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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Q&A: Would Brexit really move “the Jungle” to Dover?

The 2003 Le Touquet treaty was negotiated outside the EU.

What is David Cameron’s most recent claim about Britain leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister is claiming that Brexit could result in France ending the agreement by which British immigration officials carry out checks on those seeking to enter the UK in France.  

More specifically, Cameron thinks that a vote to leave the EU would give the French government an excuse to revoke the Le Touquet treaty of 2003, and that this would cause refugee camps akin to the Calais “Jungle” to spring up along the English south coast.

What’s the Le Touquet treaty?

In February 2003, Tony Blair went to the northern French resort of Le Touquet to try and persuade President Jacques Chirac to support British and American military action in Iraq. (He failed). 

Blair and Chirac hogged the headlines, but on the summit’s sidelines, Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, an ambitious young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a treaty establishing juxtaposed controls at each country’s sea ports.

This agreement meant that British border police could set up and run immigration checkpoints at Calais – effectively moving the British border there from Dover. The treaty also enabled French border police to carry out checks in Dover.

British border police had already been operating at French Eurostar terminals since 2001, and manning the French entrance to the Eurotunnel since 1994.

What’s all this got to do with the EU?

Technically, nothing. The Le Touquet treaty is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France. Both countries happen to be member states of the EU, but the negotiations took place outside of the EU’s auspices.

That's why eurosceptics have reacted with such fury today. Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said the Prime Minister was “resorting to scaremongering”, while Ukip’s migration spokesperson, in a surprising role-reversal, said that Cameron’s argument was “based on fear, negativity, and a falsehood”.

Cameron’s claim appears to be that Brexit would represent such a profound shift in the UK’s relationship with other European states that it could offer France an excuse to end the agreement reached at Le Touquet. That is debatable, but any suggestion that the treaty would instantly become void in the event of a vote to leave is untrue.

Does France actually want to revoke the treaty?

Local politicians in Calais, and in particular the town’s mayor, have been arguing for months that the treaty should be abandoned. Le Monde has also criticised it. The current French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted today that he agreed, saying that a British vote to leave “will always result in countermeasures”.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Rob Whiteman, a former head of the UK Border Agency, said that it was “almost certain” that the treaty would end if the UK left the EU. He said that France has benefited less from the deal than it expected:

“I think at the time the French felt there would be an upside for them, in that if it was clear that people could not easily get to Britain it would stop Sangatte building up again. The camp was closed. But history has shown that not to be the case. The French authorities still have a huge amount of pressure on their side.”

That said, the French government receives money from the British to help police Calais and its camps, and various French officials have acknowledged that their ports would receive even more traffic if refugees and migrants believed that it was easier to travel  to the UK than before.

If the treaty ended, would “the Jungle” just move to Dover?

There’s little doubt that because of linguistic and familial ties, and perhaps the perception that the UK is more welcoming than France, many refugees and migrants would come to the UK as quickly as they could to claim asylum here.

Whiteman also said on Today that since the 2003 agreement, the annual number of asylum claims in the UK had declined from 80,000 to around 30,000. So the UK could expect a significant spike in claims if the treaty were to end.

But the British asylum process makes it unlikely that anything like “the Jungle” would spring up. Instead, those claiming asylum would be dispersed around the country or, if authorities are worried they would flee, held in an immigration detention centre.

Why is Cameron saying this now?

This looks suspiciously like one of the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. That is, in an effort to distract his critics from the detail of the renegotiation, the PM has provoked a row about migrants and refugees. Cameron is clearly keen to move the debate on from the minutiae of different European agreements to bigger questions about security and terrorism. Though getting bogged down in competing interpretations of a treaty from 2003 may not be the best way to move onto that broader terrain.