Sunday 1 April 2012

The Sound and the Fury: Britain’s response to the crisis in Syria

William Smith

Angry Western denunciations, but Asad is not listening The Guardian - Reuters/Benoit Tessier
 In February, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the crisis in Syria as an “utterly unacceptable situation which demands a united international response”. Yet from the beginning of the uprising one year ago, the UK – along with other Western states – has adopted a disjointed and uncertain stance. Strong on rhetoric, but showing little else, the government’s position reveals a deep-seated uncertainty on how best to respond to the crisis.

 If the ‘Arab Spring’ took Western policymakers by surprise, then the uprising in Syria has created a diplomatic headache with no apparent remedy, just a host of unattractive options that are likely to make things much worse before they get better.  The US has been caught between its longstanding desire to get rid of the Asad regime – and thus deal a major strategic blow to Iran – and its fears of destabilising the entire Middle East region (compare recent statements by hawks such as John McCain and former Bush-adviser Elliot Abrams with the more cautious approach of Obama administration figures such as Leon Panetta.) In the UK, where the Iranian issue plays a less crucial role in policy debates, public and government opinion has so far steered well clear of intervention. Aside from sanctions (which will have a debilitating effect on the Asad regime long-term, but will do nothing to stop the immediate bloodshed), the response has been mostly rhetorical. The UK approach has been the ‘do nothing’ approach; in time, it is hoped, the headache will simply sort itself out and go away.

This inconsistent and hands-off approach has been evident from the start of the crisis. In the first months of the uprising, British officials expressed their hope that the Asad regime would follow through with its promises of political reform. Discussing the Syrian president, William Hague insisted it was possible to see him “as a reformer”, and said he believed Asad was “interested” in bringing about change. Yet to any serious observer of Syrian politics, the idea of Asad as a reformer was nothing more than a transient myth that was laid to rest with the repression of the ‘Damascus Spring’ in the early 2000s. The Syrian regime, in which power is invested in a small circle of family members and security personnel surrounding the president, buttressed by extensive systems of patronage, is inherently incapable of reform. Any attempt to bring about meaningful reform would destroy the very basis of the regime itself, as Syria analyst Joshua Landis argues here. Thus optimistic western statements about the possibility of reform were almost as vacuous as Asad’s promises themselves. Hague’s comments were less a genuine expectation that Syria would move towards reform and democracy, than a hope that an awkward geopolitical situation could resolve itself with minimum Western involvement – more akin to the situation in Bahrain and Yemen than to Libya.

The UK’s determination to remain on the sidelines was further demonstrated by its repeated insistence that there was not even “a remote possibility” of a Libya-style intervention in Syria, an effective green-light for the regime to deal with the uprising ‘in house’. When the horrific scale of the regime’s crackdown forced a stronger response, Hague’s demand that Asad stand-down carried little weight without even the pretence of possible coercive force to back it up. Again, the government’s backing for an Arab League plan that would see Asad hand over power to a deputy was at best a token gesture and at worst a woeful misreading of the nature of the Syrian regime. Any member of the regime’s inner elite is almost certain to share the same strategic calculations as the president, and will continue the ‘security option’ to the very end.

There is, of course, no obvious way for any outside power to solve the crisis in Syria. In a candid assessment of British options, Hague admitted that the levers the government had were very limited, and the adoption of a more ‘realist’ UK foreign policy would be a welcome change from the ideological hubris of the Blair era. Nevertheless, we should not mistake adopting strong rhetoric for adopting a strong stand against Damascus. Moreover, Britain’s approach, for all its bluster, seems to be one of resignation to the inevitability of full-blown civil war in Syria. In one sense, Russia and China’s veto spared the West the difficult task of turning a Security Council resolution condemning Syria into concrete measures to end the violence.

Despite the manifest changes in the Middle East in the post-Cold War era, it is clear that the Syrian people remain the hostage of great power politics just as they were during the regime’s brutal crackdown in the 1980s. In 1982, in the aftermath of the Hama massacre, the then Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd was pressed by a fellow MP to raise the issue of Syrian human rights abuses at the UN. Hurd replied that the UK government would do nothing: I do not think representations to the United Nations would bring about the result that the hon. Member has in mind”, he said, adding that “the Syrian Government are well aware of our views on human rights […] one has to ask oneself whether intervention with the Government concerned will do any good or whether it is likely to make matters worse.” This time around, the UK has protested in the strongest possible terms, but just as in 1982 it has found itself unable to offer any substantive help. For the victims of the Asad regime, the sound and fury of the UK’s rhetoric has signified not very much at all.  

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