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The complexity of locating Britain’s national interest in the Middle East

August 28, 2013

The West’s tacit support of the military overthrow in early July of Egypt’s first Islamist president will have stark implications in the years ahead for our diplomatic relationships within the Middle East and beyond.

The UK’s own Foreign Office still talks up the “Arab Spring” when in truth the idealistic enthusiasm of early 2011 that representative democracy might take hold in the region should be consigned to history. Similarly, the Obama Administration’s policy of selective non-intervention in the troubled Arab world has resulted in it standing on the brink of a military strike unsanctioned by the United Nations following hot on the heels of its refusal to condemn the usurping of democracy in Egypt.

Surely this will only feed the sense of historical grievance by the Muslim Brotherhood, Shia Muslims and their fellow travellers. Would there have been a similarly sanguine US response to a military junta deposing a newly elected secular government in Egypt? Will the West’s apparent support of the Sunnis in Syria not now elicit a furious response from radicalised elements of the large Shia communities living in Europe?

More worryingly this sends out the clearest message imaginable to anyone winning a free, democratic election in the Middle East. Namely, at all costs and in double quick time, win over the military and police (as Mohammed Morsi so spectacularly failed to do) and clamp down on the activities of any political opposition. In truth this lesson has already been well understood by one of the shrewdest political figures in the region Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish premier. His coalition includes of electoral necessity an influential Islamist faction, whose insistence on a clampdown on civil rights – as understood in Europe – has led to unrest in Istanbul. These activities have to date been contained as Erdogan exercises ruthless control over the police and armed forces by appointing supporters to senior roles and prosecuting “dissident” elements in the Army .

For all the hope of the flowering of an era of democracy in the region, I suspect this will prove as good as it gets.

The palpable impotence of the United Nations as the carnage in Syria and Egypt continues unabated will not be without consequence either. Diplomacy as the UK has known it since the end of World War Two with its quaintly dated institutions and deference to the US “special relationship” is changing fast in the connected world of the internet. With Russia and China ever willing to exercise their veto against unified international action, I suspect the status of a UN Security Council with its five permanent members is about to reach the end of its shelf-life. This will have a profound impact on the UK’s reputation in the international community for we would no longer sit at the diplomatic top-table.

We should not underestimate the impact such a diminution in the UK’s world standing would have on the population at large (and especially the more Conservative inclined Britons). So the expedient political decisions over the past decade to extend spending (and borrowing) on welfare and healthcare whilst continually paring back the UK defence budget has come at a price – in a generation’s time our standing in global affairs may be similar to that of The Netherlands today.

As President Assad holds firm in Syria and ex-President Morsi faces criminal charges (however trumped-up) under the new Egyptian regime it may also be time for a hard-nosed reassessment of the impact of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction. In the aftermath of the Balkan conflicts and a series of African civil wars it seemed a pragmatic civilised idea to institute a permanent seat in The Hague to bring former murderous dictators to justice. In practice, however, the absence of any means of a graceful exit for Heads of State that the international community fervently wish to see ousted means that such individuals have little incentive other than fight to the bitter end with horrific humanitarian consequences.

Meanwhile a consensus has swiftly developed over the weekend that a quick, surgical strike against the Assad regime will help precipitate the end of the Syrian crisis. A quick rap over the knuckles for the Syrian dictator is not even designed to dislodge him or bring hostilities to a more rapid conclusion. It would simply draw in the West as an additional player in a complex web of conflicting interests, without any clear goal or exit strategy.

Even Tony Blair has now weighed into this debate, imploring British action. We should be reminded that he views all conflict in the Middle East through the prism of his passionately-held thesis that we are the midst of a clash of civilisations that can be won only if clear moral standards are set out and adhered to. He is one of many people mistakenly trying to distil what is happening in Syria into a battle of good and evil, right and wrong, tolerable and intolerable. Yet surely the complexity of the regional situation defies such neat categorisation.

As global TV beams pictures from Syria of victims of chemical weapons into our living rooms, it may seem immoral to put the British national interest front and centre in this debate. But it is what David Cameron must now do. There is no convincing route available to him that can stem the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in the Middle East. There is no clear benefit to the UK of involving ourselves further in this bloody quagmire.