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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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