The Daily Star,
Friday, January 17, 2014.
By Michael Glackin
For months, while the atrocities and body count in Syria have risen, the West, and the United Kingdom in particular, has insisted that the often-postponed Geneva II conference, now scheduled for Jan. 22, is the lever that will take power away from President Bashar Assad and end the bloodshed in Syria.
Speculation about backroom deals with Russia and Iran paving the way for a diplomatic breakthrough have been making the rounds for months. However, so far Geneva II has only succeeded in pushing an already weak and divided moderate opposition movement to the brink of collapse.
The recent refusal of the Syrian National Council – arguably the most important of the moderate opposition groupings – to go to Geneva was expected. But the Syrian National Coalition, the umbrella group created by the West to represent all opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army, is also bitterly divided and has yet to confirm its attendance. Meetings held by the coalition last week descended into chaos, forcing it to postpone a final decision until Jan. 17, days before the conference begins.
The Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), both affiliated with Al-Qaeda, have of course not been invited. Many of the armed Syrian opposition groups reject the very idea of negotiating with the Assad regime and don’t recognize the authority of the Syrian National Coalition.
Geneva II is an increasingly pathetic sideshow of a tragedy that those who will gather in Switzerland will be powerless to relieve or stop. Having spectacularly humiliated itself with hollow military threats for nearly three years, the West will add failed diplomacy to the wreckage of its Syria policy.
The United States and the U.K. are now busy arming the fervently pro-Iranian and pro-Assad regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as it struggles to combat Sunni Al-Qaeda-linked militias. Their previous hostility to the Syrian leadership has evaporated in the face of what is perceived as a worse threat.
The need to supply arms to the increasingly tottering regime in Iraq stems partly from the West’s inaction in Syria. This created the space for radical Sunni militias to become the main opposition on the ground to the Assad regime and wage a war against Alawites and Shiites. A similar picture is forming in Lebanon where bombings are occurring with familiar and frightening regularity. The continuing bloodshed in Syria is even starting to seriously threaten political stability in Turkey.
But the flames of the West’s disastrous foreign policy toward Syria are no longer just burning in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. They are poised to reach Europe as well.
There may have been little domestic support for British Prime Minister David Cameron in taking a firm line with the Assad regime, but increasingly the British public is becoming aware of the cost to national security of the West’s failure to stand up for right against might in Syria. There are now over 40,000 foreign jihadists fighting there, including, according to recent estimates, up to 400 British citizens, mainly from Pakistani backgrounds, along with some Sudanese and Syrians from the U.K.
With radicalized Britons having been exposed to the extremist views of the likes of the Nusra Front and ISIS (most British jihadists tend to fight alongside the latter), as well as trained by them, concerns are growing that they will return to the U.K. and unleash a campaign of violence. Indeed, a report in the New York Times on Jan. 10 appeared to confirm that Al-Qaeda affiliated groups were recruiting Westerners in Syria to carry out attacks at home.
The fear is that returning fighters will want to punish the U.K. for abandoning Syria’s Sunnis. Such a view will have been reinforced by a former U.S. ambassador, Ryan Crocker.
He recently wrote that the West should engage Assad on counterterrorism, because “he is not as bad as the jihadists who would take over in his absence.”
Last October, British police arrested two men who had recently returned from Syria and were allegedly linked to a terror plot within the U.K. And in November, the head of MI5, Andrew Parker, told a parliamentary hearing that the “interaction” of Britons fighting with radical groups in Syria was a “very important strand of the threat” the U.K. faced.
Parker said, “The attractiveness to these groupings is that they meet British citizens who are willing to engage in terrorism and they task them to do so back at home, where they have higher impact, in this country.”
The British suicide bombers who carried out the July 7, 2005, London bombings, which killed 52 people, had also made contact with radical Islamist groups abroad. Two more British Muslims who had become “radicalized” during visits overseas are due to be sentenced this month for the brutal murder of an off-duty soldier in the middle of a busy London street last year.
It is precisely this sort of unorganized terror attack, carried out by so called lone wolves acting spontaneously, that are impossible for the security forces to prevent. And it is the type of attack they fear the returning jihadists will commit.
In a bid to combat the threat, British citizens who fight in Syria are being stripped of their citizenship to prevent them from returning to the U.K. The government has revoked the passports of 20 people this year, more than in the previous two and a half years combined.
But it is not just the U.K. that faces a threat. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London says the number of European fighters in Syria has tripled to 1,900 in the last year. The number reported from France quadrupled to 412 (although President Francois Hollande gave a higher figure of 700 this week), while Belgium has the highest per capita rate with almost 300 fighters.
The West’s Syria strategy has been an unmitigated disaster. Assad remains in power, the region is dangerously unstable and Europe is facing the increased danger of terror attacks by its own citizens. Somehow, the futility of Geneva II sums up the entire fiasco. The West keeps fiddling, and Syria keeps burning.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 17, 2014, on page 7.