Diplomacy has achieved more in Syria than bombing would have done


Aaron Ellis

Pundits across the political spectrum have claimed recently that had MPs supported military action in Syria last summer, the world might just have been a better place today. Yet there is no reason why those who opposed intervention should regret their stance, as there’s no reason to believe that it would have made a difference to the conflict. The truth is that diplomacy has achieved far more than punitive airstrikes would probably have done – at least as far as chemical weapons are concerned.

Last week, Syria enjoyed its longest period of media coverage since the August crisis. On Tuesday, thousands of documents and photographs were published which strongly suggest that the al-Assad regime ‘systemically’ murdered around 11,000 detainees. At the Geneva II summit the next day, negotiations between the regime and the opposition started acrimoniously. And at PMQs, Ed Miliband pushed David Cameron on whether or not Britain would accept more Syrian refugees. Perhaps because of the lack of exciting political news, these were given relatively wide coverage, and some commentators questioned the wisdom of the Commons vote. If we had gone in, journalists might have been reporting much better stories from this devastated country.

On Wednesday, both Matthew D’Ancona on the right and Sunny Hundal on the left argued that non-intervention has caused more suffering than intervention would have done. D’Ancona wondered ‘how many detainees have been maimed and killed’ since the vote. Hundal implied that due to a lack of Western military presence, al-Qa’ida and other militant Islamists have taken over the rebellion. The next day, Dan Hodges (wherever he is on the political spectrum now) basically claimed that only those who supported intervention really care about the Syrians. Presumably, we can only show our sympathy for the millions caught up in the appalling humanitarian crisis by bombing stuff.

These arguments suffer from the same flaws as those put forward by Mr. Cameron last summer. All of them are vague about the military action that was being proposed, and none of them explain why that particular use of force would have generated the desired outcome.

Shortly after the Libya campaign began, the Prime Minister argued that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people…in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” Over a hundred thousand deaths later, we can safely assume that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why would he have gotten the one about chemical weapons? Or murdering detainees? As Mr. Cameron once remarked, “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.”

It is easier to think about the potentialities of bombing someone than it is about the potentialities of negotiating with them, yet the Kerry-Lavrov deal has achieved far more than a few airstrikes would have done. Whereas the regime would still have possessed chemical weapons after the attack, they are now actually being removed from Syria. Last September, the regime became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The diplomatic outcome of the crisis is the only bright spot in the civil war, the Foreign Secretary said last week, which is why those who opposed intervention shouldn’t regret their stance. It helped make the world a marginally better place.

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When debating Syria today, MPs must make Cameron justify every assumption and back up every claim


Aaron Ellis

If MPs are to do their duty today and hold the government to account on Syria, then they must resist David Cameron’s technique of generalising and essentialising the case for war. They must make him explain every detail, justify every assumption, and substantiate every claim.

Eight months ago, when justifying his decision to help the French intervention in Mali, Mr. Cameron tried to imply that anyone who disagreed with him was an isolationist. John Baron, one of the most perceptive Tory backbench critics of coalition foreign policy, innocuously asked if any assessment had been made of British interests in North Africa. Mr. Cameron responded: “I would very much caution against any sense that – I am not sure that my hon. Friend is saying this – if we did not involve ourselves by helping the French in Mali we would somehow make ourselves safer. Britain is a country that is open to the world and is part of international partnerships.” Unless you support a limitless doctrine of “mak[ing] the world safe all over the place” the Prime Minister often implies, then you want to pull us out of the UN and NATO and void any and all existing treaties.

Two months ago, when justifying his decision to lift the EU arms embargo, Mr. Cameron tried to argue that supplying weapons to the Syrian rebels was the only way Britain could contribute to the ouster of Bashar al-Assad. Due to the embargo, the West was unable to engage with “the official opposition” and provide them with “technical assistance, help and advice”. As a result, “extremists on both sides” have benefited: al-Assad continues to massacre his own people and militant Islamists have gained more power and influence over the fight against his regime. Unless you support flooding Syria with weapons, then you are abetting in the crimes of these two despicable forces.

In both January and June, MPs accepted Mr. Cameron’s generalising and essentialising without much quibbling. No one pointed out that by claiming those who disagreed with him were ‘isolationists’, the Prime Minister was mistaking Mali for the world. No one pointed out that Britain has provided “assistance, help and advice” to the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), but the reason why it has failed to make an impact on the fighting is because their competitors are just better at playing Syria’s ‘Game of Thrones' than they are.

This afternoon, Mr. Cameron will use the same rhetorical tricks to sell military action again. As I wrote in these pages the other day, the question MPs must press him on is why he believes airstrikes against the Assad regime will deter it from further chemical weapons use. This assumption has underpinned the heated arguments about Syria over the last couple of days, but it is as erroneous as the belief that airstrikes would deter Iran from developing a nuclear capability.

MPs must force the Prime Minister to draw a line from ‘bombing’ to ‘re-establishing the norm against chemical weapons use’.If they have to be ‘f****** c***s’ and ‘copper-bottomed s**ts’ to hold Mr. Cameron to account, then they can consider themselves the heirs of Leo Amery, Ronald Cartland, and Duff Cooper.

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David Cameron must justify bombing Syria


Aaron Ellis

David Cameron will decide today whether or not to recall Parliament to debate military action in Syria. There shouldn’t be any doubt about it, considering MPs’ hostility towards intervention. If the Prime Minister authorises an attack on Bashar al-Assad’s regime without parliamentary approval, then backbenchers on all sides will pour a massive bucket of s***t over his head…

If Mr. Cameron does recall Parliament, however, MPs must compel him to explain two things.

There seems to be a lot of confusion about the type of military action being proposed, so the Prime Minister must explain what specific use of force he is recommending. Reports suggest that the U.S. will launch several airstrikes none of which will change the underlying dynamics of the Syrian conflict, yet some people seem to believe that they will ‘end the slaughter’. We need more clarity on this in order to ensure a better debate.

Secondly, Mr. Cameron must explain why he believes that the use of force he is recommending will generate the desired outcome – deterring Bashar al-Assad and other tyrants from gassing their own people. MPs must make him to draw a line from ‘bombing’ (Who? What? Where?) to ‘preventing the normalisation of chemical weapons use’. Shortly after the Libyan intervention began, the Prime Minister told the Commons that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people in North Africa and in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” A hundred thousand deaths later, it can be safely assumed that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why will he and others get this one now? Mr. Cameron must explain why this is not just ‘therapeutic violence’, making us feel better about our own impotence.

Many years ago, David Cameron remarked that “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.” Given war is the use of violent means for diplomatic ends, why are these “bad ambassadors” the best way to achieve our ends in Syria? If the Prime Minister doesn’t answer this question, then Parliament must compel him to. We are talking about “the future of the 21st Century”, according to a Downing Street spokesperson; MPs can’t leave untested the assumptions underpinning Mr. Cameron’s claims when the stakes are so apparently high.

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Is our fear of dirty bombs leading us to disaster in Mali?

Alexander Pannett 11.50am image

The crisis in Mali has reached new heights with the announcement that the UK will be sending 350 troops to the region.

The task of the soldiers is to train the Malian army and their deployment is seen as signaling a more long-term commitment to the region by the UK.

The use of soldiers is an escalation of the UK’s support for France, which had previously been solely logistical with the provision of two RAF transport planes. It inevitably raises fears of mission creep at a time of severe cutbacks to the UK defence budget.

However, there is a contradiction between the direct intervention in Mali and the less overt anti-terrorist approach taken in Yemen and Somalia. Why the sudden urgency and build up of Western troops?

The main issue which has not been widely reported in the Western press is the uranium mining area of north Niger, which borders Mali.

According to a 2008 report by a French parliamentary committee, about 18 per cent of the raw material used to power France’s 58 nuclear reactors came from Niger in 2008.

If the uranium mines fell under the control of Islamic fundamentalists then nuclear dirty bombs could become a real terrorist threat to Europe. This is especially worrying considering the relative ease of smuggling illicit goods into Europe from the North African coast.

The mines are also located in an area controlled by the Tauregs, a nomadic tribe that spreads across south-west Sahara and whose alliance with Islamic extremists has formed the backbone of the Malian rebels.  The Tauregs have been fighting for autonomy against a Malian army that has been accused of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses against Taureg civilians by Amnesty International.

The Algerian hostage crisis underlined the threat of Islamic extremism in the Saharan region.  It is important to the security and peaceful development of the world that any extremism is countered and exposed for the narrow and cruel bigotry that it is.

However, too often the West has papered over complex local economic and cultural issues with its simple response to extremist views.

The Tauregs appear to be fighting against an unjust Malian government that arose to power after an army coup in 2012. The Tauregs crave self-determination much as Americans, Irish, Polish and other Western peoples have in the past. To ignore their plight is immoral and short-sighted. It could lead to a calamitous strategic blunder as the Malian campaign descends into bitter guerrilla warfare against impoverished but tenacious people fighting for their freedom.

It would be folly to let the ideological fight against religious extremism force the West against uprisings that cloak their vocabulary with Sharia law but are nationalistic in their ambitions not religious. The analogy of Vietnam is disturbing.

After Afghanistan and Iraq, the West should be careful that it is not entering a hornet’s nest of complex secular and tribal divisions.  Whilst concern over the security of uranium mines in the region is rational, Britain and France should not predicate such concern with the vicarious brutalization of persecuted peoples to further the distasteful ends of corrupt and illegitimate regimes.

In a campaign that lacks specific goals, ensuring autonomy for the Tauregs would do more to bring peace and stability to the region than the re-conquest of isolated desert towns. A political and cultural solution is preferable to a military reaction.

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The situation in Syria is appalling, but it truly isn’t in Britain’s interests to intervene

Aaron Ellis 10.38amimage

Britain should help topple brutal regimes only where it is in our interests to help and our help ought to be proportionate to those interests.

I thought up the 'Ellis Doctrine' for humanitarian intervention in response to David Cameron’s justification for intervening in Libya, oft repeated by the war’s supporters.

“Just because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere”, argued the Prime Minister.

But by what criteria had he judged Libya to be “somewhere”? Why was intervention the “right thing” for us to do, as opposed to other forms of help? For years, the Conservatives had said that British foreign policy under them would be “strategic”, yet Mr Cameron’s justification for the Libyan campaign was extraordinarily non-strategic. The Ellis Doctrine offered a framework with which to think about a future crisis.

Given the crisis in Syria is far more complex than the one that confronted us in Libya, British policy needs to be appropriately nuanced. There are many reasons why Britain should help the Syrian people topple Bashar al-Assad, but we ought to limit our involvement as much as possible. The risks of too big an investment outweigh the rewards. We must limit ourselves to containing the spillover from the conflict into neighbouring countries.

Yet our policy is trending in the other direction. The Prime Minister has suggested arming the rebels. The Chief of the Defence Staff warned recently that troops may intervene if the humanitarian crisis worsened. And the ‘National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces’ (NCSROF) has been prematurely recognised as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people.

If Britain is to surmount the challenges of the twenty-first century and re-climb the greasy pole of international affairs, we need a prudent foreign policy. The country must sort out its finances, build up its resources, and think carefully about where in the world it gets involved in and how.

David Cameron used to recognise this, and, in recent months, seems to have rediscovered his ‘grand strategic’ ambitions. At the Conservative party conference, he declared that “[e]very battle we fight, every plan we make, every decision we take” was designed to help the United Kingdom “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers. “I am not going to stand here as Prime Minister and allow [us] to join the slide.”

As welcome as his rediscovery of ‘the vision thing’ is, he has also consistently fallen short of realising it whenever put to the test. Unless Mr Cameron wants Britain to become a hegemonic power in the eastern Mediterranean, then our deepening involvement in Syria is part of this disappointing trend. Involving us in a fourth conflict in a decade – with little at stake and with no coherent political-military strategy – will hasten our fall, not reverse it.

British policy must focus on stopping the civil war from spreading into the lands of close allies like Jordan. There are nearly 200,000 refugees there. Speaking in August, when the number was around 140,000, King Abdullah said: “We can’t afford anymore Syrians coming through because of the load it is on the system here.”

In October, the New York Times reported that the United States had sent military personnel to the country to help the Jordanians handle the crisis. Given our long history with the Hashemite dynasty, this is what we ought to be doing.

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The West, Russia & Syria: Foreign policy is rarely a zero-sum game

Aaron Ellis 6.12am

It is perfectly possible for one country to argue with another over a controversial issue at the same time as co-operating with them on several others - as long as they both get their priorities right and are diplomatic in explaining their differences publicly.

Unfortunately, both Britain and the United States have failed to do this with regard to Russia: they have given more attention to Syria, where they disagree with the latter, than to the many more important issues on which they share common interests. The way British and American officials have explained their differences with their Russian counterparts has also been appallingly undiplomatic and, unsurprisingly, counterproductive.

If London and Washington want to withdraw from Afghanistan, negotiate an end to the Iran crisis, reduce nuclear weapons, and expand NATO, they must give less ‘airtime’ to Syria when dealing with Moscow. If they want to stop the violence there, they must be more respectful of Russia’s views, no matter how heartless they believe them to be. Otherwise, the Kremlin will take a zero-sum approach to the issues listed above, making the world a considerably more dangerous place.

Anyone familiar with the history of Anglo-American relations with Russia knows how difficult it can be to get them on your side, no matter how obvious it is that your approach to an issue will benefit them as much as it would benefit yourself. Russian foreign policy is characterised by interplaying contradictions. Its practitioners can be refreshingly honest one minute, deceptive the next; they can play the aggrieved party in a dispute when they are actually the aggressor; and can alternate between undermining the international order and being one of its key pillars

Yet there are best practice principles that can be teased out of our difficult history with the Russians.

One, respect their interests and treat them the way a great power ought to be treated, even if it is obvious they’re not one. Two, be honest about your own interests and don’t try to trick them, though they may be trying to trick you. Three, don’t be a hypocrite, no matter how hypocritical you think they are behaving. Essentially, keep in mind Ronald Reagan’s dictum: trust, but verify.

If this is “best practice”, both the United Kingdom and the United States have badly mishandled the Russians during the Syria crisis. They have not tried to safeguard their interests in the country should Bashar al-Assad fall, nor have they taken seriously their view of the crisis, as Giles Marshall argued they should in these pages last month. Rather than be diplomatic about their differences, some Western officials have publicly attacked Russia, as the US Ambassador to the UN did in February.

Some of the British and Americans’ actions have just been tin-eared: for example, leaking that David Cameron thought about using Special Forces to stop a Russian ship from allegedly taking weapons to Syria.

For months now, the conflict has preoccupied Anglo-American diplomacy, yet there are many other issues that are much more important to us than Syria and which require Russian support – or at least acquiescence. If we continue to bungle things with the Kremlin, it will become less cooperative on Iran and Afghanistan, even taking a zero-sum approach. One official said as much yesterday, warning that “if Russia doesn’t like the outcome” in Syria, it will start selling long-range surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

Given that Russia is part of one of the two routes via which NATO supplies troops in Afghanistan, its support will be vital over the next two years as we withdraw, as the only other route out of the country is through Pakistan…

British and American officials are understandably exasperated with Russia’s Syria policy, for it is cold, self-interested, and hypocritical. Vladimir Putin attacked humanitarian interventionism a few months ago, yet he justified the war with Georgia on the same as grounds as those calling for military action in Syria. Unfortunately, the terrible things happening there simply aren’t important enough to us to risk an open breach with the Kremlin and losing its cooperation on much more vital issues.

Much of what Otto von Bismarck said over a hundred years ago holds true today, not least his belief that the secret of foreign policy is to make a good treaty with Russia…

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Should humanitarian intervention again be part of British foreign policy?

Stuart Baldock 5.47pm

April 7th each year is the United Nations Annual Commemoration of The Rwanda Genocide.

Regrettably, this commemoration will likely pass without notice by the majority of people, as it does most years. The Rwandan Genocide is a terrible example of the consequences of inaction by the international community. 1 million killed in just 100 days. The Rwandan Genocide also destabilised neighbouring Congo, where the extremist Hutu perpetrators fled the Tutsi army. The two resultant wars have killed an estimated 5.4 million people, with civilians the majority of victims. Military intervention by the international community could have prevented these deaths. This year, with the RAF protecting Libyan civilians with a UN no-fly zone, we should all pause to remember the events of 1994.

This is why recent polls showing lukewarm support for British intervention in Libya is troubling. Politicians need to better explain the consequences of inaction. Whilst public reticence regarding military intervention is understandable after the Iraq debacle, it is worth remembering the positive interventions of recent years, notably Kosovo and Sierra Leone which both saved countless lives.

There is a second humanitarian crisis in the Ivory Coast which has been simmering since November 2010. The United Nations; the African Union (AU); The Economic Community of West African States (“Ecowas”); the European Union, and the United States recognised Alassane Ouattara as the winner of the Ivory Coast’s 2010 Presidential Election. However, the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, continues to cling to power. Ecowas wanted to remove Gbagbo but, without the international community’s aid, they lacked the ability to neutralise Gbagbo’s tanks and artillery. French and United Nations soldiers recently attacked heavy weaponry in the capital Abidjan only when the situation became intolerable for both themselves and civilians. The French admittedly have a very chequered history in the Ivory Coast, this almost certainly made them unwilling to intervene sooner. If this conflict had not been allowed to fester and Ouattara installed as President when the election was confirmed 5 months ago, fewer lives would have been lost. Ecowas should have been supported by the international community when it first raised the prospect of military intervention.

In The Bottom BillionPaul Collier argues that military intervention in the world’s poorest countries saves lives in the immediate term by preventing or halting conflict, the most impressive example being Sierra Leone. Further, if governments are willing to provide peacekeepers for as long as is necessary, the demilitarisation of combatants and a transition to normality can be facilitated. Interventions should also take place, Collier argues, to protect democratically elected governments from coups. The poorest nations in the world spend a sizeable proportion of their budgets on defence, particularly from internal threats. Money which could be far better spent on fulfilling development goals. Civil wars are also costly, not just in terms of lives lost, but financially too.

If Britain does intervene for ethical purposes, it should not intervene alone. Working with France within our military co-operation treaty should provide any international force with the requisite resources. Obviously, there will be times when the international community cannot intervene; if so politicians must clearly and candidly explain the reasons why. If military intervention is possible, the international community has an ethical obligation to act to prevent a tragedy like Rwanda from happening again. It saves both lives and a country’s future.

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