Sorry, our hands are tied – why Britain has Syrian ‘limitations’

Michael D. Clark

From the Foreign Policy journal morning brief, April 27, 2011:

When asked why the international community had intervened to protect civilians in Libya but not Syria, British Defense Secretary Liam Fox replied “there are limitations to what we can do.”

There are indeed limitations. The coalition government are not super-heroes you know. But what exactly are these limitations? Are there limitations particular to Syria which did not apply to Libya? Or perhaps the limitations are more of a constraint in this case.

Perhaps this might help elucidate the issue: ‘Syrian officers received training in Britain’ (The Guardian)

I remember such visitors well. The British Cadets nicknamed them ‘floppies’, in homage to their outstanding physical prowess and as an acronym for ‘Future Leader Of Potential Enemies’. But no, half a dozen alumni from Sandhurst are hardly likely to put Liam Fox off.

Maybe this will make things a little clearer: ‘Syria and UK ‘share intelligence’’ (BBC)

Now that’s more like it. “We hope that the co-operation with Britain will bring much better results in the fight against terrorism,” a senior Syrian source told the BBC.  Jolly good. It does rather depend on who the ‘terrorists’ are though…

Not to worry, the Foreign Secretary at the time, one bright young thing named David Milliband, said “Syria could play a constructive role fostering stability”. There you are then, there are certain limitations. Coyly however, Mr Milliband expressed caution, saying the country could be a “force for stability or it can be a force for instability”.

And that hits the nail squarely on the head. A major ‘limitation’ is that Britain is not troubled by Assad’s regime. It does not export terrorism to the UK; on the contrary it seems to be cooperating with our ongoing War on Terror.

Additionally, might it be that Syria benefits from a hefty protector to the East? Tehran is hardly top of Britain’s list of governments to annoy. Iran actually helped with the invasion of Iraq; such assistance is unlikely to be forthcoming in any conflict with Damascus. A connected point worth raising is that Britain has most likely learnt valuable lessons from its involvement in regime change in another nearby Arab state. There are many similarities between Iraq and Syria, such as sectarian undercurrents which may easily spin out of control, sucking in mission creep like some insurgent Charybdis.

As Mahmood Mamdani notes in his excellent review article,

“Every Middle Eastern movement that opposes the American empire–secular or religious, state or nonstate–is being drawn to Iraq, as if to a magnet, to test out its convictions. More than a year after the U.S. invasion, it has become clear that, by blowing the top off one of the region’s most efficient dictatorships, the United States has created a free-for-all for fighters of every hue–Islamist and nationalist, from the homeland and the diaspora–sparking a contest that will influence the course of political Islam for years to come”.

Hezbollah sits on the doorstep, a rather off-putting guard dog. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army is only a short hop away, over the border in Southern Iraq. Who knows what agents provocateurs Iran might send.

The main ‘limitation’ is that the British government cannot afford another Iraq, has no wish to anger Tehran, and probably has little desire to burn useful bridges.

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About ssaot
Michael Clark is a British writer on Middle Eastern politics, focused primarily on the Levant. He has travelled extensively in the region and has lived in Damascus, Syria. His particular areas of interest are non-state actors, the ideologies of political Islam and forms of political transition in the Middle East.

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