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Monday, September 16, 2013 

The slightest of silver linings.

Much (including by yours truly) was written in the aftermath of the coalition losing the vote that would have led, supposedly, to a second vote on whether the UK should join potential military action in Syria.  This understandably focused on why it was that a government with a more than healthy majority by historical standards could manage to lose a motion on foreign policy, something that had the anoraks digging in their books to find the last example of, and what it meant for the main three parties.

Almost three weeks on, and with a deal having been reached between the US and Russia over Syria documenting and then handing over their chemical weapon stocks for destruction, the vote has become even more significant.  In their rush to get on board with what looked to be imminent US military strikes, the deadly duo of Cameron and Hague recalled parliament without so much as having the basics of a case for war.  True, they just about managed to get the joint intelligence committee and attorney general on their side, even if the reports from both were fairly pitiful, but as for why we had to intervene now and whether we could avoid being drawn into a protracted civil war, answers came there none.  Fingers of blame were pointed at Ed Miliband for his supposed preference for party politics over the "national interest", when the real reason the vote was lost was the prime minister's failure to convince his own backbenchers.

Thanks then to the miserable failure of Cameron, Hague and Clegg, you can make a reasonable case that another Middle Eastern adventure was avoided.  Without Cameron immediately granting a vote, apparently confident he would win it, there wouldn't have been the demands on Obama to consult Congress.  Obama, unlike Cameron, realised reasonably quickly that he was unlikely to win a vote, and unprepared to either ignore Congress or suffer the humiliation of such a loss, he and John Kerry sought out a Plan B.  Whether Obama ever truly wanted to get involved militarily in Syria is open to question; he had to be persuaded to act in Libya.  It would though have been an even bigger loss of face to not do something having seen his "red line" breached.  By focusing on chemical weapons rather than the removal of Assad or an increase in help for the rebels, there was always the possibility of a compromise, and that seems to have just about been reached.

As for whether or not Cameron will be thanked by the president is far more difficult to ascertain.  On the surface, it looks like a good deal if all goes as agreed.  Assad loses the weapons that sort of deterred Israel from interfering too heavily in the country, and which also struck a certain amount of fear into the rebels; it doesn't stop the US from increasing aid to the rebels, and there are reports that the long promised weapons have started to arrive; and the US avoids "owning" another sectarian conflict, having successfully engineered one that continues to rage in Iraq.  It could even lead to a break in the impasse over the Iran nuclear programme, if a splash in a certain liberal newspaper is to be believed.

Not everything looks quite so rosy, though.  Should the deal either fall through or Syria attempt to prevaricate, the US has all but boxed itself in to some sort of military action.  All the same problems with an attack on Syria as there were when it looked imminent will still apply.  Moreover, regardless of how it came about, backing down after it looked as though they were only days away from strikes will be seen as weakness at home.  It doesn't matter that the majority of the US public were against intervention, or indeed that the Republicans had just as much of a role as anyone else in making a vote seem unwinnable, we're already seeing the usual suspects whining, having believed they were going to get another notch on their "countries attacked" bedpost.  That it was done with the loathed Russians and while the even more despised Putin lurked in the shadows, having last week dared to suggest the US is anything but an "exceptional" nation, won't have improved their mood.

It feels especially incongruous when the UN inspection team has confirmed definitively that sarin was used in the attack on Ghouta in Damascus on the 21st of August.  Their report doesn't say it in as many words, but the inference is clear that the attack was carried out by the military, rather than the rebels.  This doesn't of course mean that the use of chemical weapons was ordered by Assad himself, or that the attack wasn't a "mistake", with those who prepared it getting the mixture wrong, although obviously the president is ultimately responsible.  It does though bring further into focus just how foolish the mad rush towards intervention was; why could the US, French and UK not wait until the inspectors had carried out their work?  The conflict in Syria has been so coloured with lies and propaganda from both sides that relatively unbiased evidence was crucial.  Like it or not, our own intelligence agencies simply aren't trusted any more, and for good reason.  It's difficult to believe that had any vote on action been delayed until now that a majority still wouldn't have been found, misgivings about another intervention in an Arab country or not.

In truth, it's a fitting sort of end to our entire policy on Syria.  From the very beginning William Hague and the coalition have been either unclear or deliberately misleading in what they've been trying to achieve, recognising the rebels, supplying them with "non-lethal" aid, all while refusing to put pressure on them to attend negotiations which the regime was prepared to enter into.  We say we want a diplomatic solution, yet we make no effort whatsoever to get one.  Instead, we allowed or tacitly supported the arming of the rebels by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, then acted surprised when they went to Salafists and other Islamists.  Now we seem to be hoping the "moderate" rebels will fight the likes of al-Nusra and the ISIS, and are training some to do so.  We cry crocodile tears about children and refugees, while seemingly not doing anything to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.  The best that can be said is that thanks to the US-Russia agreement, things are unlikely to get any worse for the moment.  They won't however get any better.  Hague and Cameron have however succeeded in making themselves look like idiots, as well as the most unreliable of allies.  The very slightest of silver linings.

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