Melanie McDonagh

Who should we support in Syria’s brutal civil war?

Who should we support in Syria's brutal civil war?
Text settings

Today, Syrian rebels in Idlib shot down a Russian helicopter; five Russians were killed and footage from the site shows people dragging away at least one body, and not, I fancy, for Christian burial. The Russian defence ministry says that the crew had been engaged in humanitarian air drops in Aleppo, though I suppose there’s no way of knowing.

So…what are we to make of this gain for the rebels, the loss for the Russians and, by extension, the Assad forces? Who are we cheering, who booing? Judging from the coverage right now of the siege of Aleppo by Assad forces, the Russians are in the villains’ corner.

John Humphrys’ interview this morning with David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, was a case in point. Discussing the siege conducted by the Syrian government, backed by Russia, Mr Humphrys was at his most incredulous. 'Surely this must call for a military response?' he cried. Then: 'why does the world do nothing?' And 'why would a Syrian mother whose children have been killed believe that the world will do anything for her?' David Miliband was sympathetic, urging greater involvement by the United Nations. And encouragingly he observed that one of the Syrian factions (actually, the al Nusra front) had dropped its affiliation to al Qaeda in order to provide unity among the rebels. So … that’s a good thing?

All of which suggests that some of the most acute and intelligent people in British public life are getting the Syrian conflict precisely wrong. I don’t think any civilised individual would suggest that President Assad has conducted anything but a barbarous war against his own people, that his use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons are not morally repugnant and that he didn’t, quite calculatedly, play a dirty game in relation to Islamic State – they were rather useful for his purposes at the outset, since they provided handy black propaganda against the rebels as a whole. As for the Russians, it would seem that not all of their air strikes have been directed against Islamic State so much as against mainstream rebel forces. And the Aleppo siege has had a devastating effect on the population within it; people are starving and vulnerable to bombardment. It’s war.

But I repeat…that shooting down of a Russian helicopter…is it a good thing? Only if your take on events in Syria is utterly skewed. The notion that the Syrian rebels are a moderate force is a fantasy nourished by Western government (remember David Cameron’s notion of 70,000 of them, ready to be our partners against both sides) trying to square the circle of opposing IS and trying to overthrow the Assad government.  But it’s not possible.

This is a complex war with conflicting interests at play – for instance those of Britain’s notional allies, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – not to mention the rather effective Kurds. But there is a binary choice here: either we want the Assad regime to defeat IS or we do not. And if we do then we cannot nurse illusions about the Syrian rebel forces – some of whom are defending Aleppo -  or disguise the fact that it is only the regime, within Syria, that can actually bring IS down. We may sympathise with the civilian population of Aleppo and quite legitimately argue that the UN or some other agency should be able to safeguard  any evacuees from the city. But in this war, the rational approach is to accept that the regime should win and that means we can’t simultaneously back the rebels. Morality in war sometimes come down to the choice of the lesser evil and, with all due respect to Messrs Miliband and Humphrys, that lesser evil is the repulsive Syrian regime. Mind you, making that call doesn’t mean accepting the former status quo – my own hope is that the Russians will provide President Assad with a bolthole to which he can retire at the close of the conflict, leaving some coalition of the capable in place.

So, to return to the original question: yes, we should deplore the loss of those five Russians to the Syrian rebels. The Russian government has at least had the clarity to pick one side in this conflict, the least worst, and is trying to ensure it wins. We’re still floundering.