David Cameron has no credibility when it comes to Syria or Middle Eastern politics in general says Steve Beauchampé.
In August 2013 Prime Minister David Cameron tried unsuccessfully to get House of Commons approval to launch air raids against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. But with Cameron lacking a long term military plan, Labour and the Lib Dems combined to vote the proposal down. Two weeks ago, Cameron’s deputy and wannabe Prime Minister George Osborne described this as the worst decision Parliament had made since 2010 (that’s because his side lost!) and repeated his bosses’ call for Assad to be removed from power. Osborne further argued for the UK to extend air strikes against the Islamic State militia group into Syria (Britain already attacks IS positions in Iraq), where the organisation holds large tracts of land.
Both Cameron and Osborne have spent the last two years frustrated by Britain’s inability to attack and overthrow yet another sovereign government in the Middle East. They clearly never learn – Cameron and Osborne both voted for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003 and were in charge for the almost equally disastrous 2010 NATO intervention in Libya – and it is hard to overstate how bad an outcome might have resulted from further British meddling in the region.
Possible consequences include Russian intervention to aid Assad, with the attendant risk of heightened tension, or worse, between east and west; the creation of an even larger vacuum into which Islamic State or any of the other militant terror groups vying for control of Syria would have moved; an earlier and swifter exodus of refugees from an even more war ravaged country.
That the war in Syria is complex is an understatement. Just how complex was explained by Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Greaves speaking in a recent debate on Syria and the Middle East in the House of Lords. We reprint his words.
“When Parliament debated whether this country should take part in bombing operations in Syria and the House of Commons voted against it, the suggestion was that we should take military action against the Syrian Government – Assad’s people. Now it seems that the people we are most against in Syria – for very good reason – are those who belong to ISIL, or Daesh, and the debate is whether we want to take part with the Americans in attacking them…
“Lord Davies of Stamford talked about the problem of there being two sides in Syria now and that we are against them both. The world is no longer a simple one of goodies and baddies; it is much more complicated than that. I have to say that there are more than two groups in the country, and that is complicating the situation. It used to be said that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, but it is more complex than that in Syria since some of the groups seem to be on the same side as more than one other group and then turn against them. We are not quite sure what is going on.
“The Syrian Government have their army based heavily on the Alawite sect, which is Assad’s group… The main opponent used to be the Free Syrian Army, which still controls a lot of territory in the north-east and south-east of the country. It was the original opposition and it includes defectors from the Syrian armed forces, but in some areas it is now working with ISIL/Daesh, paving the way for an ISIL takeover…
“Then there is ISIL/Daesh itself, comprised as we know of hard-line fundamentalists, which now controls about half the area of Syria. It started off by working with the al-Nusra Front, which is an affiliate of al-Qaeda, but now they are fighting each other. So not only are they fighting the Syrian Government, they are fighting each other and probably anyone else who comes along. ISIL is now the strongest opposition group, with its headquarters based in the city of Raqqa in the north. The dilemma the Americans must face, as would we if we were to take part in military combat there, is that if we attack ISIL/Daesh, we help Assad. If we attack Assad’s troops, we help ISIL/Daesh. There appears to be no way through that.
“The al-Nusra Front, otherwise known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is still active in the same region as the Free Syrian Army. Its troops are fighting each other, ISIL, Hezbollah and others up there. Hezbollah is active in the north-west and controls territory on behalf of Assad, but it has its own agenda, and as we know it will turn on anyone if circumstances change. But whatever happens, Hezbollah is also driving refugees into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, first, because people do not like the regime and, secondly, because of the violence.
“I turn to the Peshmerga Kurds. Two parties have been successfully attacking ISIL in parts of the north. The Turkish Government, who were being urged to join in the military attacks on ISIL, had been conducting bombing raids in Syria, but it seems that for the most part they have actually been bombing the Kurds because that is part of their own domestic dispute. The whole thing is unbelievably complicated. Iran has put troops in on behalf of Assad, allegedly including 15,000 special forces personnel. Russia has an unknown number of people in the country, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia are supporting the rebels.
“The country is a shambles, so if people want to know why the problems in Europe are not going to go away and why the refugee camps are going to grow and grow, and why the situation is not going to be solved easily, they have to look at Syria. Somehow all the regional parties, including ourselves, must get together to try and stop the war. I do not think that anyone has the slightest idea of how to do it, so we had better get used to the fact that the stream of refugees coming across Europe will continue.”
Since Lord Greaves made this speech on September 16th, the situation has become even more convoluted, most significantly with Russian forces and weaponry pouring into the Syria to support Assad, but also with the emergence of a new militia called the Army of Conquest carrying out a massacre of government troops.
David Cameron will today address a meeting at the United Nations where he is expected to call for Assad to be allowed to remain in power for a transitionary period while everyone (including Britain) concentrates on ousting Islamic State. He will present as part of a call for ‘peace negotiations’.
Not only does this represent a complete volte face by the Prime Minister even from two weeks ago, but it is also for the birds. Because if Islamic State and all of the other groups opposing Assad are defeated then not only will Assad be enormously strengthened but neither President Putin, or the government of neighbouring Iran, are going to accept his being replaced by a regime approved of by Britain or the United States.
And if Mr. Cameron doesn’t like such an outcome, then tough, because Britain is not going to be bombing a Russian and Iranian supported Assad regime out of office now is it? So as far as Syria is concerned, other than dropping ordnance on Islamic State and it’s allies, Britain is essentially an irrelevance.
So with the world and his wife (or her husband) lining up to attack Islamic State, given Britain’s not inconsiderable rôle in creating the conditions for IS to flourish, perhaps we should concentrate our efforts on further helping the refugees, whether they be in the Middle East or the at the gates of Europe.