Assessing Britain's Response to the Syrian Revolution

James Denselow, Asharq al-Awsat

Donatella Rovera, an investigator with the rights group Amnesty International who recently spent several weeks in Syria, told a press conference in the United States that “on the ground the one question people kept on asking me was why the world is doing nothing?” Indeed with events in Syria moving into a new phase following the assassination of Assef Shawkat and the Free Syria Army entering Damacus, the international community appears more irrelevant to events than ever.

So is Britain playing an effective role towards the Syrian conflict? There certainly has been a frenzy of activity with Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, rushing between meetings in New York, discussions with the Russians and the meetings with the ‘Friends of Syria’ group. On the 17th of July Hague got as physically close to events as he could when he visited the Bashabsheh refugee camp near the border with Syria and met victims of Assad's brutal onslaught. Earlier in the year Hague taking part in a Twitter debate said that Britain was leading “the way on Syria and Libya at the UN… we launched a whole new programme to support democracy in the Middle East & North Africa with £110 million in funding.”


Indeed despite cuts to the Foreign Office budget the Middle East and North Africa team have been expanded in order to deal with the massive ramifications from the Arab Spring, with priority placed towards Libya and Egypt. Foreign Office officials have spoke of the new opportunities that have come with the revolutions and dealing with new political actors and movements. In the case of Syria in February this year the British government made the bold move of formally recognising the Syrian opposition as legitimate representatives of the country. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem responded by saying in June that "the world is not only Europe. We will forget that Europe exists on the map. We will ask to withdraw our membership from the Euromed."

Yet while Britain has been on the front foot diplomatically it has remained cautious about getting more drawn into the conflict. Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at University of Oklahoma and author of the popular Syria Comment website, explained to Asharq al-Awsat that “none of the western powers want to get sucked into Syria by intervening too precipitously. The lack of unity among the opposition militias is so not encouraging. How will they stabilize the county once the government falls?”

 

The British position on Syria is directly informed by the state of the country’s finances and the public’s attitude towards a more proactive foreign policy. A Chatham House-YouGov Survey earlier this year showed that 51% of the public believe protecting the UK at its borders, including counter terrorism, should be the main priority of UK foreign policy, with little general public support for the government’s policies to tackle climate change or promote democracy and human rights. More specifically 43% of the public believe that the UK should not be involved in intervening in or supporting domestic uprisings, such as Syria. And only one in four thought the UK had a moral responsibility to support such movements.

Jane Kinninmont, of the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, explained that “the response suggests a high degree of public scepticism about the desirability of intervening in Syria despite the mounting atrocities there. This is likely to reflect negative perceptions of British military interventions in Afghanistan, now ongoing for more than a decade, and in Iraq. The public debate about Syria is shaped more by these ground-war experiences than the Libyan no-fly zone, as most of the fighting in Syria is on the ground and there is as yet no equivalent of Benghazi to act as a base for the opposition”.

Despite public unwillingness to involve Britain in Syria, the government still can claim to be leading the Western response to events. Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Asharq al-Awsat that the UK was playing a larger diplomatic role than the Americans although he rejected the idea that British pressure on the Syrian regime could encourage defections saying that “the core will likely not care much I think”.

The British-led diplomatic path to pressurising Syria has come up against the brick wall of the double-veto of China and Russia at the Security Council. As the Chairman of the British Foreign Affair Committee, Richard Ottaway MP, said this July "the situation in Syria is unacceptable, and the appearance of a stalemate in the UN Security Council on the situation is clearly deeply concerning. However, there can be no certainty that a less interventionist approach in Libya would have led to readier support from Russia and China for more vigorous condemnation of President Assad."

Some experts claim that the Russian/Chinese position allows Britain to ramp up its rhetoric comfortable in the knowledge that they will not be drawn into any intervention. Stephen Starr author of “Revolt in Syria” explained this argument to Asharq al-Awsat:

“Britain has done what it can given the lack of a wider international consensus for more direct involvement. And, of course, it makes it easier for William Hague to lambaste the Syrian regime when he knows Russia and China continue to block any UN action on Syria. Britain's support for the opposition has not been particularly well coordinated, probably because the political opposition is so disorganised and disjointed itself.”

Britain’s response to the opposition has perhaps been the most questionable response to events. This is partly down to the multifaceted and fragmented nature of groups opposing the regime, with a variety of ideologies, tactics and visions of a post-Assad Syria in play.

Roger Godsiff MP is a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria and told Asharq al-Awsat that “our position in the All Party Group is that we are with the Syrian people. There is a cross-party consensus on this issue. There is currently a Civil War in Syria as Assad has declared war on his own people. Britain is providing both diplomatic and logistic support to the opposition, but the problem is that they are divided into many factions. I don’t know who in the opposition Britain directly supports.”

Not knowing who you are supporting is a real issue in such a fluid and rapidly developing conflict. Patrick Seale, author of “Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East”, spoke to Democracy Now following the bomb attack on National Security Headquarters on the 18 July. Seale explained how support to the Syrian opposition: “Poses a fundamental difficulty, dilemma, for the Western powers, also for Saudi Arabia. Their weapons and intelligence and money, which they’re sending to the rebels, may well find themselves into jihadi hands. I don’t think the United States would like to find itself on the same side as al-Qaeda, for example”.

Yet British Foreign Office officials assured Asharq al-Awsat that they have robust systems in place to ensure that they support groups who use non-lethal means and can play an effective role in a post-Assad transition. Britain has been particular careful to avoid supporting the military wing of the ‘Free Syria Army’ (FSA).  Contact with Syria opposition is led and co-ordinated by John Wilks, the former British ambassador to Yemen based in London, who replaced Frances Guy in May. In a written statement on the 4th of July this year to Parliament following the Ministerial Action Group meeting in Geneva on 30 June the Foreign Secretary William Hague explained Britain’s support:

“The British Government is at the forefront of international activity aimed at bringing about an end to the violence and making progress on political transition in Syria…. We have increased UK funding for the Syrian opposition and civil society groups, providing £1.5 million of assistance in this financial year to help provide human rights monitoring and media training for activists, and other non-lethal support, including communications equipment.

This cautious approach is arguably the most responsible course of action that Britain can take but it understandably disappoints opposition groups who were expecting more. Ausama Monajed, member of the Syrian National Council, complained to Asharq al-Awsat that:

"The international response to the atrocities in Syria has been pathetic! Not even a single UN condemnation resolution shows how paralysed that organisation is. It is very clear that the international community have become irrelevant, Syrians have learned the hard way the they will have to take Assad with their own hands or nobody else will do it. Britain’s response has not been any different from the US one. We were hoping that HMG will step in to help Syrians as they did back in 1945 against the French."

Chris Doyle, Director of the Centre for Arab-British Understanding, told Asharq al-Awsat that:

“Could Britain been more effective towards the conflict? Unquestionably yes that could have mitigated events and reduced the level of bloodshed. Britain has made a number of mistakes. Calling on Bashar to step down when they couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver raised expectations and then exposed Western weakness. It also handcuffed Britain diplomatically, leaving few options for a political solution”.

Hague spoke to Asharq al-Awsat’s Mina al-Oraibi in May, explaining that “it is Syrians who would decide about their own future. No one from outside is trying to tell Syrians how they must live or who must lead their country. We want a Syrian political process in which they decide about their own future”. Yet Chris Doyle makes the point that “Britain also made a huge mistake as an external power endorsing the ‘Syrian National Council’ (SNC) as ‘A’ legitimate part of the opposition, as the only real legitimacy comes from the Syrian people.”

Where Britain has been particularly effective is chocking the regime’s cash supply. The BBC has reported that in the UK, some £100m ($157m) of Syrian regime assets, mostly cash held in bank accounts, has been frozen over the last 14 months. The British Government has also focused support on the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria. Working in partnership with OCHA and international NGOs the UK is providing £17.5 million for what Hague described as: “food, medical care, shelter and other essential support to tens of thousands of people in need in Syria as well as to help refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq”.  Humanitarian support is something Britain traditionally does well, describing itself as an “aid superpower”. Chris Doyle aggress that “where Britain has been most successful is its humanitarian support to the growing number of Syrian refugees. They’ve also introduced human rights and the question of accountability into the conflict. What is more Britain has acted as a restraining influence on some of the wilder ideas of other countries”

Commentator Nabila Ramdani wrote a piece in the Evening Standard stating that “London has influence over the civil war in Syria”:

“Londoners should remember that this city is the birthplace and former family home of Assad’s wife, Asma. Her parents still live here, along with other regime supporters, as well as MPs who have previously shown sympathy for the Syrian tyranny. The freezing of some Assad assets by the EU earlier this year was a step in the right direction. But condemnation of the brutality by Foreign Secretary William Hague needs to intensify”.

Condemnation of Syria is likely to intensify with a new phase of fighting emerging. Operation: Damascus Volcano and the killing of four senior regime figures in July suddenly highlighted how far behind the international community was from the reality on the ground. It also sharpened the rhetoric coming from London. While Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the bombing of the National Security Headquarters saying that it “confirms the urgent need for a Chapter VII resolution of the UN Security Council on Syria”. Alistair Burt MP, Britain’s Foreign Minister for the Middle East, went further in response to the bombing telling BBC Newsnight that the attacks was “shocking and has huge significance…there is a real urgency for the international community to demonstrate that it is prepared to act together”. Burt described the potential use of chemical weapons by the regime as a “game changer” and warned that “if diplomacy fails and the situation is more severe…you can’t rule anything out”.

The fog of war is currently swirling around events in Syria with the potential for far larger rates of violence on the horizon. While Britain has walked a steady and responsible path towards Syria to date, as the regime continues to deteriorate London may be forced to form a clearer idea of enhanced support for the nascent groups that will lead Syria in a post-Assad transition.

Published in the Arabic daily paper on the 28th July, 2012

 

 

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