At the start of December David Cameron called Labour MPs who were voting against British bombing in Syria “a bunch of terrorist sympathisers”. He claimed he had a “moral duty” to bomb.
As of the beginning of January, actual British air strikes in Syria have been so few as to be militarily meaningless. The first British bombings were on 3 December, on Daesh wellheads. A US source quoted in Private Eye described them as less than worthwhile. After further strikes on 3, 5, and 6 December, there have been no operations up to early January, other than an unmanned drone on Christmas Day.
David Cameron’s primary motive was nothing to do with “moral duty” or any real plan to defeat Daesh, but to lodge a claim to be at the table when the time comes for “meaningful talks” and to be seen to support the USA.
Professor Malcolm Chalmers from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think-tank said of the British bombing, before it started: “It will not make a big operational difference”. “It is important symbolically, useful operationally, but not transformative.”
Russian airstrikes, however, have done much destruction, against militias opposing the Assad regime — and against schools, villages and other civilian targets.
The Assad regime is besieging the rebel-held town of Madaya. More than 40,000 people have been blockaded for six months. No aid reached the town from October until 11 January. In the meantime, probably people died of starvation.
Assad-controlled Foah and Kefraya are besieged by rebels, and Assad insisted that aid would be allowed into Madaya only if it could also get in to Foah and Kefrayah.
Some 400,000 people live in areas currently under siege from Assad or from rebel forces. The siege of Madaya continues.
Leaked documents show that the US does not expect that Assad will be removed before Barack Obama leaves office, and it has no clear plan to remove him or get a settlement in Syria even after that.
Back in 2013, Cameron was pressing Parliament to have British bombing in Syria against Assad. In 2015 he got Parliament to vote to bomb against Daesh, not caring much if that helped Assad. Assad’s backers within the EU now include Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
Back in 2011 Assad himself claimed the destabilisation arising from the “Arab Spring” would eventually push Western governments back to supporting more secular authoritarian regimes like his own.
Analyst Aron Lund notes that the rebel militias, apart from the Kurdish YPG and Daesh, have been unable to create infrastructures of public administration. Assad’s control of most public administration allows him to continue to promise his supporters and those who live in towns under Government control that he is the only one capable of planning a post-war Syria. But since the end of 2014, government subsidies on basic goods have been cut; fuel supplies have been cut; the loss of the Jordanian border has made it harder to trade with Iran and Arab markets.
Assad’s regime showed signs of resilience in 2014. But Syria Comment reports that:
“Assad lost a lot of territory in the first half of 2015. In March, a coalition of Islamist rebels captured Idleb City in the north and Bosra in the south. In April, Jisr al-Shughour fell, followed by the Nassib border crossing to Jordan. In May, it was time for Ariha in Idleb, with other rebels pushing into the Ghab Plains. Further east, the Islamic State took Sokhna and Palmyra. Southern rebels grabbed a military base known as Brigade 52 in the Houran.”
Mostly Assad has not regained lost terrain. His regime is brutal, widely discredited, and now nakedly sectarian. A palace coup to replaced Assad by another leader from the Ba’ath party itself is possible, but as yet there are no alternative leaders that the US or even Russia could agree to back.