When this week Parliament voted for air strikes in Syria on a motion which invoked the UN’s call to eradicate the Islamic State’s (ISIL) safe haven there and in Iraq, motives were mixed. The Prime Minister warned, in heightened tones, of the threat to British security manifest both from the attacks on the beaches of Tunis and those plotted on the streets at home. To make Britain safe we should, he said, respond to the calls for help from our allies, the French, and strike the head of the snake at its headquarters in Raqqa.
He made no secret of why, this time, he was directing the bombs against ISIL, not the Assad regime a plan on which he was defeated by Parliament in 2013. Nor did he hide the fact, that though the target this time may differ, he has not abandoned his old aim: he wants to see the removal of the Assad regime by the back door, having been prevented by Parliament in 2013 from getting it through the front.
We want, he said, ‘to see a new Syrian transitional Government whose troops will … be our allies in … destroying the so-called caliphate altogether…we cannot wait for that [to] happen. The threat is now… We can act … and … enhance the long-term security and safety of our country, which is why we should act’.
So bombing ISIL (or the Daesh) does not reverse his 2013 plan. It is just another way of getting there, preparing the ground for the 70,000 ‘Free Syrian’ forces opposed to the Syrian Army and regime to move in to back a transitional government. For now Britain can bide its time – follow the lead of the US and French – not fighting with Assad but not fighting against him. Someone else, the ‘Free Syrian Army’ will take up that banner.
Mr Cameron suggests his bombing will make Britain safe in the long term. The evidence from the recent history of air strikes in the region by the western Allies suggests otherwise. Britain’s foreign policy since the 1990s has become so estranged for its history that it no longer has a map or compass on which to judge the true course of Britain’s interests. The Mediterranean and the Middle East was until the 1940s of the first importance to Britain’s foreign policy. And, even when its own colonies and protectorates became independent after World War 2, the region remained central to Britain’s interests, not just culturally and politically, but economically and in terms of security. It was, and remains, the shortest sea route to the new global economies of India and the Far East, its stability still every bit as vital to trade and prosperity as the seas around our own shores. And, as we have seen, that stability is vital to Europe’s and to the economic, cultural and strategic security of its many nations, old and new.
These goals have never been advanced by a policy of wishful thinking — the sort of policy once described by Churchill, in another context and another age, as arising from the ‘genial side of man’s nature’.
Instead, hard choices have often meant putting up with ‘nasty’ rulers as a better option for peace, stability and prosperity, and in the most part, for a better future for their own peoples, than the alternative ‘moderates’ who oppose them. The crowd-pleasing antics of western leaders recently to hasten the Arab Spring and remove the nasty rulers of Egypt or Libya did not bring their people motherhood or apple pie, or even the bread for which many in Egypt were initially protesting. Rather, it led to poverty, civil war, and the vacuum filled by ISIL, military conflict and despair, and the mass movement of displaced populations.
Last week before the vote, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons warned Mr Cameron that the case made for UK intervention was inconclusive. In fact there is no reason to believe that a UK, French or European-Obama coalition softening up the territory for a ‘moderate opposition’ takeover will do much to stabilise Syria, which will most likely go the way of the benighted countries whose Arab Spring was hastened by the failed policies of western allies. Britain once had a tradition of hard-headed policy backed by hard thought and hard choices, one in which the internationalism of old Labour, or the regime change of New Blairism, had no place. The question is not regime change by the back or front door. Rather it is as one foreign affairs committee member, John Baron MP, put it, ‘Who presents the greatest threat to the west? Is it Assad or is it ISIL…? ‘