Monday, 23 November 2015

The Vienna Agreement and Cameron's Drive for British Intervention in Syria.

Cameron is already building up the 'public diplomacy' momentum behind winning a vote on air strikes in Syria for December 2015 without having first outlined any realistic strategy that would make them much more than part of his obsession with 'standing tall' and reaffirming Britain's status as a 'global player'.

This was clear after the downing of the Russian airliner over Sinai. Then Cameron muscled in to claim IS had been involved and that he was at the forefront of protecting British citizens through emergency measures and privy to intelligence about IS threats that the rest of the world was not. It was as much about getting the necessary headlines.

Then, in line with the media management strategies Cameron is expert at as 'heir to Blair, a few days later Fallon started on cue to big up the case for British air strikes in Syria lest anyone forget what the larger aim of the British response to the blowing up of the Russian jet. All of this was carefully choreographed.

The danger with this sort of 'public diplomacy' is that it is inherently manipulative and is directed at exploiting public fears into stampeding public opinion and so MPs into supporting a policy for which there has not been a rational debate about the merits of firs. In fact that is the very purpose of this political culture of spin.

The Labour opposition, with the exception of its leader Jeremy Corbyn, indicated that it would not be prepared to swing decisively behind air strikes unless a coherent strategy was outlined by the government. Corbyn would seem to think there is no need to press the government on what, if any, strategy the government has.

The reason is because he is opposed to any military action without a 'political settlement'. This statement of the obvious that has potentially been invalidated by the Vienna agreement and the prospect of a UN Security Council backed war against IS in the wake of the Black Friday the 13th terror attacks on Paris.

Corbyn needs to scrutinize Cameron's proposals for joining air strikes in Syria and start asking hard questions about whether the PM really has a strategy other than just bombing Raqqa. For example what guarantees there are that the ceasefire by January 2016 will hold ( not least as Cameron wants air strikes before Christmas ).

Corbyn has flopped as an alternative leader. He is the unexpected leader of a party in crisis across Britain as it struggles to find an identity after Blair and Brown's years and the failure of Miliband. Corbyn does not seem to have made much impact at a time of heightened fear as IS goes on the rampage across the Middle East and into Europe. 

As John Gray summarised it,
"In a performance reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There, the Labour leader has emerged from the walled garden of the hard left to wander around the country, dispensing gnomic observations about peace and kindness. It’s a surreal kind of theatre rather than a new type of politics. There is no risk to Cameron"
The timing of the vote of air strikes for December 2015 shows that Cameron is less interested in whether the political and diplomatic settlement agreed on in Vienna sticks first before wasting the 'game changing' usefulness of the Paris attacks to rush through to a vote on air strikes that would make any opposition appear as though 'soft on terror'.

The ceasefire agreed at Vienna is for January 2016. Timing a vote for December means that no problems with not having first halted the proxy war between Assad and the Sunni insurgents not aligned with IS could delay Britain entering the war in Syria. Saudi Arabia declared it would convene a meeting of all Sunni groups on December 15th 2015.

Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam were invited to this convention, however, in an act that seems to challenge Russia's intentions in a paragraph of the second Vienna meeting’s final statement on 14 November. After discussing which groups are to be designated as 'terrorist', the communique continues:
“All members of the ISSG also pledged as individual countries and supporters of various belligerents to take all possible steps to require adherence to the ceasefire by these groups or individuals they support, supply or influence. The ceasefire would not apply to offensive or defensive actions against Da’esh or Nusra or any other group the ISSG agrees to deem terrorist“.
Cameron's drive towards war in Syria would appear to be more principally concerned about power politics and making Britain a 'global player' on a par with Russia after it intervened militarily in Syria on September 29 and pushed the Great Powers into discussing a deal to focus more on IS once it was clear Assad would not go.

There is no indication Britain has a strategy apart from joining in as part of air strikes in the hope it is would be seen to be playing a part and showing the Gulf States how it is dedicated to their defence as well as testing out British military hardware and signalling its commitment to the Gulf States.

As Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond put it after announcing the new British military base in Bahrain 'your security is our security''. It was necessary for Britain to revive its old East of Suez role when the US was refocusing and shifting its military weight towards containing China ( the Pivot to Asia ).

To that end the Defence Secratary Michael Fallon has repeated the line that Assad has to go, despite the fact Russian intervention means he would not at least before elections are due to be held, as set out on paper at least in the Vienna agreement, by 2017. On November 23 2015 he made it plain, that despite Russia and Iran's backing for Assad,
“There is international agreement now that Assad has to go and there has to be a more comprehensive government.”
There has been no international agreement at all on Assad's status which was pointedly left out of the talks at Vienna because it would have made diplomatic progress impossible. Saudi Arabia would appear to have stepped in to take control over the Sunni opposition to Assad and has maintained that he should not stand in future elections.

As a consequence, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the case for British air strikes is not about defeating IS only so much as positioning Britain, in advance of any diplomatic settlement, in a better bargaining position in trying to ensure it can determine the fate of Syria for the benefit of its Gulf State clients.

In that sense, there is a similarity between this diplomacy and that which happened between 1812 and 1815 when all the powers sought those decisive victories that would give them the decisive influence in reshaping the map of Europe ( through the Congress of Vienna ). It is very old fashioned Great Power politics of the old style at a global level.

The problem with that is there is no guarantee the Gulf States would honour the peace process and stop ratcheting up the proxy war with Iran through backing Sunni jihadist groups in the Army of Conquest as it has since March 2015. There has been no let up in the proxy war to the south in Yemen for a start.

Without that happening, because Russia is already supporting Assad, there would be no joint effort or coherent strategy to focus Syrian ground troops on IS. It would that should Assad and Russia advance too quickly against IS, other Sunni jihadist groups could start attacking Assad to the west in order to 'tilt' the balance of power away from him.

There is no indication which ground forces Britain would work with in defeating IS. It could be the Kurdish peshmerga as with the US or Arab-Kurdish forces including the YGP militias. Yet Turkey is intent on air strikes against PKK militias fighting IS because of its fear of Kurdish irredentism spreading across the border.

Cameron seems to have decided on commiting  Britain to a larger security role in the Greater Middle East and to defending the interests of the Gulf States at a time when their policies are making it ever more likely that the war against IS would not succeed without a durable ceasefire with Assad. The dangers of this are clear.

Not only would British air strikes make London a target for IS terror reprisals, they would lock Britain further into a war with no firm diplomatic end game in sight now that the Gulf States have demonstrated, in word and deed, that they are not that concerned with IS but more with Iran and with Assad in Syria.

Given that the November 23rd Strategic Defence & Security Review involves increasing Britain's 'special ops' forces for dealing with IS, it is clear this would leave open the way for being dragged in directly into a ground war with the Caliphate with all the potential for "mission creep" that could well involve if the strategy is flawed.

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