operation Volute and, according to a government review produced in 2016, it was plagued by ‘fundamental shortcomings’ both operationally and in planning.

Most enlightening of all, Operation Volute was aggressively pushed by the Ministry of Defence after Parliament voted against direct British military action in Syria in 2013, doing so for no other reason than ‘we had to be seen to do things’ with a view to impressing Washington.

As to the legality of Operation Volute, which was funded to the tune of some £9 million, the review also highlighted that some of the ‘contractors’ employed on the ground in Syria had engaged in activities that were ‘in contravention of UK law’.

So with this in mind, let us now join a few dots.

Combined with British funding of the controversial White Helmets opposition civil defence group in Syria, established in 2013 in Istanbul by among others former British army officer and security contractor, James Le Mesurier; combined with the presence of ; combined with ; and combined with ; what we have staring us in the face is the big bright shining lie that Britain is a pillar of democracy, human rights and international law in the world.

Despite the best efforts of interventionists to obfuscate the issue, from an early stage in the conflict it was either the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic or the black flag of Salafi-jihadism flying over Damascus. This is what made the efforts of London and Washington in trying to cultivate a third force in Syria over the period concerned not just reckless but criminal.

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Flag of the Syrian Arab Republic

A crucial point to make here is that the conflict in Syria moved swiftly from being civil to being international in character, with the country a battleground for multiple contending regional and global participants, each arriving to the party with their own agendas in tow.

For Washington and its loyal client Britain, the objective over time was to see weakened the so-called Axis of Resistance made up of Syria, Iran and Hezbollah, an objective they continue to share with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Jordan at various points has played a lesser role in this jamboree, while President Erdogan tried but failed to reverse the tide of desperate humanity pouring over Turkey’s border by aiding the Syrian opposition, and in so doing only helping to exacerbate the refugee crisis, while also taking the opportunity to place his boot on the neck of Syria’s Kurds.

Russia’s involvement, meanwhile, which began towards the end of 2015, was significant in saving the country from succumbing to Salafi-jihadism while ironically, and no doubt unwittingly, also itself helping to prolong the conflict. For Putin throughout has appeased Syria’s regional enemies rather than stand shoulder to shoulder with Damascus in confronting them, and has never elicited any interest in drawing any kind of line in the sand.

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Iran’s Prime Minister Hassan Rouhani with Vladimir Putin

From Yossi Melman in a recent piece for , for example, we learn that ‘Syria had yet to activate its advanced S300 batteries’. These were supplied to the Syrians by Russia in 2018 after Moscow blamed the Israelis for the downing of one of its spy planes over the Mediterranean, alleging that IAF pilots had used the Russian aircraft as a shield during a sortie against a Syrian airbase in Latakia, which was subsequently accidentally hit and downed by Syrian missiles fired in response.

Melman offers a couple of interesting reasons why Russia has yet to allow the Syrians to use the S300s:

  1. The batteries have been under the total control of Russian advisers and operators, who are in charge of all the buttons, and they are not permitting Assad’s army to launch the missiles.
  2. The fear in Russia that if they are indeed activated and miss their targets, it would hurt the pride of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his country’s defence industries.

Though Russia shares with Iran and Hezbollah the primary purpose of securing the Assad’s writ in Syria, when it comes to Israel their agendas are contentious. For the former Tel Aviv is a valued bilateral partner and important bridge to Washington, while where the latter are concerned Tel Aviv is a sworn ideological and strategic enemy. Thus it would not have been hard to guess the reaction in the cafes of Damascus and Tehran when Netanyahu appeared as Putin’s guest of honour at the 2018 Victory Day commemoration in Moscow.

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Putin with Benjamin Netanyahu in Moscow in 2018 for Victory Day

The diplomatic and military balancing act required of Russia to maintain such a contradictory posture throughout the conflict has been astonishing to witness, and from the vantage point of Bashar al-Assad no doubt hard to bear. It has also ensured that the S300 missile batteries supplied by Russia to Syria in 2018 have up to now served the purpose of ornamentation rather than defence.

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