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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Why haven't we heard more about the allegations of Tory election fraud?

Police and prosecutors have joined a probe into election fraud allegations that could erase the Tory majority.

The facts

The Conservative Party is facing accusations of breaking election spending rules during its 2015 campaign. Following a Channel 4 investigation, it has admitted to failing to declare more than £38,000 of expenses, money it says was spent on accommodation for Tory activists.

It’s up to the Electoral Commission, which met this week with prosecutors and police forces, to decide whether or not to launch criminal investigations into this spending.

Allegations that the money benefited campaigns in individual seats have put the Tories in hot water – they may have illegally exceeded the constituency-specific spending limit. Making a false spending declaration in an election carries a punishment of up to a year in prison and/or an unlimited fine, and anyone found guilty is also barred from running in a general election or holding any elected office for three years.

But the party claims that, as the money was spent on “BattleBus” activists who were driving around the country, it counts as national spending from HQ, rather than being part of individual candidates’ spending.

The Electoral Commission, Crown Prosecution Service and representatives of 15 police forces met this week to discuss the claims. This has resulted in extra time being allowed (an extension on the 12 months allowed under the Representation of the People Act) for relevant police forces to decide what action to take.

Up to 29 Conservative candidates are thought to have benefitted from “BattleBus” campaigning, many of whom were fighting marginal seats.

As Channel 4’s Michael Crick reported yesterday:

“It will be interesting to see if they actually start naming constituencies where they think offences may have occurred. That would then put elected MPs, Conservative MPs, in the frame.

“And indeed, if they were to look at all the constituencies that we’ve been making allegations about over the last few months, it could actually endanger the government’s majority in the House of Commons.”

The conspiracy claims

So why haven’t we heard about this? It undermines the credibility of the entire Tory general election campaign. The claims could even constitute a scandal that would trigger by-elections across the country and potentially erase the Tory majority. The Tories have a working majority of 18, so if they lost in 18 by-elections (were at least 18 MPs to be found guilty), then they would lose their majority.

Some, particularly online leftwing voices, have accused the media of conspiring not to cover this story. Our rightwing press and the cowardly BBC, they argue, are ignoring a story that could potentially call the Conservative general election victory into question.

Anger about this story being low on the political agenda is understandable. It hasn’t been prominent, considering it could result in prosecutions (indeed, the Devon and Cornwall police force is reportedly already investigating, following its meeting with the Electoral Commission). And if, say, The Sun were a left-leaning paper, it probably would have framed it in a dramatic way that would have grabbed readers’ attention.

But there isn’t a media conspiracy of silence. BBC News has been covering developments since the beginning of the year, including similar claims about 2014 by-elections, and Grant Shapps MP (Conservative chairman during the election) was hauled onto the BBC Daily Politics sofa to respond to the allegations. And the BBC’s Today programme put the allegations to Communities & Local Government Secretary Greg Clark this morning. Channel 4 News has been investigating the story, and breaking developments, from the start. The Mirror has done a big investigation into each of the MPs’ campaigns that have been accused. And all of the main papers have published news reports on the story.

The reason it may seem like silence, or lack of due prominence, is because this is an ongoing investigation. So far there have been no arrests, and the allegations remain just that: allegations. Care is required by media organisations not to falsely accuse anyone of criminal activity. And, pushed by journalists, the Conservatives have given their side of the story, so we’re not going to get a great deal more from them. Now it’s up to police forces to decide to take action.

So far, the only things to report on have been what would and would not count as a breach of electoral law (rather a dry subject), and whether or not the Electoral Commission would achieve an extension on the time allowed by law for investigating (also somewhat technical). And, however dull, these things have been reported. They may not have been shared a huge amount online, or bounced to the top of “most-read” boxes – but this is because readers aren’t usually that interested in the ins and outs of the Representation of the People Act, no matter how much those who want this government toppled wish they were.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.