Rehman Chishti is MP for Gillingham and Rainham
After almost three years of conflict, the stalemate of the Syrian civil war remains unabated. The UN believes that more than 60,000 have been killed, with 11,000 tortured or executed by the Assad regime and over two million refugees displaced.
The first session of the Geneva II peace talks, which began last month, failed to achieve any substantive agreement, dashing hopes for a breakthrough that could lead to a political solution. With the second round of negotiations stalled as I write, the path to a ceasefire remains blocked by what Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, has described as “formidable challenges.”
Perhaps this continuing tragedy could have been stemmed if the Commons had not voted against the use of military force in August last year. On that day, MPs voted 285 to 272 not to commit Britain to take part in joint action against the Assad regime. What have been the implications of that fateful decision for the UK’s influence and foreign policy? Six months later, we are now seeing its far reaching ramifications.
Until recently, Britain could be relied upon as a trusted and effective partner; now, as the former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt MP has stated, Parliament can only be guaranteed to support military intervention for the defence of the Falklands and Gibraltar.
The steadfast resolve of Britain in supporting her overseas allies now appears to be in doubt, not only to the United States, but other key partners, such as the Gulf States.
Such countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have well established commercial and security interests with the UK. The developments in British foreign policy have prompted frank exchanges regarding the future of these relationships.
Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the Saudi Ambassador to the UK, recently said that “our partners have seemed all too ready to concede our safety and risk our region’s stability”. Such remarks appear to vindicate the view of Sir William Patey, the former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who warned in the wake of the “no” vote that “our unwillingness to live up to our brave words would cause them to maybe doubt our reliability as an ally”.
The UK’s position has seemingly forced such countries as Saudi Arabia to seek new partners that are deemed more reliable. The country which appears to be filling this void is none other than that recently referred to by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, as America’s “oldest ally” – namely, France.
Profound questions are being posed about Britain’s place in the world, seemingly no longer willing or able to play its traditional role alongside the US.
Not only towards Syria, but on other major international issues – French policy, for example, towards Iran has been far more pleasing to our Gulf allies than that of the UK. Whereas Britain uncritically accepted the Geneva agreement on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, France, by contrast, rejected the first draft and ensured that the final deal was significantly tougher on Iran.
On two critical foreign policy issues, France is now aligned with our strategic Gulf allies; Britain’s divergence here has both political and commercial consequences.
As David Butter, an associate fellow at Chatham House warned, military contracts will now become “most vulnerable” for the UK. This prediction was recently realised when the UAE pulled out of negotiations surrounding a multi-billion pound deal to purchase 60 Euro fighter Typhoon Jet fighters. This was serious blow to Britain’s diplomatic effort which had included two visits to the country by David Cameron and a State visit by the Queen.
By contrast, President Hollande recently visited Saudi Arabia with the intention of concluding an unprecedented arms deal between the two countries. Furthermore, earlier this month, the Bahraini Minister of Industry received a large official delegation from the French Parliament, indicating that France expects to continue to win influence in the region.
It is evident that the decision by the House of Commons to not support military action in Syria has had momentous consequences for Britain’s future. Our strategic allies are naturally confused as to where we now stand, with our resolve as a military power undoubtedly diminished. France has leaped at the opportunity of fulfilling the diplomatic vacancy that has emerge – that of a strong European ally. Britain is now forced to drastically reassess our position in the world if we are to pursue an effective foreign policy.