As ConservativeHome said on Monday, the Foreign Office has a long-held scheme to end Syria’s civil war. First, build up international pressure on Russia, including through tightened sanctions if necessary. Second, persuade it to engineer Bashar al-Assad’s removal. Third, put together a coalition of elements of the Baathist regime and parts of the non-Islamist opposition to form a moderate government of national unity – and begin a long, slow process of establishing stability and healing.
This is not a bad plan, but it has two major flaws. Other members of the G7, particularly Germany and its European allies elsewhere, are allergic to sanctions against Russia, with which they have close economic relations. And Vladimir Putin has to date shown no willingness whatsoever to winkle out Assad. This would necessitate a big row with Iran, whose client Assad is, which he seems unwilling to have. He is also nervous of letting the America get a grip on Syria, though working with it for peace and stability in Syria would be good for the country and the region, and fearful of the Islamists getting a grip on the country, which is more reasonable.
For while any initial replacement government might be pro-western and non-Islamist, a election might allow a government whose sensibility lies somewhere between the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS to seize power. This would not be in western interests any more than it would be in Putin’s. It would also end the democracy in Syria that such an election itself sought to start. And as this site never tires of pointing out, our domestic security problem is with Sunni and not Shiite extremism. 7/7, the murderous attack on Glasgow airport, the liquid bomb airliner plot, the murder of Lee Rigby, the car and knife attack in Westminster – all were carried out by Wahabi fanatics.
Theresa May was the longest-serving Home Secretary since the war, knows all this very well, and will be pondering it during her Snowdonia walking holiday. She needs Donald Trump’s help with Brexit in general and an American free trade deal in particular. Her natural inclination will therefore be to stick with him in public but to caution him in private. This is as it should be, and her Government’s reaction to date is consistent with it. Boris Johnson has been pulled out of a Russian visit that was intended to establish better relations. May had evidently judged that now is not the time for it, and the Foreign Secretary will agree. She is backing up Trump on sanctions.
So far, so good. There remains the question of Assad. Last weekend, Michael Fallon was wheeled out to play hard cop. (A role clearly judged unsuitable for Johnson, since his role is to do the butter bit, not the guns bit). “Someone who uses barrel bombs and chemicals to kill his own people simply cannot be the future leader of Syria. Assad must go and the search for stability begin,” he wrote in the Sunday Times (£). If this call for regime change meant seeking to remove Assad through diplomacy, and was a reference to that familiar Foreign Office plan, then it can no harm and might even do some good – though the scheme itself is unlikely to work, for reasons previously explained.
But if it meant following up last week’s airstrikes, which were intended to deter the Assad from the further use of chemical weapons, with more military action, intended to topple him, then MPs should have none of it. Removing the regime without any durable plan to replace it would risk repeating the experience of Iraq and Libya. It would create a power gap most likely to be filled by Islamists – and, even more alarmingly, risk war with Russia over a country to which, unlike the Baltic States, we have given no guarantee, and which has no real strategic significance. Regime change by force does not seem to be Trump’s objective, but his policy is so unstable that cannot be sure.
The Prime Minister seems to get this – and will hope, like the rest of us, that the Assad regime backs off chemical weapons, that Russia therefore has no further cause to seek reasons to excuse him, and that Trump’s impulsive decision pays off. She will also understand that the President also has his mind on North Korea, which cannot be allowed to build nuclear missiles capable of reaching America. It was significant in the context of Trump’s strike on Syria that the Kim Jong Un regime, like Assad’s, is not a signatory to the chemical weapons convention.