David Cameron’s multiple foreign policy failures in Libya are often discussed, but his mistakes in Syria – mistakes which exacerbated a devastating conflict – are often overlooked.
To understand what went so terribly wrong, one must first look to the early days of Libya – when David Cameron was determined to prove his credentials as a war leader. A few days after the fall of the former Libyan strongman, Cameron went triumphant into Benghazi. But when Libya quickly dismantled within weeks of Cameron’s visit, he turned his attention to Syria and the ‘liberation’ of another Arab capital.
From the beginning, David Cameron failed to understand that Syria was unlike Libya, Yemen or Iraq. It had a formidable regional hegemony which had defied the West for over four decades. Five successive American presidents had come to rely on Syrian support to stabilise the region, despite obvious disagreements on how to achieve this stability.
It looked as though Cameron wanted to be the new Blair. Blair could boast successful conflict resolutions in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Syria would be Cameron’s equivalent.
With little or no historical leverage, he pushed the UK into the forefront of regime change. He jumped on the bandwagon of Turkish and Israeli leaders predicting the imminent collapse of Assad, and ignored BBC and Al Jazeera experts who said that Assad was popular leader and dislodging him would not be easy. The BBC questioned why unlike in Cairo, Benghazi and Tunis there was no uprising in Damascus.
There were also warning signs from the Godfathers of US Foreign policy in the Middle East, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, all of whom argued against regime change and said that Assad had far more support then all those opposing him. But Cameron paid too little attention and pressurised the US to call for Assad’s removal. The House of Commons voted against British intervention in 2013, but it was not long before the UK was involved in bombing raids. Obama eventually capitulated, and backed the Cameron position. But in a subsequent interview he criticised Cameron’s behaviour.
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Former Chief of Defence Staff, General Lord Richards, and former Army Chief Richard Dannatt (the Generals advising Cameron) both called for pragmatic cooperation with Assad and his military as the only way to end the war in Syria. Richards, the first and only British General to lead American forces in battle since WWII, was no stranger to multinational forces. And, as commander of the successful ambush of Sierra Leone’s deadly RUF militia, he was also no stranger to forceful intervention to save lives. But Cameron ignored him too.
Speaking to me about that decision, Richards said:
“If the West was not prepared to mount a coherent military strategic campaign in Syria, it would be better to allow Assad to win. He had more support than we were being led to believe and the humanitarian and infrastructure effects of a prolonged war would be devastating and incompatible with our underpinning moral philosophy.”
The outspoken and brilliant former head of Special Forces, Jonathan Shaw went further, saying the British alliance with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in the Levant had started a war that would lead to a disaster.
“I can put my name alongside Kissinger, Brzezinski and Scowcroft in saying I opposed intervention in Syria against the advice of intelligence communities at the first officials meeting on Syria – using the same argument, that we should not approach Syria as if it would be a repeat of the easy win (sic) in Libya; Assad had far greater cross sectarian support, etc. I was never invited back.”
As the war rolled on and more and more experts started speaking openly against British policy in Syria, the FCO clamped down on any dissent. Those who questioned the gung-ho decisions were disregarded or dismissed by the Prime Minister and his mandarins.
Peter Ford who was one of the leading Arabists at the Foreign Office, had served as Ambassador Syria and Bahrain. He says:
“I was not consulted, although I was only just down the road in Amman working for UNRWA and a regular visitor to Syria. No doubt most of the people at the London end were novices and ideologues but the Ambassadors at the time, John Jenkins and then Simon Collis, experienced Middle East hands, should have kicked back. I remember being shocked by Simon’s anti-Assad bias when I spoke to him briefly in 2012. He predicted that Assad would be gone by Christmas! Simon married a Syrian woman and Islamised. After the FCO typically rewarded him for getting Syria so wrong by giving him the Riyadh Embassy.”
Collis became the first senior British diplomat to go on the Hajj pilgrimage.
“The malaise in the FCO goes deep” says Ford. “There is no culture of holding people to account for getting predictions wrong or of encouraging non-orthodox views. You soon get accused of localitis if you are an ambassador and you try hard to explain the locals’ point of view. And frankly very few FCO people are inclined to have non-orthodox or passionate views in the first place.”
Cameron also ignored the UK’s own recent interaction with Assad. The young Bashar was the first non-monarch from the Arab to be a state guest and meet the Queen. The British forged a closer link with Damascus through the British Syrian Society. More than 50 MPs visited Assad before the war began, including William Hague, David Miliband, Crispin Blunt and Rory Stewart and David Davis. Cameron’s utter disregard for ground facts and real-time intelligence was most evident when he ignored the comments of senior Tory MP David Davis, now Secretary of State for the DexEU, who came back with the view that we must work with the Syrian government and that the State there seemed normal and popular. Similarly Cameron bullied Bob Stewart and Adam Holloway not to go previously. When the war began in 2011, the British Syrian Society urged the same British MPs to send a fact-finding mission in the early days of the war to assess what was happening on the ground. The British Syrian Society had and still has two former British Ambassadors to Damascus on their board, Peter Ford and Sir Andrew Green.
But Cameron was hell bent on going into Syria. He was warned again that there was no way Syria would implode from within – and he was told that further missions to destabilise Syria would mean the whole Middle East would coming crashing down. But he ignored everyone and continued a destructive intervention. Now, six years on, we are witnessing just how disastrous that decision was.
Kamal Alam is a former advisor on Syrian affairs to the British Army. He teaches Syrian history at various Army Staff Colleges, and is currently a Fellow for Syrian Affairs at the Institute for Statecraft, and a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).