Britain has few cards to play in Syria, but its playing them well.
On Monday Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed the House to reaffirm the British position on the crisis in Syria. By far the bloodiest uprising of the Arab Spring, Syria is becoming one of the most intransigent conflicts in a region made famous by intransigent conflicts. As with other Arab Spring inspired challenges, the US has chosen to defer leadership of the Western response to the two principle European powers; Britain and France
The statistics are dire: Over four million Syrians are internally displaced. Over eighty thousand are dead. Nearly seven million are dependent on international aid for life’s basics, three million of the displaced are children. Yet there seem to be two depressingly grim sets of inverse correlations at play. The first is the relationship between the determination of a regime to cling onto power, and the ability Western governments to influence events. The second, perhaps most tragic, is that the longer a conflict drags on, the less interested and receptive Western audiences become.
As an advocate of stability over (other people’s) freedom, this of course bothers me very little. Indeed, a degree of emotional detachment affords one a clear mind with which to analyse events and support policy based on interests and power, not sentiment and emotion. I have never favoured intervention in Syria, not because I am a closet Ba’ath Party member, but because I fear what the unpredictability of what will follow. I also doubt very strongly that there is much Britain and France can actually by way of meaningful intervention.
This, thankfully, seems to be the position if the British government, to a degree. In his speech to the House Hague drew attention to the fact that the violence in Syria was “undoubtedly contributing yo radicalisation in Syria” and that the stricken nation was becoming “the world’s number one destination or jihadists”.
Had this been a localised conflict, there is a reasonable chance that British involvement would have limited to kind words and little else. However the war is beginning to spread. A car bomb near the Turkish-Syrian border killed fifty last week. The Lebanese-Syrian border has seen an uptick in clashes. The Golan Heights, Israel’s quietest front for forty years, is now major cause for concern. Add to that the strain being placed on the already feeble infrastructure of Jordan, and its clear that Syria’s Civil War is having serious effects far beyond its borders.
All parties want a hasty resolution to the conflict, but the stalemate shows little sign of abating. Government forces aren’t quite strong enough to crush the rebels everywhere and hold the captured ground, but the lose confederation of rebel groups are nowhere near strong enough to topple the well armed and increasingly battle hardened loyalist forces. Britain and France have tried to keep the rebels in the game with non-lethal aid, Britain having supplied £12 million worth this year alone on top of the £171.1 million for emergency relief. France has pushed to arm the rebels, but has found little support from other quarters, principally because there’s little control over the weapons once they enter Syria.
For now, Britain has fallen back to its historic imperial strategy of using regional players to further its objectives, with outright force being an expensive, clumsy last resort. Britain supported the Qatari sponsored resolution on the 15th May, adopted by the UN General Assembly by a majority of 107 to 12, urging accountability for human rights violations. The move was a signal aimed at encouraging moderate rebel groups who have been increasingly squeezed by government forces on one hand, and jihadists on the other. Via the Syrian National Coalition and the Core Group of the Friends of Syria, Britain hopes to encourage a negotiated settlement and a transitional government that maintains Syrian territorial integrity, and a reasonably strong central government but with a federal aspect. To this end, it’s held the door open to moderates within the regime by avoiding the temptation to tar all government forces with the same brush. Conscious of what happened in Iraq, Britain knows that if Assad goes, the forces of order and security will need to be present to stop the looting and anarchy that followed the fall of Baghdad.
Hague has been savvy enough to take no option off the table without tying his (and our) colours to the mast. Whereas the Obama administration put much stock in the threat of force if/when Assad deployed chemical weapons, only to have its bluff called, Britain has simply acknowledged that sarin is present. Still, two decades of military enfeeblement by both Britain and France mean that there is no realistic chance of a European only assault on regime forces. To a large extent, Britain and France are pursuing diplomatic channels because they have too, they have no alternative.
When you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. But equally, when you don’t have a hammer, you convince yourself that nails are anything but.