Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Monday 2 September 2013

The Cameron and Obama 'strategy' on Syria

I can't say I understand fully, or even much at all really, what may be going on, but over the past few weeks I have been feeling my way toward a better appreciation of what, I have begun to feel, is some kind of definite strategy.

A couple of weeks ago the media and various 'on holiday' politicians (mainly Labour, but also some of the 'usual suspects' on the Conservative benches) were clamouring for the British government to take no action regarding Syria without a Parliamentary vote. My own view always was that Cameron, of all people, was highly unlikely to rush British troops into some precipitate military action; the idea that he is some kind of gung-ho maverick (as Blair was, to a large degree) results, I think, from a massive misreading of David Cameron's whole way of doing business, not forgetting that his main 'sidekick' George Osborne, despite the mockery heaped upon him by the left-wing press and parts of the unthinking right-wing press, is a mean political strategist. These two, and a number of others in the Cabinet (both Conservative and LibDem) are often derided for being mere 'posh boys' who are arrogant and out of touch with 'the public mood' whatever that is - or at least that is the narrative that Labour would have one believe, sadly lapped-up and bought into by some on the Conservative and perhaps Lid Dem benches. It's true that the coalition government does seem sometimes to lurch from one policy disaster to another, but this is the political hand the electorate has dealt them; it is obvious that there are going to be more tensions within a government which has to try and square so many political circles. But anyone who thinks that Cameron, Osborne, Hague and Gove (probably the four key individuals on the Conservative side, plus May and Hunt), and indeed Clegg, Alexander and even Cable (from the LibDem side of the government) are not thinking several steps further ahead than I suspect strongly the Labour opposition habitually does (the role of opposition forces this upon them to some degree, even if the current crowd are even more than usually a crowd of clueless individuals - just to be clear where my feelings lie), has probably not thought the matter through accurately. Sadly, too, there are too many people on the Conservative benches, mainly those with rather more right-wing views than the average, who are unable to accept the reality of the compromises being part of a Coalition forces upon those in government. Of course, any individual political party is always an 'internal' coalition, but when two separate parties are involved it becomes rather more stark.

Personally I never believed for one moment that Cameron planned to commit British military forces to action regarding Syria without consulting Parliament, however much folks like (to name but one) Douglas Carsewell may seem to have believed otherwise, but he is (with all due respect) an honest and courageous, but unsubtle, individual whose heart is mostly in the right place, a very different kind of character from someone like London Mayor Boris Johnston (to take another example) who may come across as a bumptious, buffoon, but is just as subtle in his thinking as the more low-key Cameron.

Anyway, so where does this all get us. I think the revulsion that Cameron (and Obama) has expressed for what has gone on recently in Syria, the use of chemical weapons against a civilian population, is perfectly genuine and I am equally certain that a similar revulsion is felt by most on the Labour benches, however much the temptation is to try and expose or foster the impression of political weakness by those in government. However, Cameron is no fool, he is in my estimation a clever and subtle politician and any good practitioner knows that a major factor in politics is never to forget that it is the art of the possible, coupled with sound and decent principles, which is of ultimate importance.

I must admit I did briefly think last week, in the immediate aftermath of the defeat of the government motion on Syria, that Cameron may perhaps be fatally wounded politically and that it could potentially be 50/50 whether he would survive as Conservative leader until the next election, but only briefly - I soon formed the view that he was probably thinking several steps ahead and had realised that whatever his personal feelings, it was clear that the votes on both the government and opposition motions reflected the broad consensus of views across the country, one which I don't happen to share (but that's life). Those who defeated the government motion in Parliament probably expected the government, and Cameron, to splutter and rage that he thought the decision wrong and that he would attempt to change their minds or that he would simply carry on regardless (as strictly speaking the 'Royal Prerogative' would permit). Instead he accepted immediately that the vote precluded any British participation in military action against Syria and indicated that his government did not propose to reintroduce it, since it had already included the proviso that any action was dependent on the outcome of the UN inspectors' report, thus neatly responding directly to the 'public mood' and thwarting the naked political manoeuvring of Labour.

The icing on the cake, for Cameron, is that Obama soon after indicated that he too would consult Congress before deciding whether to take military action.

The basic problem, overall, is that Syria is widely recognised as having a pretty well-trained and equipped military, as well as a pretty ruthless Ba'athist (i.e. 'socialist' secular) effectively hereditary government - one cannot just lob in a few cruise missiles and expect the regime to collapse and besides it has the support of Russia, another 'thug' regime. However disgusting the Syrian government may be, no country which could do something about it, mainly the US of course, but not forgetting France or neighbour Turkey) has the desire to become embroiled in an expensive and probably prolonged military expedition, which even if it did succeed in deposing the Assad regime may only leave a political vacuum or a radical 'Islamist' regime in its place. The stated aim of seeking to 'punish' the presumed perpetrators of the chemical warfare attack (assumed to be the Assad regime, until credible information to the contrary is presented) is unlikely to stop future similar crimes because, in truth, what have they got to lose; if it is as most people (other than the Russians, apparently) believe, the Assad government which has caused this to be done, then a few hundred cruise missiles, however effective they are, are unlikely to stop them in their tracks because the regime knows what fate awaits it if they falter - either being deposed from within, or strung up from lamp-posts by those who might replace them. The Syrian Ba'ath regime, just like the Iraqi Ba'ath regime before it, is ugly and brutal and knows that it cannot survive long without force.

The vote in Parliament against military action has, if anything, provided Cameron and probably Obama with the political cover they probably wanted all along to at the very least delay any action. Despite what their political opponents and some supposed political allies may believe, I think both men and their supporters are quite probably content with the breathing-space events have given them. If circumstances warrant after the US Congress has debated the issue and/or the UN inspectors have issued their report, then perhaps a change in current British policy may happen; the US will no doubt do what it considers in its own best interests, too.

Meantime, I fear that more people in Syria will be suffering in coming days and weeks, or feel forced to try and take refuge in neighbouring countries if they can.

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