A drumbeat on Syria: what's behind Tory solidarity move with US?

Patrick Wintour
Foreign secretary Boris Johnson visiting British troops in Kenya in March 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Such is the reputation of the ebullient and politically crafty British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, it might be assumed that a report saying the UK will join a US-led bombing campaign against Bashar al-Assad is a piece of electioneering by a man who relishes a scrap.

It is not unknown for Fallon to “hurl a dead cat on to the table” in the middle of an election (spin-doctor parlance for an outrageous move that shifts media attention away from the fact that you are losing an argument).

He did such a thing in 2015 when the party hit turbulence over taxing the rich, and it is possible that the new reports asserting that the British will imminently join Donald Trump in bombing Assad primarily have the purpose of highlighting the political divisions inside the Labour party about supporting military action in Syria.

Jeremy Corbyn’s single biggest political rebellion came over whether Labour should extend support for military action from Iraq to Syria, and in the process he very nearly lost his shadow foreign secretary at the time, Hilary Benn.

From a Conservative perspective, there is no downside to reminding voters that Corbyn is, in the Tory view, at best a muddled pacifist, and at worst a man beholden to communist fellow travellers who see all international events through the prism of American imperialism.

Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, does not fit into either category, but once her statements are parsed, her opposition to military action is clear. By contrast, many Labour MPs regard Ed Miliband’s failure to back military action against the Syrian president over the use of chemical weapons in 2013 as a shameful chapter in the party’s internationalist history.

After the election, Theresa May would have little problem mustering support for military action in principle. But this drumbeat to war may be about more than short-term political calculation. Instead it may be about showing solidarity with the US, especially as it adopts a more aggressive posture towards Assad.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, has twice said on the record in the Commons and on the BBC Today programme that the UK would find it very difficult to reject a request from Trump to join military action against Assad’s forces – such as that taken by the US in April when it used cruise missiles to strike a Syrian airfield.

Those airstrikes followed a chemical weapons attack, allegedly launched by the Syrian airforce, on 4 April, which killed 89 people in Khan Sheikhoun.

Trump, said to have been shocked by images of those killed in the chemical attack, responded by firing Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian air base, a move that was enthusiastically welcomed by Johnson as marking an end to the well-intentioned vacillation that he thinks disfigured the foreign policy of Barack Obama, the former US president.

But it is hard for the UK to know where US policy on Syria is going. The purpose of the missile strikes, the first military action ordered by Trump, was variously portrayed by different voices in the administration. Some decided it had been defence of a multi-lateral chemical weapons treaty, enforcing a red line that Obama had allowed Syrians to cross in 2013.

The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, went further, pronouncing new interventionism. “We re-dedicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world,” he said.

The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, told reporters on 13 March, that the US had no interest in removing Assad from power.

Faced with such confusion, Johnson tried to capitalise on Trump’s action by highlighting Russian complicity, saying that Putin was “toxifying the reputation of Russia with his continuous association with a guy that has flagrantly poisoned his own people”.

The British and the French also argued in private that the attack showed Assad had secretly retained at least three tons of sarin nerve agent, enough to kill many thousands more people, though Russia, in 2013, had declared that the Syrian president had given up those stores. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said that up to 40 chemical attacks had occurred in Syria, the majority perpetrated by the regime.

Yet the Khan Sheikhoun episode did not lead to a new US Syrian policy. Instead it served to highlight the policy vacuum, and the extent to which the diplomatic baton had for several months been taken up by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the nations driving the talks in Kazakh capital, Astana, to freeze the military fighting through ceasefires. The Astana efforts left the US and Europe as bystanders, underlining the extent to which old powers might be losing their influence in the Middle East.

But the diplomatic fallout following the Khan Shekhoun attack is not yet over. So far the OPCW has not definitively blamed the Syrian airforce for the attack in April, limiting itself to saying that a sarin-like gas was used.

Russia has thrown up chaff, arguing that the agents could have been released by a Syrian attack on an opposition chemical weapons store, an explanation rejected by the west.

The OPCW may in a further report reject that explanation. That would make it harder for Trump to reach a deal with Russia for peace in Syria.

In that context, the British offers of support to Trump may be a way of discouraging the White House from striking a deal with Vladimir Putin, or at least striking a foolish deal that entrenches Iranian power in Syria. Johnson has himself oscillated on whether Assad should go, but currently is taking a hard line.

At the same time, Washington is warily being pulled by Moscow into the Astana talks and the idea of constructing specific safe zones or “areas of calm”. At present that process seems to have greater traction than US military strikes on Assad.

Giving evidence to the Commons foreign relations committee, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, based in Washington , said: “There is no perceivable opening for a grand, nationwide settlement to the conflict in Syria. As such, the best available interim solution is to introduce calm to geographically distinct zones in Syria, in which local Syrian actors and external actors with influence in the area can agree to freeze existing lines of conflict.”

But no one, least of all the British, knows precisely where Trump is going. Kurt Volker, of the Washington-based McCain Institute, a sympathetic Republican-leaning witness, this week told the thinktank European Council on Foreign Relations: “Trump’s impetuousness is unsettling. It is not something any of us have been used to. It is as if his contradictions are designed to keep us off balance. He is a man that is completely untethered by his own statements. The answer may be not to listen to his rhetoric, but to what he does. We are all working out what an ‘America first’ foreign policy means.”