Thursday, 10 October 2013

Syria Drags On

To take up a challenge I recently heard posed—of identifying the biggest problem for contemporary international relations—I found myself observing that this question is an entirely subjective one. Candidates for that prize depend entirely on who you ask. Doubtless, North Korean officials will be deeply concerned about the lack of progress in illuminating to the wider world their nation's superiority, military might and sound leadership; Britons, flatly disagreeing, will offer up any number of alternative answers ranging from "securing urgent humanitarian solutions to the conflicts of North Africa" to "getting our Empire back".

Most reasonable standards for measuring the exigency of such a problem involve either humanitarian or national interest considerations. (It might be remarked that the last casualty of the Cold War was the respectability of political dogma as an alternative standard. Good riddance to it.) Of course, today, while humanitarianism ostensibly holds more objective moral weight than straightforward national interest, it tends to be the latter that actually motivates states and politicians to act. 

From Britain's perpective, the 'Syria problem' has not gone away. Dramatically, Parliament put the brakes on recent attempts to intervene (which I argued in a post at the time would only make things worse) but the conflict rages on. This is problem for the legitimacy of Britain and the US, because their very apparent inability (or reluctance) to do anything about that conflict makes them appear weak. It is also a focal point of tensions with Russia, who has come out of recent negotiations looking like the clear winner, as well as the wider Islamic world – who justifiably treat any attempts at involvement from our perspective with immense suspicion.

To overcome this problem, British policymakers urgently need to adjust their rhetoric to what is both achievable and acceptable in the North African & wider Middle Eastern region. Anti-British mistrust is rife and the fact that many policymakers don't 'get that' was evident in the debates held in Parliament and the media before that milestone vote.

Britain also needs to align its interests with its world view more effectively. A majority of the public and many MPs rate humanitarianism as a priority in foreign affairs. Military strikes are a dangerous way to achieve humanitarian ends, and–crucially–a nigh on impossible way to appear to genuinely want to.

Still, in Syria, the stalemate goes on. Arming rebels has become an almost unthinkable option as radical Islamic elements have taken over much of the rebellion. Military strikes have been ruled out by Parliament. Humanitarian aid is the logical next best step – and for the cost of the bombing raids that might have been, Britain should be ramping this up far more than it is. It should also get used to making more of a fuss about this aid to the international press. Nobody else is likely to expend energy pointing it out.

Perhaps the most important thing for Britain to remember is that its diplomacy is still, hard as it might be to believe, up to quite a lot. British diplomats should be quietly present at the centre of negotiations in Syria – not to be seen to be doing something (best, in fact, not to be seen), but because their presence and experience could be a genuinely effective way to help sort out the stalemate. 

And—lest we forget—ending this stalemate is in Britain's direct interests. Its continuation is bad for British interests in the region – as well as for British prestige internationally, because the constant assertions of William Hague that the deadlock is intolerable juxtapose sharply with the evident fact that he is powerless to do anything but go on tolerating it.

Something has got to give – and that something, for Britain, should be its tendency to react to complex, violent situations like Syria using the language of yet more violence.

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