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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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.