UK. Decline & Fall

JR Max Wheel

3rd. September 2013

The shock defeat of the UK Government’s Commons motion to intervene in Syria seems to have unnerved the political classes in the UK and the US. In its watered down format, it was not even seeking explicit approval to act. Public sentiment is against involvement as it is largely in the US and much of the EU. Any action is mainly symbolic, the supposed upholding of international law against a regime that appears to have little or nil restraint, although evidence, as always in war zones, is not conclusive. This is again ultimately a judgement call, The UN inspection regime is positively glacial and its leadership seems to have little urgency or guidance, nor will it do more than confirm the use of chemical weapons, without attribution as to who used them, which explains the impatience in the US. Another impending tragedy is the mass displacement of Syrian people, now estimated to be over 2m and more within its borders. Where is the UN urgency in driving a resolution to this regional mess, whether in Jordan, Lebanon or Iraq?

None of this standoff should actually be a surprise, as these issues stretch way back beyond the second Iraq War, Afghanistan and Britain’s now exhausted military, hobbled by poor long-term decision-taking and budget cuts. The historical trail leads at least back to the Great War settlement of Versailles, when the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire produced a plethora of double-dealing and confusion, especially from the French and British, all overseen by a still naive United States. As with many bad deals worked out by the “Great Powers” Versailles provided a succession of them in the Middle East, whose malign consequences are alive and well today. Palestine, the foundation of Israel, the frustrated cause of Arab nationalism and the division of Syria into pieces, part Lebanon, part Jordan and part old Syria. Its borders were arbitrary and its citizens an unholy mix of Druze, Alawite, Sunni, Shia, Christians and Jews. The Ba’ath party itself, a messy concoction of pan-Arabism and socialist and secular ideals flourished in both Iraq and Syria, but its idealism became rapidly splintered into factionalism. Unsurprisingly in the collapse of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria, power passed to the Army in 1963 and then finally with the Assad coup of 1970, the rise of a tyrant, enshrining the new regime in a near one party State.  Syria under Assad Senior was a formidable and brutal mix of repression, nepotism and corruption, with the army involved in all aspects of Syrian life.

Much as in Iraq, the power vacuum resulting from removal of a demagogue creates the ideal conditions for the spree of reprisal killing and sectarian violence that marked the toppling of Saddam Hussein; a similar fate is equally likely in any post war Syria. The Assad dynasty aided and abetted by Russia, by supply of modern firepower is a cynical regional power ploy with Putin playing the same game of Great Power politics. Throw into this heady mix, regional meddling by the Iranian theocracy, an international extreme jihadist movement spread through the Maghreb, Yemen and beyond and it is easy to see why this is such an intractable and toxic brew. Trying to impose principles of international law or even curtailing the Syrian Government’s capability to inflict further misery on its people is a triumph of hope over experience. Whatever the “West” does will always have echoes of an imperialist past. Trying to bomb dictatorships to the negotiating table does not have a great record of success anywhere. The regional powers lined up are also in anything but their more normal configuration. Thus while Egypt has abstained; Turkey, Israel, most of the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are aligned against Assad, whilst Lebanon, Jordan, Iran and Qatar are against direct action.

Britain has seemingly now decided that it will not act, despite French agreement to do so. Whilst unusual, it may represent a more realistic assessment of our actual military capabilities as well as a more thoughtful approach to what happens next.  Whether or not the US and allies succeed in gaining any meaningful advantage from a proposed degrading of Syria’s capacity for war is disputed even by many in the US military, who rail at the naivety of more political posturing. Shades of 1919, a proxy regional war led by superpowers, couched  in the specious name of upholding a worthy principle, but likely to bring anything but peace.