democracy foreign policy Military politics Syria United Kingdom USA

Behind the UK & America’s Syria Strategy

Syria has been in a state of tumult for almost a decade. How are the UK and America acting in the region, and what has been their strategy.

Syria is a despot. In 2011 the Syrian Civil War engulfed the state, with an uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The middle east has always (in recent history) had an inherit interest to the Western allies, yet Syria policy has been masked in confusion as the USA and America try to put forth a strategy which did not repeat the past mistakes on the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are two aspects to Syria foreign policy through the eyes of the Western alliance. First, how do global superpowers engage with the failed state to bring about a peaceful resolution to the terrifyingly horrific civil war and bring about democratic change. The second, how to bring about the close of the war, but ensure the Daesh do not use the power vacuum to expand and capture the minds of every disenfranchised Syrian national. Looking at the past 9 years, there are clear differences in how the UK & America have strategized their response. America has tried to intervene, using diplomacy and their influence on surrounding partners, not to mention flexing the vast military might of the US Military to coax Bashar al-Assad into ending the war. Whereas the United Kingdom has stayed far away from intervening in local politics, but instead focussed on what support can be given through quasi-classified drone & airpower programmes, such as Operation Shader.

Since the start of the civil war in 2011, emphasis on US involvement in Syria found gravitas after the first chemical attack on the 21st of August 2013 after “clear and convincing evidence” of the use of sarin delivered by surface-to-surface rockets. The United Nations were provided access to ground zero in Ghouta, and conclusively found evidence the regime has launched this attack. Where Russia and the USA tend to be at each others throats, this realisation reportedly led to the Obama Administration and Moscow come to a mutual understanding, Chemical weapons, and the extent to which any stockpiles may exist, must be destroyed. On the future of Governance of Syria, it has been clear through the creation of ceasefires, and reports Russia has helped the Assad Regimes move strategically important resources from soon-to-be airstrike hit locations from US operations, that Russia sits on a different side of the conflict and does indeed seek a different resolution to crises to Western alliances. However, this ability for Russia and the United States to – on paper – converse constructively, is a world apart from the invasion of Iraq brought about by President Bush, where multilateral action was bypassed. This change in strategy from the USA, to converse to bring about change is a clear result of the enduring Iraq and Afghanistan war, if WMD’s had been found, and there was not global condemnation of the United States’ actions, it is hard to imagine why the stance taken by future administration’s would have deviated from past successes. The fact the war is universally acknowledged to not have been a success, has without doubt affected future strategy. A vast amount has happened in Syria of course since the 2011 uprising, far beyond the 2013 Chemical attack. Most notably, a recurrence of chemical weaponry being used on the civilian population of Douma in 2018.

For the United Kingdom, strategy had to move away from a military-first approach to re-capture the fallen state from the regime. Conclusively due to the vote in the House of Commons against military action, the British Government was stripped of its ability to launch an invasion. This manifested into a new strategy enacted by then Prime Minister David Cameron to use the drone programme to support surveillance, and ultimately run black ops missions out of sight of traditional military approval routes. However not to target an end to the civil war, but to battle the enduring scourge of Daesh moving into Iraq and Syria. To a vast majority of people, military action is military action, but the distinction here has been explained, Operation Shader and the subsequent drone programme was acting as action of self-defence. Coming off the back of the murders of British Humanitarian aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning by Daesh. What made these events especially gruelling, is Daesh. Unlike the poor quality videos released by Bin Laden over his rule of Al-Qaeda, Daesh built up a serious digital presence, which ultimately led to the videos of executions circulating online, and the mainstream media being able to show excerpts of the footage. The culmination of some of these factors, meant military action was always going to be on the table for the United Kingdom, even with the House of Commons ruling out an invasion similar to that of Iraq. This is where the United States’ and United Kingdom’s special relationship came into discussion, as historically with Bush and Blair, foreign policy in essence was conducted together, if one went into battle for a global cause, the other would follow.

Ultimately the fundamental differences in how America and the United Kingdom have strategized in Syria, are both baked in the historical lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan’s war. Rolling in thousands of foot soldiers to overturn a regime set upon a civil war became a non-starter, and for the UK, a traditional military response evolved into a drone programme to deter a faction of violence within Syria from Daesh, and not against the Syrian regime.


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