By the time you read this there is a chance that a U.S. Navy warship in the Eastern Mediterranean will have unleashed cruise missiles against Syria. On the other hand, there is also a reasonable chance that no such thing will have happened. What is certain, though, is that the United Kingdom will not be playing a major role if a missile strike is aimed at Syria in the coming days. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to strut the international stage have unraveled faster than a cheap suit.
After two years of doing nothing, two years in which an estimated 100,000 people have been murdered by various nonchemical means, Cameron belatedly attempted to show some statesmanship in calling for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This came after what is estimated to have been the 14th chemical weapons attack in Syria’s bloody war, according to Britain’s joint intelligence committee.
But the cracks began appearing in Cameron’s war armor almost as soon as he had put it on. The prime minister’s early bellicose calls for attacking Syria were in essence a response to firm assurances that Washington was finally prepared to take immediate action against the Assad regime –a commitment that was toned down somewhat by U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday night.
Earlier this week Cameron insisted that the United Kingdom could, and would, use its military force without support, or a mandate, from the United Nations. However, by Wednesday he had been forced to put a resolution before the U.N. Security Council to satisfy his own parliamentarians, who threatened to revolt over the issue.
Cameron also insisted that the British parliament would not have to be consulted over any potential military action. Within days of that rash statement he was forced to hastily recall parliament, which was in summer recess, to vote on the issue.
The upshot is that the parliamentarians, who returned to parliament Thursday, will now have two separate votes before military action can be taken – the second of which can only be held after United Nations weapons inspectors file their report on the chemical attack. That is at least four to five days away according to the U.N.
This means that Cameron would be unable to involve British military personnel in what would be a U.S. led military strike if, as many are forecasting, it takes place this weekend, or even next week. And it remains far from certain that parliament will support action even then.
Cameron has tried to win over the waverers by stressing how limited British involvement – in what Washington has said will be a very limited missile strike – would be. But far from winning support he has merely focused attention on how little such military action serves the United Kingdom, let alone threatens Assad rule.
In terms of national interest, the war in Syria has already destabilized three of the U.K.’s key allies in the region: Israel, Turkey and Jordan. The sectarian nature of the conflict is starting to cause wider Sunni-Shiite violence throughout the Middle East, which could disrupt the autocratic Gulf monarchies, driving up the price of global oil supplies.
But Cameron, like Obama, has waxed lyrical about the moral case for action following the chemical attacks near Damascus. The problem is that the strong moral case for intervention has been steadfastly ignored by Cameron and the Obama administration for more than two years, while the most barbaric atrocities raged across Syria.
Moreover, the limited nature of military action, which will be planned as a short, sharp, punitive strike, aimed not at toppling Assad – as Cameron and Obama have been at pains to stress this week – but simply to warn him against the further use of chemical weapons, begs the question: What good will it do?
The nature of the strike suggests that the West is happy for Assad to murder Syrians with anything else he has on hand, as long as he stays away from those chemical weapons. It also reveals that the U.K. and the U.S. lack the courage to face Assad down for fear they cannot win.
The attraction of a limited missile strike conducted from the safety of the Eastern Mediterranean is that there is little risk of Western forces being killed or captured. A national newspaper poll earlier this week revealed that 50 percent of Britons opposed attacking Syria with even long-range missiles, while only 25 percent were in favor of action.
Probable targets for the U.S. missiles are likely to include military sites linked closely to the regime, such as army command facilities, missile production sites and some air defense sites. But ironically, Syria’s store of chemical weapons is likely to remain intact, since leakage of toxic chemicals from a missile attack could kill many more people than have already died in the war’s combined chemical outrages.
At the same time limited action will likely embolden Assad and his supporters, such as Russia and Iran, who will quickly re-equip the Syrian armed forces with whatever it loses in the air strikes and declare a moral victory against the West.
The truth that dare not speak its name in all this is that at the heart of Western strategy there is a desire that the Assad regime – not Assad himself, but the institutional structures built by his father – survive this war reasonably intact to keep Syria stable and jihadist free. Having failed to act boldly at the outset of this war, the West now fears the consequences of Syria falling into the wrong hands.
Perhaps that is too cynical. But the West has looked on while barbarism has taken hold in Syria. Thousands of cruise missiles won’t change that, nor will they change the course of Syria’s ugly war. Cameron’s attempt to grab a cheap headline by riding Obama’s coattails has deservedly left him humiliated. The U.S. never needed the U.K. to attack Syria; now it will be left to France to be America’s bag carrier.
Michael Glackin, a former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in London.