The ugly truth behind Obama's Syria plan

Targeted strikes to punish Assad will only perpetuate the conflict – and that's exactly what the American government wants.

America's aims in Syria are not what the government wants you to think.

You can see the evidence in what action is being suggested. Jay Carney, the White House chief spokesman, yesterday categorically ruled out regime change as an objective. “The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” he said to the assembled White House press corps. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” But the targeted strikes being proposed will only perpetuate the butchery – and that is what they are designed to do.

A true solution to the conflict in Syria would have been difficult and incredibly complex even two years ago. It would take a long time, and more money than would probably be palatable to either Britain or America. Solving this problem would mean attempting rapprochement between two factions whose hatred for each other is drenched in the blood of thousands and steeped in years of murder. It is probably impossible.

But nobody is even talking about a solution, and there's a reason for that.

America is not interested in regime change. Obama does not want to be a war-time president. Nor is he interested in the humanitarian argument for intervention for any more than rhetorical purposes. A cursory glance shows his 'red line' of the use of chemical weapons to be ridiculous. The death toll in Syria stands at more than a hundred thousand people. The rhetoric has been that Assad must be “punished” for the use of chemical weapons, but why? The tools used to reach this number are immaterial in the face of that horror. Who cares whether people were killed with shells, mortar or gas?

The truth is that evening the odds in Syria – which the West has already been doing, by drip-feeding supplies and weaponry to rebel forces – has turned a brief if bloody resolution into an interminable meat-grinder, in which no side has the decisive edge, and flattening out some more of Assad's tactical advantages will only maintain this grisly status quo.

Here is why that is attractive to the American government. At the moment, the conflict in Syria is acting as a sort of sump; collecting the resources of America's enemies in a confined space. It's a black hole for extremists. When Assad's army re-took the town of Qusayr in June, they were supported by Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran, too, is supporting him: the Independent on Sunday reported in June that a contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops would be sent to fight alongside Syrian government forces. Tehran has even threatened to strike at Israel should America attack Syria, a move which could start a disastrous chain of events.

On the other side, Jabhat Al-Nusra, widely regarded the most effective and disciplined rebel group fighting the Assad regime, is openly linked with Al-Qaeda; another jihadist affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is a hugely powerful faction of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

As far as the White House is concerned, this is a zero-sum game. While these groups are spending money and resources fighting in Syria, the threat they pose to the West is greatly diminished. If Al-Qaeda is focussing on overturning Assad, it is not plotting the next 9/11; and it is even possible that it might be grateful to the US for even miserly airborne assistance. My enemy's enemy, so the saying goes, is my friend.

Obama and his advisers will also be calculating that victory for the rebels in Syria could allow anti-Western sentiment to resurface under an extreme Islamist regime. Another lesson from recent history: in Iraq, it was after Saddam was toppled that things went to hell in a handcart.

So that leads to the awkward conclusion: that a half-hearted airborne intervention in Syria is designed not to rock this deadly boat, but to steady it.

The situation for Putin is much the same. Perpetual civil war in Syria works almost as well for Russia as for the United States. Russia has enormous business ties with Assad's Syria – some 20 billion dollars worth, according to the Congressional Research Service, and they stand to lose this if Assad is toppled – as well as Russia's only military naval base outside of its borders, . But Syria is also a large-scale buyer of Russian arms; spending nearly five billion dollars in the four years to 2010, and that number has increased significantly since the conflict began, with Assad signing deals to buy advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and MiG-29 fighter jets in just the last few months.

More importantly, the Syrian conflict allows Putin to tighten political support at home in an era of increasing unrest and protest by increasing anti-American, and anti-Western sentiment. With Russia and the US implacable on the UN security council, no resolution is likely, however much Russian foreign ministers may bluster about “catastrophic consequences” if the US and its allies were to intervene.

Russia doesn't want the rebels to win, because it will lose its business and its naval base. America doesn't want the rebels to win because the state they will most likely form will be an extremist Al-Qaeda backed breeding-ground for terrorism, led by the Al-Nusra Front.

So Syria has become effectively a straw man, by tacit agreement of both Russia and America. And as long as the straw man continues to burn, neither side cares how many civilians are lost in the inferno.

Barack Obama walking to the West Wing of the White House. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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After Article 50 is triggered, what happens next?

The UK must prepare for years, if not decades, of negotiating. 

Back in June, when Europe woke to the news of Brexit, the response was muted. “When I first emerged from my haze to go to the European Parliament there was a big sign saying ‘We will miss you’, which was sweet,” Labour MEP Seb Dance remembered at a European Parliament event in London. “The German car industry said we don’t want any disruption of trade.”

But according to Dance – best known for holding up a “He’s Lying” sign behind Nigel Farage’s head – the mood has hardened with the passing months.

The UK is seen as demanding. The Prime Minister’s repeated refusal to guarantee EU citizens’ rights is viewed as toxic. The German car manufacturers now say the EU is more important than British trade. “I am afraid that bonhomie has evaporated,” Dance said. 

On 31 March the UK will trigger Article 50. Doing so will end our period of national soul-searching and begin the formal process of divorce. So what next?

The European Parliament will have its say

In the EU, just as in the UK, the European Parliament will not be the lead negotiator. But it is nevertheless very powerful, because MEPs can vote on the final Brexit deal, and wield, in effect, a veto.

The Parliament’s chief negotiator is Guy Verhofstadt, a committed European who has previously given Remoaners hope with a plan to offer them EU passports. Expect them to tune in en masse to watch when this idea is revived in April (it’s unlikely to succeed, but MEPs want to discuss the principle). 

After Article 50 is triggered, Dance expects MEPs to draw up a resolution setting out its red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and present this to the European Commission.

The European Commission will spearhead negotiations

Although the Parliament may provide the most drama, it is the European Commission, which manages the day-to-day business of the EU, which will lead negotiations. The EU’s chief negotiator is Michel Barnier. 

Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has said of the negotiations: “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

This will be a “deal” of two halves

The Brexit divorce is expected to take 16 to 18 months from March (although this is simply guesswork), which could mean Britain officially Brexits at the start of 2019.

But here’s the thing. The divorce is likely to focus on settling up bills and – hopefully – agreeing a transitional arrangement. This is because the real deal that will shape Britain’s future outside the EU is the trade deal. And there’s no deadline on that. 

As Dance put it: “The duration of that trade agreement will exceed the life of the current Parliament, and might exceed the life of the next as well.”

The trade agreement may look a bit like Ceta

The European Parliament has just approved the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (Ceta) with Canada, a mammoth trade deal which has taken eight years to negotiate. 

One of the main stumbling points in trade deals is agreeing on similar regulatory standards. The UK currently shares regulations with the rest of the UK, so this should speed up the process.

But another obstacle is that national or regional parliaments can vote against a trade deal. In October, the rebellious Belgian region of Wallonia nearly destroyed Ceta. An EU-UK deal would be far more politically sensitive. 

The only way is forward

Lawyers working for the campaign group The People’s Challenge have argued that it will legally be possible for the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 if the choice is between a terrible deal and no deal at all. 

But other constitutional experts think this is highly unlikely to work – unless a penitent Britain can persuade the rest of the EU to agree to turn back the clock. 

Davor Jancic, who lectures on EU law at Queen Mary University of London, believes Article 50 is irrevocable. 

Jeff King, a professor of law at University College London, is also doubtful, but has this kernel of hope for all the Remainers out there:

“No EU law scholar has suggested that with the agreement of the other 27 member states you cannot allow a member state to withdraw its notice.”

Good luck chanting that at a march. 

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.