Tuesday, 10 June 2014

For Britain, pointlessness in Syria

The Daily Star
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Michael Glackin

Last month British Foreign Minister William Hague unveiled his government’s latest big idea to achieve its goal of regime change in Syria and end the country’s bloody three-year civil war.

In response to a conflict that has now cost an estimated 160,000 lives, created more than 9 million refugees, destabilized large swathes of the Middle East and emboldened both Russia and China, Hague proudly announced the United Kingdom had “decided to upgrade the status of the Syrian National Coalition’s Representative Office in London to a ‘Mission.’”

You can imagine the fear this must have struck into what passes for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s heart. An opposition the U.K. helped to create but doesn’t trust enough to arm is now the “official” representative of a people under siege.

Assad who has just been “re-elected,” is secure in the knowledge that the West has no plans to give weapons to moderate opposition groups, or revisit the potential for imposing a no-fly zone – probably the only measure that could now force him to the negotiating table, not to mention prevent further civilian deaths.

Meanwhile, as recent attacks show, Assad’s chemical weapons capability remains a threat and the regime’s bombing, torture and murder of opponents continues unabated as the U.K. frets over the growing strength of extremist jihadists and their potential to cause mayhem at home.

It is stating the obvious to say the upgrade to mission status is symbolic. Yet Hague again stopped short of recognizing the opposition as Syria’s government and, interestingly, the move does not grant SNC members full diplomatic immunity.

It matters little. When it comes to the Middle East, the U.K. is more ostrich than lion these days. Indeed, Hague looks increasingly out of his depth as myriad crises erupt across the globe. Speculation is rife that he intends to stand down in the coming year having tired of pursuing a foreign policy largely dictated by London’s need to slavishly follow Washington’s desires. Even the upgrading of the SNC to mission status followed a similar decision by the United States weeks earlier.

The U.K. appears to have washed its hands of Syria and indeed much else in the Arab world. The Foreign Office insists it remains “engaged with the region” but its ability to influence events is nonexistent.

The fate of Syria, and indeed British involvement in the rest of the Arab world, was decided in the space of 13 critical weeks in 2013 when Parliament voted against a token show of force against Assad for having used chemical weapons, and when the Saudi-backed Islamic Front overran the headquarters of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army at Bab al-Hawa. For all the talk in Washington and London about how much the FSA has “improved” since the Bab al-Hawa raid, and a desire to “change the dynamics on the ground in Syria,” the fact is neither the U.S. nor the U.K. trusts the SNC with weapons.

But even if the U.K. did trust the SNC, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government couldn’t even sell them a catapult without first winning a vote in Parliament. In fact, last year’s defeat in Parliament, when the lives of Syrians were sacrificed for sordid domestic British political considerations, effectively means Cameron’s government is incapable of taking any form of executive action in foreign affairs.

Cameron also has more pressing domestic issues to worry about. He must contest a parliamentary election next year amid a rising tide of public discontent that last month saw the right-wing isolationist and anti-European Union United Kingdom Independence Party triumph in British elections to the European Parliament.

Not long ago, Cameron took the lead in pushing for an intervention in Libya. But UKIP’s rise has meant that as Libya descended into chaos – largely because of a Western failure to provide follow-up support – Cameron has ducked below the parapet and remained silent.

He has adopted a similar approach in Egypt as the Arab world’s most populous nation slips back into autocracy. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy’s meeting with Hague in London last month, which included ministerial level talks with a number of British businesses, was more focused on investment opportunities than the plight of the over 600 people on death row for opposing last year’s military coup – let alone the Al-Jazeera journalists on trial for simply doing their job.

Taking the lead in foreign affairs is no longer on the British government’s agenda, and Hague’s empty rhetoric and promises of support from the Friends of Syria group aren’t fooling anyone, least of all the SNC.

The SNC representative in the U.K., Walid Saffour, told me last week that the U.S. and the U.K. “have not formed a clear vision of the next step after the useless outcome of Geneva II.” He believes the West no longer knows what to do in the face of Assad’s “determination to destroy and kill in order to survive.” Saffour is aware that granting the SNC mission status does nothing for Syrians suffering from the conflict in their country.

Even the government’s “refocus” on humanitarian aid over the last six months looks half-hearted. As recently as last week, the heads of leading NGOs, including Save The Children and the International Rescue Committee, warned the British government that the humanitarian situation in Syria had deteriorated.

Much of this is due to the U.N. requirement that aid shipments be provided with the consent of the Assad regime, despite SNC claims that the Baath Party is hijacking the aid and “selling it in coastal towns.” The U.K. has now said next year it will provide a greater share of its aid – 50 percent, up from 30 percent today – to NGOs that do not seek the Syrian government’s assent. That is the extent of its help to the Syrian people.

The U.K. has cut and run in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The reality isn’t just that the U.K. has failed in Syria, but that it has lost all interest in its outcome. Maybe it’s time to face facts, drop the pretense and ask Russian President Vladimir Putin what he wants to end this war.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 10, 2014, on page 7.

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