Michael Stephens for the British Royal United Services Institute in Doha, Qatar
With President Obama deciding on a policy of broadening out and deepening air strikes against Islamic State ( what he refers to as "ISIL") , it was always clear Cameron would maintain the stance that 'nothing would be ruled out' and for him to continue playing for time.
It could be that Cameron is waiting for the Scottish referendum to be over with before making a decision to commit Britain to joining in on air strikes. Given the humiliating defeat in the Parliamentary vote on launching air strikes on Syria in the summer of 2013, this is not a public debate he wants at present.
Cameron is going to play down military involvement until after September 18 2014 but Hammond seems to have been 'off message' in claiming that there could be no British air strikes in Syria against IS. Now Obama has made clear that there could be, so the government is going to have to backtrack.
Air strikes on IS in Syria would be technically a violation of Syria's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Meanwhile, Obama and other leaders in NATO nations have condemned Russia's military incursions into Ukraine. This is something both Iran and Russia, with interests in Syria as well, were bound to consider.
Russia was always likely to regard US air strikes in Syria this way as a US double standard given that US officials and, of course, Cameron had accused Russia of an 'act of aggression' in violating the sovereignty of Ukraine. Prior to the Ukraine conflict Turkey, a NATO member, had trained jihadists rebels for use within Syria.
One reason Russia has felt entitled to give backing for the 'pro-Russia rebels' in Ukraine is because Turkey was doing precisely the same in Syria, in alliance with Saudi and Qatari financial support, long before the foolish western-backed overthrow of President Yanukovych in Kiev.
The claim that the western powers can do what they do and Russia should not hinges on the idea that when the west violates sovereignty that's legitimate because 'our values', as prated forth at the NATO summit in Wales are better so the means justifies the end.
Only the means, in backing fanatical jihadists while pretending Turkey could control them and deploy them as assets, was a self serving fiction that helped create ISIS. Stating that it is legitimate to enter Syrian air space without any diplomatic engagement with Assad because he is not legitimate is purest doublethink.
For a start there is as yet no conclusive proof that the chemical attack in Ghouta was not carried out by Turkish backed insurgents as a pretext to get Obama to take out Assad's military assets the better to overthrow the regime, an act of aggression that would have made the threat of ISIS in 2014 far worse.
The game plan is to use the threat of ISIS to destroy the 'extreme rebels' and to empower the 'moderate' Sunni forces, now that the division is clearer, as part of a regional plan to check Iranian influence and certain infrastructure projects such as the construction of a gas pipeline from the Persian Gulf.
The so-called 'Shi'ite pipeline' would connect the South Pars gas field with the Eastern Mediterranean through an Assad-led Syria where Russia has a naval port and the permission to explore and develop gas in Syria's offshore part of the Levant basin.
Cameron backs Britain's closest Gulf ally and major LNG supplier Qatar in its rival bid to build a Qatar-Turkish pipeline that would also go through Syria which is precisely why both powers are committed to the removing Assad and empowering the a Muslim Brotherhood government in Damascus.
Both Cameron and Johnson have courted Qatari finance and bilateral trade and lucrative arms deals. Moreover, Hammond was in Doha in April 2014 giving a speech in which he talked up the possibility of Britain having a permanent base in Qatar in order to defence Britain's oil and gas interests.
Hammonds speech in Doha was interesting as it revealed the extent to which Britain is committed to defending Qatar and also why a permanent military presence is wanted by Cameron's government following what is not quite a 'withdrawal' from Afghanistan.
“As we draw down from Afghanistan, where we have for many years had an opportunity to provide training to our forces through deployment in Afghanistan, we have to think how to train our forces in desert warfare and hot condition combat in future and certainly one of the options is to establish more permanent facility somewhere in the Gulf. So it is a possibility we are looking at.
Our economic recovery is fragile, anything which causes spike in oil price would derail it and the most likely thing to cause spike is some upsurge in tension in this region. So it is very much in our interest to have a stable situation in the Gulf.”Military intervention is likely from Britain because of the threat IS poses to the oil supply in Kurdistan and in the south of Iraq. However, it cannot be completely detached from the wider geopolitical game plan which involves containing and checking Iranian influence and hence its gas exports.
In Syria, the attempt to contain Iran by backing the Free Syria Army is clear. But it was also true in Afghanistan to the east where the game plan was to block the construction of the Iran-Pakistan ( IP ) Pipeline as an alternative to the TAPI, despite the fact the gas would be four times cheaper.
The strategy in dealing with IS in Syria and Iraq is has certain similarities with Afghanistan in using the Northern Alliance to destroy the Taliban regime on the ground while using air power to strike from above: the difference is that this time there would be no US or NATO ground troops.
As with Syria, Afghanistan was also crucially prolonged, not due to the threat of Al Qaida terrorism ( the pretext for "staying the course ") but more to gain the geopolitical benefits of having the TAPI pipeline constructed, an ambition never openly mentioned in Britain ( as it was in the US),
...as many as 30,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, stationed along a key planned pipeline route – the $7.6-billion Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan- India (TAPI) pipeline project – though the success of this endeavor is increasingly under question.As Robert Kaplan put it concisely in his Monsoon ;“Stabilizing Afghanistan is about more than just the anti-terror war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban; it is about securing the future prosperity of the whole of southern Eurasia.”Of course, Al Qaida was long ago not a threat in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the US has wanted peace with the Taliban because it does not regard it as a prime threat. The problem remains its obstinate resistance against Kabul because it has no stake in government and the TAPI pipeline would run directly through its stronghold in the Pashtun regions of south-east Afghanistan.
In October 2013 Obama gave express backing to the TAPI project and for US firms to contruct it. Hilary Clinton referred to the "New Silk route' and is considered essential as a means to maintain sanctions on Iran the better to try to discredit the government and get 'regime change'.
In Syria, the game plan remains the same as a Qatar-Turkish gas pipeline would avoid tankers containing LNG to European markets having to go through the Iranian controlled Straits of Hormuz and then through the Suez Canal in Egypt where Sisi's regime is quite hostile to Qatar's regional ambitions.
The strategy of containing Iran and cutting off its gas exports to the west is apiece with US and British strategy towards pushing for the TAPI pipeline in Afghanistan which also would have the advantage of diverting Turkmen gas from having to flow through Russia.
Russia, in turn, has no interest in either Iran or Syria coming under the dominance of Western supported allies as part of the EU's continued quest for energy diversification. EU powers want move away from any prospect of greater dependence upon its gas, not least with instability in Libya and the threat of it in Algeria.
This is where Qatar comes in as a vital supplier and why the TAPI pipeline would be useful in transporting gas from Turkmenistan down to the port of Gwadar to meet Pakistan's energy needs. The grotesque irony is that Qatar has no interest in the TAPI pipeline because it would rival of its own LNG Gulf exports.
Gwadar would have the capacity to handle either gas from TAPI or from the IP pipeline, one reason China has aligned with both Iran and invested heavily in the LNG terminal. However, China also showed interest in participating and benefitting from the TAPI project as well in order to hedge its bets either way.
Qatar, for its part, would oppose both the IP and TAPI pipelines which is why Qatar has supported, funded and armed the Taliban in Afghanistan and allowed an office representing it to open up in Doha despite it being an insurgent force opposed to the US and Britain.
This is the reality of 2014: the increasingly desperate search for energy security, a key ambition raised at the NATO summit, is creating a more volatile world where the interests of regional and global powers are colliding and clashing in regions where there are weak states, sectarian conflicts and ethnic tensions.