Allies of a Kind?

John Baron MP

Friday 16th December: As President Assad’s government forces regain control of Aleppo, Britain’s muddled approach to the conflict in Syria  throughout bears the  marks of political ineptitude. Our politicians  and diplomats should now recognise as the Russians have done, that the aim must be to keep a lid on the militants and re-establish stability in Syria.  In this week’s featured item, John Baron MP, who opposed British intervention in 2013, reflects on how Britain’s failed foreign policy must change course.

In the final assault on Aleppo, the Syrian conflict plumbs new depths of tragedy and suffering. Re-taking the city is a major advance for President al-Assad, and suggests his position is secure. We can now only hope the various factions shortly conclude the situation is stalemated, and hammer out a messy peace to end the fighting so that the considerable challenge of rebuilding this shattered country can begin. Meanwhile, Western policy has failed to learn from its previous mistaken interventions and been caught short in its understanding and analysis of events on the ground and consequent execution of policy. It confirms, once again, that our foreign-policy process lacks investment, expertise and credibility.

There is a narrative gaining currency in the West that our policy of non-intervention has contributed to the tragedy in Aleppo, and by extension has exacerbated this grim civil war and the refugee crisis. Earlier this week, the spectre of the failed Parliamentary vote in August 2013 was invoked as a rebuke to the ‘isolationism’ of MPs. Apart from a few colleagues trying to re-write history and their part in it, as one of those who led the charge against the Government at the time, I continue to believe the Government’s defeat was a good day for both Parliament and our country in that it prevented a repeat of some of the worst aspects of our previous misguided interventions in the region.

We should remember that 2013 was the year before Daesh came to prominence, though it was undoubtedly lurking in the shadows. In the run-up to the August vote, the Government, in conjunction with other EU governments, had persuaded the EU to lift the arms embargo preventing it from arming the ‘moderate’ Syrian groups. Both the evidence and Government rhetoric suggested the intention was to supply the rebels with arms and with air cover, as in Libya. The apparent idea being that we could ‘track and trace’ the weapons and so prevent them falling into the hands of extremists such as al-Qa’eda and the al-Nusra Front.

In reality, the situation on the ground made this a hazardous policy. Let us put to one side the fact the West failed to understand that, at least during the early stages, the Syrian conflict was largely a religious conflict between Sunni and Shi’a factions, that events on the ground were fast moving which made command and control of anything – let alone weapons – difficult, and that a constant characteristic of previous unrest in the region was the tendency of hitherto undetected extremist elements to assume greater importance.

As with Iraq, Helmand and Libya before, the over-riding concern was that the Government appeared to be on the cusp of embarking upon a fresh military intervention without adequately understanding events on the ground, without properly considering what it wanted to achieve, or giving proper consideration as to what would happen if President al-Assad were removed – hence the twin back bench debates I organised during which the Government finally bound itself to seek Parliamentary approval before going down this route.

Indeed, this lack of clarity was perhaps best illustrated by the Government’s rush to vote in 2013 when Parliament was due to reconvene only days later, combined with its inability to answer key questions during the debate itself. Just two years later, the penny dropped and Government action became more focussed on the threat posed by certain factions within the rebel movement – by which time, of course, extremists including Daesh had made significant gains.

This muddled analysis contrasts sharply with the Russian calculus for their intervention. As our former ambassador to Russia, Sir Tony Brenton, set out on Newsnight earlier this week, Moscow saw the threat posed by militants (from which it also suffers) and put its backing firmly behind the person they considered best-placed to keep a lid on them. It is a policy with few moral scruples as to the means, as we are seeing in Aleppo, but the ends are clearly seen and have been achieved.

The woolly thinking amidst our foreign policy apparatus should concern us. It illustrates a lack of local knowledge and regional expertise – borne out of decades of under-investment. The reason this is particularly important is that the ‘pyramid of decision-making’ in the UK is much narrower than most other global powers – particularly the US. It is therefore imperative those within the pyramid are firing on all cylinders. Despite Government rhetoric, there is little to suggest as yet that the situation has improved, despite welcome improvements such as the establishing of the FCO’s ‘Diplomatic Academy’ and the re-founding of its language school – closed because of previous cuts.

If Britain and the West are to blame for the situation in Syria, I would look elsewhere other than our decision not to intervene militarily. For example, the decision in the early stages of the war to actively freeze out the Russians and Iranians from the various rounds of diplomacy in Geneva meant that the two governments best placed to influence the al-Assad régime were not present at those discussions. This stymied the diplomatic process, and it is surely little surprise that these two governments subsequently opted to influence matters by more direct and destructive means, with the West having very little, if any, leverage over them.

Furthermore, the refugee crisis in the countries neighbouring Syria, and the waves of migration into the European Union, were greatly exacerbated by the decision by EU governments to cut the food voucher programme for those in the refugee camps – a fact even acknowledged by pro-EU Ministers at the Despatch box when questioned at the time. The international community is still underfunding these camps, with the UNHCR last year reporting a $795 million shortfall in required funds. Whilst we in Britain can be proud that we are second only to the USA in contributing to these programmes, the wider international community has fallen short in its obligations – with catastrophic consequences.

Meanwhile, key questions remain unanswered. The fall of Aleppo may mark the beginning of the end of the Syrian civil war, but there is still the wider struggle against Daesh and no credible plan as to who takes over their territory in Syria – few moderates remain in the country. This is a major omission, and a salutary reminder of the complexities of intervening.

There are few ‘easy’ solutions left regarding foreign policy issues today – just a series of difficult decisions with various shades of grey. But by better understanding events and challenges on the ground, and by rekindling the pragmatism which used to be the hallmark of our foreign policy, we increase the chances of getting it right. Let us hope these lessons have been learnt and this Government does not add to the lamentable list of Iraq, Helmand and Libya – which history will prove to have been unnecessary destructions from the persistent danger of potentially hostile nation states.

* John Baron is the Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay, and has been a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee since 2010. He has opposed the UK’s interventions over the last decade, having resigned as a Shadow Minister to vote against the Iraq War in 2003 and opposed the morphing of the Afghan mission into one of nation-building in 2006. He was the only Conservative MP to vote against the government’s Afghan policy and against the intervention in Libya in 2011, and was prominent in opposing Syrian intervention in 2013. He has also led opposition to the government’s reduction in the UK armed forces.