The Russians have committed themselves to the long haul in Syria with a clear strategy and policy. Knee-jerk reactions by the UK are no longer a good enough substitute for foreign policy writes Andrew O’Brien.
The awful chemical attack in Douma, Syria has led to the typical responses. Newspapers and liberal interventionists have leapt with the cry that “something must be done”. Meanwhile, pacifists have launched their chorus of “Don’t repeat the mistakes of Iraq and Libya”.
The government has now launched strikes with our allies in France and the United States to punish the Assad regime for the use of chemical weapons. But where do we go from here? Chemical weapons are being used because of the ongoing Civil War in Syria. The Civil War continues because multiple powers are engaged because they consider their own strategic interests to be threatened or see opportunities to advance them. This central point has not really been mentioned in the debate in the media.
Jeremy Corbyn today called for “peace on all sides” but a conservative estimate is that there are at least eight powers pursuing various different strategies and interests in the country. It is not really a question of peace between the people of Syria but how do we square the interests of Turkey, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United States, France and the United Kingdom when most have competing priorities?
People think that the regime/rebels/ISIS situation on the ground is confusing. But we are moving beyond that phase of the war as all the ground forces are practically exhausted apart from Assad. Increasingly, states are having to take over from the proxies and do the dirty work themselves. This brings into sharp relief the real balance of forces in Syria. This is why the Russian element has become some prominent in recent weeks.
It might seem harsh, but, actually, the Syrian Civil War increasingly has little to do with the people of Syria and more about the interests of states which surround Syria or have strategic interests there.
Russia has been much talked about, but people are ignoring the central role of Iran, which has played a long and quiet game as part of its wider strategy of encircling both Israel and Saudi Arabia and strengthening its influence over Iraq.
Media have barely reported the practical annexation by Turkey of a chunk of North-East Syria based around the city of Afrin. They want to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state (or autonomous area which could become a state) on their border. The alleged Israeli bombing of a military base in Syria has shown their obvious interest in the country.
To some extent, it is the UK/US/French interest which is now unclear. Punishing Assad is all well and good, but if he wins the Civil War, the lessons on chemical weapons is likely to be lost to history. If we really want to give dictators a lesson on the futility of chemical weapons, then we need to prevent Assad and his Russo-Iranian alliance from winning the war there.
What makes this debate so hard and confusing for the public is the fact that the UK doesn’t have a foreign policy when it comes to the Middle East. We have “allies” in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States – but why are they our allies? How much are they worth to us? What are we prepared to sacrifice in order to support them?
In a period when oil prices are still low and the West transitions towards renewable energy – what value is the Middle East? I would argue it is still of considerable value, but that is an article for another time.
Foreign policy by atrocity, which has been the standard UK/Western paradigm since the 1990s, is not good enough anymore.
There are some notable exceptions where some lasting success has resulted, Bosnia and Herzegovina is one that springs immediately to mind, but it only has a chance when we are not confronted with another Great Power. The situation in Kosovo was also resolved successfully, despite the involvement of Russia, although we must remember that Russia under Yeltsin was a far weaker power.
We are now in a different multipolar world where we cannot just dictate terms. People don’t fear Western intervention as much as they used to, because of a number of successive failures. If we want to pursue a truly humanitarian policy around the world and bring global geopolitical stability, the latter which is strongly in our national interest, then we need to solve the causes of these wars, not their symptoms. We also need to pick our battles, so that we can recover our reputation and develop our “fear factor”.
The Russians know that there is a lack of public support for costly interventions overseas. They have also been in Syria for some time and have no doubt been preparing for scenarios where Western powers may seek to intervene. They merely have to show patience and wait for the West to move on, as it is had done repeatedly after every atrocity.
The real lesson of this weekend’s activities is the growing power of Russia. The fact that UK/US/French forces had to tell Russia what was happening, and give alert to the Assad regime, demonstrates not only concern about war with Russia but also a lack of confidence in our military edge over the Russians in this region. They are dug in and there was clearly a risk that if we did not tell them what had happened and allowed time for evacuation, they may have been able to prevent success.
Coming after years of underfunding of our armed forces, rising Russian belligerence could not have come at a worse time. Dropping a few bombs on Syria is not a foreign policy and it certainly will not combat Russia and Iran’s growing power and influence in the Middle East.
Knee-jerk responses are undermining the ability of the UK to carry out any meaningful foreign policy. The same is true of the West as a whole. We must start developing some form of strategic approach to foreign affairs.
The Russians and Iranians have committed themselves to the long haul in Syria, patiently pursuing their strategic interests. We must ask ourselves if we are prepared to do the same.