Displaced Iraqi children play at the Bahrka camp near Arbil. Photo: Getty
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In the face of the threat from Isis, Britain can no longer just follow America’s lead in the Middle East

There are severe limits to what the UK can do as a middle-ranking power. But it can do better than firefighting every crisis with an emergency meeting of Cobra.

It is just over a year since the Syrian regime lobbed chemical weapons into the suburbs of its own capital city, killing up to 1,500 in just a few hours in the early morning of 21 August. The victims are a small fraction of the estimated 192,000 Syrians (according to the latest UN figures) killed in the conflict since the spring of 2011. (Other estimates suggest the total figure could be well over 300,000.)

It is two years since Barack Obama’s statement on 20 August 2012 that “a red line for us is [if] we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised”. When the Syrian regime openly flouted those red lines 12 months later, it seemed inevitable that the reluctant president would be forced into military action against Bashar al-Assad.

Ironically, it was Secretary of State John Kerry – a stronger advocate of air strikes than Obama – who let the regime off the hook when asked if Assad could do anything to prevent US action. “Sure. He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” he said, waving his arms exasperatedly. “But he isn’t about to do it and it can’t be done, obviously.” The Assad regime – with the assistance of the Russian foreign ministry – had just been handed the script to follow if it wanted to avoid outside intervention. As the chemical weapons were handed over, it escalated its campaign with conventional weaponry.

Another year on, we are in a new phase entirely. The fleet-footed rise of Isis has transformed how the conflict is viewed from the outside. It is said that the pre-eminence of militant jihadists in anti-regime Syria now proves there was no “moderate” opposition to support in the early stages of the uprising. But rather than being major participants in the civil war, Isis benefited from the unchecked strength of Assad’s assault against other rebel groups in the second half of 2013. Its strategy from the start was to establish its own supremacy (in the form of its putative caliphate) in areas where the regime has ceded control, and in areas of Iraq where the Baghdad government had lost all authority.

The idea that rapprochement with Assad is the route to defeating Isis is misleading. Assad has a long history of co-operation with the forebears of Isis, al-Qaeda in Iraq, having giving them complete freedom of movement over the border into Iraq to fight the insurgency against coalition forces there after the invasion in 2003. Those networks are the lifeblood of Isis to this day. In March 2011, as Assad began his clampdown on opposition activists, he also emptied the cells of the infamous Sednaya Prison outside Damascus, which was full of jihadists – many of whom are now playing leading roles in Isis. There are even some claims that the American photographer James Foley had been held by the Syrian regime before he made his way into the hands of Isis. For the moment, Isis and Assad are using each other for mutual benefit.

The murder of Foley and the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq are not only human tragedies but symbols of a loss of gravity in the international arena. What we are witnessing is the steady erosion of the post-cold war international order. The chief reason for this is that the US, which has borne by far the heaviest burden in maintaining this order (with all its flaws), has lost its desire to be the world’s policeman, a view articulated in Obama’s speech at the West Point Military Academy in May this year. It has understandable reasons for doing so, from a decade of bad experiences in the Middle East to internal problems such as immigration, and helped by increasing energy independence (perhaps the biggest “game-changer” of all).

In areas where America is less willing to flex its muscles – eastern Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region – the consequences are apparent. Before the crisis involving the Yazidis in early August, it was not American or British but Syrian, Iranian and Russian fighter planes that were operating in Iraqi airspace at the request of Baghdad. In the past week, without the knowledge of the US, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates launched air strikes against Islamist militias in Libya. Yet more Russian military operatives have just been picked up in Ukraine.

Horrific as it was, the beheading of James Foley will not change that calculus in Washington. It does have direct implications for British foreign policy, however. That Foley was killed by a jihadi with a London accent puts the problem in stark relief. The presence of hundreds of British citizens within the ranks of Isis is one of the gravest threats to national security for many years. Like it or not, a world in which Syria and Iraq disintegrate is a dangerous one for Britain. The risk is acute in London, from where most of the British fighters hail – as Boris Johnson’s posturing demonstrates.

For the past two centuries, British foreign policy has been predicated on the preservation of international order (one built, of course, for its own ends). It is when that order has collapsed that the gravest threats to British national security have occurred: in the 1910s and 1930s. The US can afford to turn inwards, as it has done periodically throughout the past century, but Britain has more immediate interests at stake in the conflict in Syria, just as it did in Libya (when the US was momentarily willing to “lead from behind”). There are severe limits to what the UK can do as a middle-ranking power. But it can do better than firefighting every crisis with an emergency meeting of Cobra. It needs a grand strategy to reflect two interrelated truths: that Britain has a selfish interest in striving to preserve the international order; and that the task becomes more difficult when its most important ally is less willing to do all the heavy lifting. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.