Diplomacy has achieved more in Syria than bombing would have done

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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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UKIP double-bluff leaves government floundering on Syria refugees

Paul Hoskins

The moment UKIP’s Nigel Farage called for Syrian refugees to be allowed into the UK, it became an inevitability, not because he waved his magic fairy wand but because he drew attention to the inconvenient truth that, unlike many other countries, Britain is simply not doing its bit to provide a safe haven to people caught up in what the United Nations has called ‘one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history’. Here we are just a few weeks later and, sure as eggs is eggs, David Cameron has announced that he is now “open minded” on Syrian refugees. Even the most desultory Westminster watcher will spot this for what it is: thinly-veiled code for “I’m trying to find a way to back down on this as gracefully as possible because I know this is a battle I am not going to win”.

It was always going to be a lost battle because the scale of the humanitarian crisis; the basic sense of humanity with which Britons are generally blessed; and our country’s proud history of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and the dispossessed, dictate that we must play our part. Dare we risk history concluding we didn’t?

I wasn’t the only one to see this coming. When Farage’s call to let in refugees caught the government napping during the post-Christmas lull, Conservative MP Mark Pritchard said he expected the government would be forced to change its mind. “Clearly we cannot take all the refugees but I think we should play our part as a country – still an open-hearted, compassionate country – to do the right thing,” he told the BBC. “There’s real suffering and we need to do our bit along with the rest of the international community.”

Lebanon is currently playing host to over 800,000 registered Syrian refugees, according to UN data, and the tally in Turkey is approaching 600,000. Jordan may have as many as 600,000 too. In total, 100,000 people are believed to have been killed and well over 2 million have escaped to neighbouring countries. Millions more have fled their homes within Syria itself.

It is not that Britain is doing nothing or that Cameron’s administration is being wantonly inhumane. The government points out it has pledged £500 million – not far off that contributed by all other EU states combined – to the Syria crisis. But is it just me, or is there something rather unseemly about just throwing money at a problem and hoping it will go away? Doesn’t it somehow give us an excuse not to confront the reality of the problem head on? Certainly it wouldn’t seem to tally with the government’s “Big Society” ideal of fixing problems through practical volunteering rather than cash hand-outs.

Besides, if we’re willing to throw half a billion pounds in cash at the problem, why wouldn’t we also take in the few hundred of the most vulnerable refugees the UN is asking us to help directly? Could it be that the decision not to accept refugees has been driven by political expediency, or more precisely fear of UKIP, rather than by common-sense, pragmatism and compassion?

How deliciously ironic that in trying not to give ammunition to UKIP by letting in Syrian immigrants, the government may have played directly into its hands. If it weren’t for the fact that people are dying, it would seem like a hilariously contrived episode of Yes, Minister. You can picture the scene. Seasoned Foreign Office mandarins point out to their political masters that letting in a few hundred refugees would cost us almost nothing, make us look good abroad and save lives but are overruled by their nervy, opinion-poll-fixated spads. Farage presumably followed his gut, which told him it was indefensible not to let in refugees from a humanitarian crisis that has turfed millions of people out of their homes. By contrast, our mainstream political parties seem to have been blinded by fear of UKIP and opinion polls telling them they need to crack down on immigration.

Mr Farage has, deliberately or not, pulled off a masterful double bluff that has left the government floundering. “Now who looks like the nasty party?” he will no doubt ask repeatedly in the coming months. When the full government u-turn comes, as it inevitably will, it is going to be a particularly delicious victory for UKIP. It is also going to be pretty good news for those few hundred refugees.

Some, including Conservative MP Andrew Brigden, have accused those who support the UN request of “political tokenism”. Somewhat depressingly they question what the point is of saving a few hundred people when millions are at risk. Presumably these naysayers have no truck with the Talmud’s wise counsel, made famous by the film Schindler’s List, that ‘Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. Imagine if we all shirked our individual responsibility to save a single life? That would be a whole lot of lives lost.

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"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

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Aaron Ellis

On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.

Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.

In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.

We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.

Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.

Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.

By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.

It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.

The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”

Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.

The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.

Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?

When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.

As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.

If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice. 

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CCHQ must find a new online home for the deleted speeches; they’re invaluable

Aaron Ellis

Several years ago I started working on an article about Afghanistan and the Conservatives, only the research ballooned to such an extent that what was supposed to be a relatively short piece turned into a fifteen-thousand-word Masters dissertation. A sizeable chunk of this research is made up of quotes from speeches by senior Tory figures over the past eight years. This material has proven invaluable when writing about the Prime Minister’s interventions in Libya and Syria, as I have been able to use his own words to illustrate the contradictions in his foreign policy. So when I learnt that the Party had deleted ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements from its website, my immediate reaction was: “Is this my fault…?”

Journalists made sarcastic remarks about Mr. Cameron’s commitment to transparent government – in speeches that were no longer publicly available. A Labour MP took the prize for perhaps the most sanctimonious response: “[I]t will take more than David Cameron pressing delete to make people forget about his broken promises”. What these “broken promises” are, I don’t know; I can’t think of anything on the scale of Nick Clegg and tuition fees. Perhaps it is one of those clichés that politicians use regardless of whether or not they are wide of the mark; I would’ve thought that from Labour’s perspective, the Prime Minister has been consistently heartless…

The reason why all this material was deleted is probably mundane: the site may only have so much space and whoever runs it probably thought that few people would want to read the conference speeches of Iain Duncan Smith. A Party spokesman said as much: “These changes allow people to quickly and easily access the most important information we provide – how we are clearing up Labour’s economic mess, taking the difficult decisions and standing up for hardworking people”. As vital as it is to furnish people with the information proving these clichés, I think the decision was an unfortunate one.

Whenever someone asks to contribute to this blog, I emphasise to them that they must engage with whatever the Leadership has said about the issue they are writing about, as I do with foreign policy. That way, their articles are relevant to the Tory debate. But now that ten years’ worth of speeches and press statements have essentially disappeared from the public space, it will be much harder for them to do so. More seriously, it will be harder not only for me to check if this or that senior figure really did say whatever an author claims, but also harder for the Party to rebut their opponents if they lie about us. If Labour simply made up quotes by senior Conservatives, then the Party wouldn’t be able to furnish journalists with a link to show they’re lying.

If there truly isn’t room for all this material, then I think CCHQ ought to find a new online home for it. Perhaps the Conservative Research Department should get its own website and it can be accessed there, as well as a wealth of other material. After all, it would be an odd Tory Party that didn’t conserve its own history.

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A restless, ambitious China needs careful handling

Jenny He

Visible military presence in China is not unusual; but in my experience it has been limited to fairly disorganised lines of privates carrying milking stools from one end of the street to the other for some sort of daily briefing.  Nanjing has been awash with soldiers these past two weeks, however, as college and university students embark on a pre-term course of military training akin to national service. All day long the choruses of nationalist lyrics can be heard; an easy method of advertising the same values to the wider community, who also received a barrage of recruitment text messages before the summer. 

But this instilling of patriotism is at odds with the mentality of the current government. Many young people in China perceive the contemporary Party to be weak compared to the ideal established by Chairman Mao.  The posturing and threats against Japan and the Philippines in reaction to territorial disputes in the South China Sea are seen by many as not going far enough. “I would like action to secure Chinese territories such as the fishing island”, says university student Michael, who like many of his age group would also be in favour of expanding the military to protect these interests. 

The government make threatening statements – most recently against perceived British interference in Hong Kong where the UK intelligence agencies are accused of widening infiltration and strengthening surveillance since it became a special autonomous region in 1997 –  but young people see the outcome as mute: “I don’t think Chinese military is as strong as the US”. The actual ability to mobilise against opponents, who would quickly find strong allies, makes military action more of a wish than a policy. The friendship between the USA and Japan is seen as unfair to China and a barrier to dealing with the territorial disputes. This is reflected in British policy also. William Hague’s visits to Asia in 2010 featured discussions on regional security in Japan, whilst China was the scene for discussions on business, climate change, and cultural exchanges. The same year did, however, see a meeting of senior military officials in Beijing.

Public desire for China’s involvement in international campaigns is mixed. The USA is often described by young people as ‘wanting to be the world policeman’ with France currently branded as ‘[Obama’s] small dog’ for supporting the campaign in Syria. Many people, infact, are unaware of the large numbers of Chinese engaged in UN missions and continue to see their country as isolated from a very foreign community.  Meanwhile others see it as a welcome and inevitable progression for China to become the new world policeman.

The FCO website lists four military areas in which the British and Chinese governments are cooperating. The first is to ‘counter the proliferation of conventional and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons’ in which China’s influence in North Korea has been useful. The second ‘is to reduce regional tensions by working for openness and understanding across borders’ – that fishing island is a diplomatic minefield. Thirdly ‘contribute to conflict prevention and supporting conflict resolution in fragile states’ which China has upheld by committing 21,000 people to 30 UN peacekeeping operations – the figures stated by Cai Yong, Chinese Defence Attache, as evidence of China’s efforts to maintain “world peace”. The fourth mission statement is to ‘deal with non-traditional security issues such as cyber crime, international terrorism, disaster relief, water and food security, and resource scarcity’ where it becomes difficult to assess the impact of the current cooperation. 

The main problem of forging closer links with China is that we don’t want to be too closely associated with a government known for human rights abuses and rife corruption. Although China is an economic powerhouse vast swathes of the country remain undeveloped and inhabited by peasant farmers; the border regions are hazardous; and cultural norms can be very different to what we consider ‘civilised’. We’re more comfortable in a relationship with a culturally similar state where we can trade off any dodgy practices with more common ground.

Premier Li called for closer ties between the UK and China on international and regional affairs at the Davos economic forum last week in Dalian. His statement that it is “in both countries’ interests to deepen bilateral cooperation and to strengthen communication and coordination on international affairs” is a positive sign for the UK after David Cameron’s ill-advised May meeting with the Dalai Lama provoked outrage in China and resulted in Cameron being banned from future visits to Beijing.

Increasing numbers of Chinese nationals go overseas to work and study (many in Britain whilst their European counterparts are living the expat lifestyle all over China), Chinese investors are buying foreign homes (including prime London real estate), and Chinese companies are expanding all over the world (China’s largest company, Sinopec, has offices in Paris).  China needs to protect all these newfound interests, whilst the UK needs to maintain a good working relationship with a government to whom we are already bound.

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

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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

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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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Hague is right to restore relations with Iran

Aaron Ellis

It was reported yesterday that in a telephone conversation with the Iranian foreign minister, William Hague said that he is open to improving ties between his country and the United Kingdom. Relations were severed nearly two years ago when mobs attacked the British Embassy in Tehran. Frankly, it’s about time.

Both David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary imagine themselves to be ‘grand strategists’, yet they have shown little strategic nous as far as Tehran is concerned. We want to withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan, end the conflict in Syria, and stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear capability. Achieving all of these goals depends on having a better relationship with Iran.

If we want the Tehran regime to stop its nuclear programme, then we need to convince them that the West is not a threat to them. Toppling Bashar al-Assad in Syria would isolate them in the region, as some predict, but isolation is likely to make them more committed to possessing a nuclear capability. We need to negotiate a settlement between the Syrian rebels and the Assad regime, and we need Iran to help us.

We also need its help to withdraw peacefully from Afghanistan. As I wrote in these pages last year, there is no rational reason why the Iranians would want either continuing instability in the country or a Taliban victory, yet they view things through the prism of Western-Iranian enmity. If the West is tied down in Afghanistan, then it cannot attack them. By persuading them to ‘help, not hinder the allies in ending the war [there], it may be easier to negotiate a solution to their nuclear programme, as there will be an element of trust between the parties.’

In politics, working relationships are always fluid; if Britain wants to achieve its numerous goals in the Middle East and Central Asia, then Mr. Cameron and Mr. Hague must strike up a working relationship with Iran. 

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