What next for UK policy towards Syria?

What next for UK policy towards Syria?
Comment: Britain risks being drawn into military action, due to the enthusiasm of leading politicians for joining the bombing coalition, writes James Denselow.
4 min read
19 Oct, 2015
UK officials have been under scrutiny because of an indecisive Syria policy [Getty]

As Syria burns, Westminster dithers.

This was the main message of Jo Cox MP, a former aid worker turned parliamentarian, who secured a debate on Syria earlier this week in Britain's elected chamber.

Cox pulled no punches in her description of the UK's efforts to date.

"Britain - with our proud tradition in international affairs, our seat on the UN Security Council and one of the best diplomatic, humanitarian and military services in the world - has been a political pygmy in this crisis," she said.

But this "political pygmy" may be looking to raise the stakes, and UK involvement in Syria - with Prime Minister David Cameron's hand being forced by the advance of IS and the Europe-wide refugee crisis.

Cox's debate was focused on the protection of civilians - an area where the UK feels that it is leading the way. The UK is the second-largest funder of the global aid response, having ploughed a over a billion pounds into supporting agencies working in the region.

     Until children started washing up dead on Europe's shores, Britain had accepted only a few hundred Syrians

Where things have become more political is around the numbers of refugees that Britain is willing to accept.

Until children started washing up dead on Europe's shores, Britain had accepted only a few hundred Syrians via its "vulnerable persons scheme". The knock-on effect of the escalation of the refugee crisis across the continent has been a promise to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.

This new promise was accompanied by the appointment of Richard Harrington MP as "Home Office Minister with responsibility for Syrian refugees". Harrington's job is to knit together UNHCR-identified "vulnerable" Syrians - unaccompanied children, female-headed families etc - with government efforts from the Department for International Development, the Home Office and the Department for Local Government and Communities in order to facilitate the complex and expensive process of resettlement in the UK.

Harrington endured a difficult early scrutiny in front of the Home Office Select Committee this month, during which he refused to update elected officials on the numbers of Syrian families that the UK had taken in since the new policy came into effect - saying that he didn't want to give "a running commentary" on numbers.

Meanwhile, the UK's diplomatic strategy appears largely in sync with Washington and Paris when it comes to a "big tent" deal to end the fighting and push talk about Assad down the road into a "transition discussion". 

"We cannot work with Assad as a long-term solution for the future of Syria," said Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond. "We can be flexible on the manner of his departure. We can be flexible on the timing of his departure."

Whether the UK can persuade the Russians - let alone their Gulf allies - to take this diplomatic path to "transition" remains open to question.

Cameron in Middle East: 'Keep refugees out of Europe' - read Nader Fawz's analysis here

One thing that is clear is the appetite of the the UK government to join in the coalition bombing IS from the air over Syria.

With four of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council currently bombing in one or both of Iraq and Syria this would appear not too controversial a move. Whether it is strategically sound is perhaps the more important question.

     One thing that is clear is the appetite of the the UK government to join in the coalition bombing IS from the air over Syria

It is interesting that the government in London has been so reluctant to seriously engage in scenarios around safe havens or no fly zones.

Former Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in The Telegraph last week that creating safe zones was "impractical at best and dangerous at worst".

Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood MP has said that his team had spent "a lot of time over the summer" looking into safe zones - but seemed unconvinced that there was an alignment of international will for them to actually be implemented.

This is perhaps the critical element to future UK Syria policy and whether it can evolve from a pygmy to a giant.

Airstrikes and aid are comfort-zone policies that cannot do justice to the scale of the challenge that the crisis represents. One of the likely reasons behind a reluctance to implement safe or no-fly zones is that they may not work and force an escalation to save a failing policy.

We've already seen that Obama's "red lines" turned out to be mere rhetoric, empty of the commitment needed to follow them through. Despite the refugee crisis and the rise of IS there is still the feeling that Europe is increasingly allergic to further intervention and increased serious involvement in the Middle East - clearly a concern not shared by the Russians.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.