Syria: Trump, May and Macron

Reuters photo



Tom Arms



The missiles were launched. The chemical weapons stores – so we are told – were destroyed. According to Trump it is “Mission Accomplished.”


Or is it? The Syrians and Russians had four days to prepare for the attack. That is four days to move weapons or equipment used to produce chemical weapons. That is four days to make certain that key Syrian personnel were transported to Russian bases which US-led attackers did not dare to bomb.


After the bombing American, British and French leaders went on television to say that the objective had had the sole purpose of deterring the use of chemical weapons as prescribed by international law. There was little or no reference to the context in which the weapons were used and the need to resolve the problems that created that context.


Before the attack pundit after pundit expressed the view that any attack had to be within the structure of a coherent over-arching diplomatic strategy. Strangely enough, they have all gone quiet in the aftermath.


In the past year there have been two parallel efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war. One was organised by the UN and held in Geneva. They have failed because the Syrian government refused to participate. The second was organised by the Russians with Iran and Turkey as co-honest brokers. They have collapsed because the Syrian rebels refused to participate.


The Americans, British and French have sat on the sidelines. They have bombed targets in Syria, but those were ISIS forces. In the civil war they remained aloof unless the chemical weapons issue reared its disgustingly ugly head.


The Russians, Iranians and Turks are the only ones with clear goals and a strategy to achieve them. The Russians have been politically supporting Syria at the UN with its veto and militarily supporting them with Russian planes and “little green men” since 2015. Their goal is to re-establish a Russian presence in the Middle East in the wake of a humiliating Cold War defeat. If Assad wins – which now appears highly likely – they have regained their foothold.


Turkey is there for the Kurds. President Erdogan does not support the Syrian regime. In fact, he joined the chorus condemning the use of chemical weapons and supporting the latest Western air strike. His main purpose is to prevent the Kurds who have occupied a Northern Iraq stronghold – with US support – from supplying weapons to Kurdish rebels in Turkey.


Iran is after Israel. It is building bases in Syria which defence experts say could be used for attacks on the Jewish state. Binyamin Netanyahu certainly thinks so. He has already ordered several pre-emptive strikes against them.


The US, Britain and France all have vital interests in the region. But they have no coherent strategy to deal with a civil war that threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. If they continue to rely on one-off showmanship bombing raids then it will be “mission failure.”




Problems for May over Syria



British Prime Minister Theresa May has a different set of problems related to Syria, and they all have to do with parliament, conventions, tradition and past bad experiences.


The unwritten British constitution is constantly evolving, with the evolution based on the latest set of political decisions.


For centuries the decision to go to war was made by the monarchy. Parliament’s power was restricted to the not insignificant role of approving the necessary finances. As the country moved towards a constitutional monarchy the throne vested the power to declare war in the prime minister as their representative. This is called the “Royal Prerogative.” To insure support for such a decision, the prime minister made certain that they had the support of the cabinet. Parliament did not vote to declare war in either of the world wars. It was informed of the decision.


Then came the Iraq War. Strong public protests persuaded Tony Blair that he had to make a case for going to war. This included a vote in parliament. With the help of dicey intelligence and legal reports he persuaded MPs to vote in favour. But the public were opposed to the war. More than a million people marched through London in protest. No weapons of mass destruction were found. 182 British lives were lost. And the subsequent Chilcot Inquiry reported that Saddam Hussein was not an urgent threat to British interests; WMD intelligence was faulty; the US and UK had undermined the UN Security Council; peaceful alternatives had not been exhausted; the legal foundations were shaky and that the war was unnecessary.


When a new American president (Obama) asked a new British prime minister (David Cameron) to support the bombing of Syrian targets, the government decided again to put the issue to a vote in parliament. This time it was a clear exercise in covering their backside. To the government’s surprise, parliament voted against participating in the air strikes.


In 2016 the government was given a second opportunity to join the US-led air strikes. Again the decision was left to parliament, but this time it voted in favour of military action.


Three times in succession the issue had been put to parliament. The legal procedure was on the way to becoming a political convention. It was not, however, law. That needed an act of parliament requiring the government to seek a vote before taking military action.


Fast forward to March/April 2018. The British claim – with good evidence – that the Russians attempted to murder Sergei and Yulia Skripal on British soil with the toxic nerve agent Novichok. The Russians vehemently denied the claim. Twenty-nine other countries supported Theresa May’s assertions and joined her in expelling Russian diplomats.


Then the latest chemical weapon attack occurs in Syria. Russia and Syria deny it took place. French President Emmanuel Macron phones Donald Trump and offers to join him in a bombing raid. The British dither. Will parliament support such action? Can Britain afford not to be involved? Shouldn’t it return the support it received over the Skripal affair? Does it want France to become the chief European influence in America?


Theresa May probably would have won a vote in the Commons. The Conservatives and the DUP were solidly behind the move. The Liberal Democrats would have backed it with a face-saving qualifying amendment and there would have been a handful of Labour rebels that would have provided a reasonable majority. But the prime minister decided not to risk it.


The result was uproar in parliament. Not because Britain participated in the bombings, but because the government did not ask parliament to do so. It defied a procedure that was on the cusp of becoming an established convention to revert to the Royal Prerogative.


There are pros and cons for seeking a parliamentary mandate. On the plus side is that parliamentary support provides the widest possible public support for the ultimate and most dangerous of political decisions. Against parliamentary involvement is the argument that military needs may require quick and decisive action which would be dangerously postponed by the need for parliamentary approval. There is also the danger that a decision would be made on narrow party political grounds rather than those of the wider national interest.


What is certain is that the future of the Royal Prerogative and the role of parliament in war situations is now firmly on the parliamentary agenda.




Good week for Macron



France’s Emmanuel Macron took a giant step towards establishing himself as the leading political force in Europe this past week. He grabbed the initiative on two fronts: Syria and the rising problem of right-wing populist authoritarianism in the EU.


It was Macron who took the initiative, phoned Donald Trump and offered French support for the bombing raid on Syria. The French president later claimed that the whole thing was his idea and that he also persuaded the American president to keep 2,000 US troops in Syria. He later had to backpedal from those claims, probably because the White House told him to. It didn’t want to be seen to be taking orders from the Elysee Palace.


Then there was Macron’s speech to the European Parliament. It was more of a rallying cry to European Liberals to stand up to the rising EU tide of authoritarianism rolling in from the East.


Without naming the newly re-elected Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, the French president attacked politicians who used immigrants as scapegoats to win votes.


He said: “In the future, we must struggle to defend our ideals … This is a democracy that respects individual minority fundamental rights, which used to be called liberal democracy, and I use that term by choice. The deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom: I reject the idea that European democracy is condemned to impotence.


Macron added: “I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers; I don’t want to belong to a generation that’s forgotten its own past.”


Britain’s Brexiteers also suffered a tongue lashing in Macron’s first speech from the Strasbourg podium as he attacked those who took their countries out of the EU to pursue “fairy tale adventures”.


“I am for the most integrated and closest possible relationship after Brexit, and there’s a well-known solution – it’s called EU membership,” he said.


But it is not all clear sailing for the French president. He left Strasbourg for talks in Berlin. Macron wants a strong new partnership between Paris and Berlin to breathe new life into the EU, mooting big new initiatives ranging from far-reaching eurozone reforms to changes in the way the commission president and MEPs are chosen and a crowd-pleasing tax on tech multinationals.


All these initiatives are bogged down in the slow-moving realities of European politics. His ideas for some integration and mutual support among eurozone members in exchange for stricter economic management have been hit by Angela Merkel’s post-election weakness and opposition from within her CDU party to more risk-sharing.


Reforms to the EU’s political process have run afoul of assorted national interests, while Macron’s projected European digital tax on the revenues – rather than the profits – of technology multinationals has proved unpopular in countries including Ireland and Luxembourg.





Tom Arms

I am a journalist, entrepreneur and historian with extensive experience in print, web and broadcast journalism. I started as a diplomatic correspondent, wrote several books (The Falklands Crisis, World Elections On File and the Encyclopedia of the Cold War), and then in 1987 started my own business (Future Events News Service, which over 25 years established itself as the world and UK media’s diary. Our strapline was: “We set the world’s news agenda.” I sold FENS in December 2012 but retained the exclusive broadcast rights to all of FENS data. To exploit these rights I set up LookAhead TV which produces unique programmes which “Broadcasts Tomorrow Today” so that viewers can “Plan to Participate.” LookAhead has appeared regularly on Vox Africa, Radio Tatras International, The Conversation and Voice of Africa Radio.

In addition to being a syndicated broadcaster and columnist on global affairs, Tom is also available for speaking engagements and can be contacted on TwitterLinkedin and email[email protected].

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