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UK's Decision Not To Bomb Syria Discouraged Obama, Says BBC's Middle East Editor

Jeremy Bowen spoke to BuzzFeed News about his time reporting from Syria's brutal civil war.

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It's easy to forget that Syria has been at war for three years. It's a cruel truth that the shock and outrage we felt at the sight of the first horrors has diminished the longer the conflict has gone on. Evil has become normalised.

Three years ago, protests aimed at forcing president Assad's resignation turned into a violent civil war between rebel brigades and government forces. There were allegations of war crimes on both sides, and documented use of toxic chemicals by the government. Then the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or IS) group began capitalising on the carnage, taking over swathes of territory, terrorising civilians, and battling both rebels and Kurdish forces in what the BBC described as a "war within a war".

Our insights into the conflict have largely come in dribs and drabs, from unverified YouTube videos and Twitter accounts, for the simple reason that there are very few journalists in Syria because it's too dangerous. Until recently, one of them was the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. BuzzFeed News asked him some questions about his experiences in the country.

The tenor of the conflict has been changing year by year. Bowen was honest about how it hasn't panned out quite as he expected. "I assumed when it started that Assad was on borrowed time, in the way that other Arab leaders were once uprisings started," Bowen said, but he hadn't reckoned with the support Assad retained from key groups in Syria, and the help the president had from allies in Iran, Russia, and Lebanon. "Shias and Sunnis will return eventually to quieter times," Bowen said. "But many more might die first."

The BBC editor gave a straight answer when asked about the consequences of the British government's decision not to intervene in the conflict. "The Commons vote not to take part in military action fed into Obama's reluctance to get involved. It was a factor, not the only one but important, in the American decision not to bomb last year."

If the Americans had bombed the regime last summer, Bowen felt, "The course of the war would have changed. It would have helped opposition groups of the kind the Americans now want to arm to fight Islamic State. They were bitterly disappointed when the Americans didn't bomb, in the same way that they're now angry that the US bombs IS, but not the regime."

"It has become a proxy war, involving Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, Russia, and the United States, as well as international jihadists. One other factor is sectarianism. Shia-Sunni killing in Syria has reverberated to other places in the region. It can return to Syria via the same political and religious faultlines."

And the speed at which ISIS has expanded this year has been remarkable. Bowen admitted it had surprised him: "[ISIS] had been in charge of Fallujah near Baghdad since the beginning of the year. But I was definitely surprised by the speed and efficiency of its advance. I was not surprised by their ruthlessness."

So does all this mean the US moving into de facto cooperation with Assad against ISIS? "It has aspects of that, even though both sides may deny it," Bowen said.

"ISIS is a strong enemy of Assad, even though many rebels argue that the Assad regime let ISIS prosper and didn't attack them at first, to weaken the more 'moderate' opposition.

"The argument – I can't prove it's true or false, it relies on circumstantial evidence – goes on to say that the regime effectively colluded with jihadists. [The purpose was] to make sure that the war really did become jihadists v Assad. Again it's argued that the regime wanted to given Syrians a starker choice, one that it reckoned would benefit the regime most. Also there were hopes that it would make the West at the very least take the heat off the regime.

"Right now US bombing does benefit the Assad regime because it kills potential enemies of the regime in Nusra [an al-Qaeda-affiliated group] and ISIS. At the same time, to the anger of allies of the US among the rebels, the Americans are not using their firepower against the regime and the Syrian armed forces."

And what impact is that having on ordinary Syrians in the country's capital, Damascus, where Bowen spent a significant amount of time over the last few years? Are people hardening against or for the regime as this narrative takes hold?

Bowen feels that there's increasing polarisation. "The middle ground, neither for the uprising or for the regime, used to be relatively big. It is smaller – and also, many Syrians with liberal tendencies have been driven out of the country by the war.

"Most people I've spoken to in Damascus believe strongly it is regime v radical Islam. [The] exceptions are [rebel] fighters and others loyal to Free Syria Army and other 'moderate' factions. The regime in Damascus ... seems much comfortable than a year or two ago."

We've been left with one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. Does Bowen feel enough is being done to help refugees and those who've been displaced inside the country?

"The relief operation within Syria is well organised but limited," he said. "One main limitation is lack of money. Donations have been falling, so the UN World Food Programme has had to cut food rations. The other big constraint is the war. Large parts of the country are inaccessible at different times, including parts of Damascus. Outside Syria, refugees get the bare minimum and quite often not even that, depending on where they are living."

He said that when there was deep snow in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon last winter, he saw "refugees living in leaky shacks melting snow for drinking water and for warmth burning bits of plastic, which gave out poisonous fumes".

Some analysts suggest the imposition of "freeze zones" – in which fighting would be suspended to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered – could make an impact. "It might stop the killing in some places, for a while, Bowen said. "But the war's complexity is what makes it so hard to stop."

He added: "The problem in Syria is that there are too many people involved in the war who have an interest in keeping fighting: They think they can achieve their goals through violence. Another problem is that the war in Syria is much more than a straightforward war inside one country's borders. In one way or another it has pulled in all of Syria's neighbours."

In the light of all this, the hope associated with the 2011 Arab Spring seems to have entirely dissipated. "Apart from a few true believers many in the region are thoroughly fed up with the impact of the Arab Spring," Bowen said. "Tunisia is the only country that is having a relatively successful transition to a new and more democratic country."

He said that many of the factors that caused those uprisings three years ago are still in the region: "They include large and youthful populations, who are dismayed that they don't get more of the national cake. Corruption and nepotism, and discontent about elderly leaders were other factors in play. That means countries still remarkably unscathed by the 2011 uprisings could be part of the next phase of what is going to be a decade or more of change."

One challenge Bowen faces that British viewers perhaps aren't aware of is the fact that much of his coverage is not just for us: It's broadcast all around the world. How challenging is it, in a messy conflict like Syria, to report in a way that won't anger all the different audiences to whom you're broadcasting?

"It's not really about whether you are making people angry," Bowen said. "Yes, we broadcast to a huge global audience. But my job is to be accurate and true, even if some people don't like what they're hearing. I am very conscious of our power in world media, and the way that people use our reports to help them form their own opinions. That's why it is important to be right."

When asked if he had any regrets about his coverage, Bowen returned to the incident in 2000 when his driver was killed by an Israeli tank attack in Lebanon while Bowen was covering the Israel Defense Forces' withdrawal from the area. Suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, Bowen moved back to a studio job. A week later the second Palestinian uprising started. "Sitting in London watching it from my new job on the sofa at BBC Breakfast was excruciatingly frustrating."

But as for the rest of the work, "Reporting from any warzone is difficult. Everything is about life and death. If war doesn't leave a mark on you, then you're not properly human."

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