New UK Prime Minister, same old problems for the Conservatives and the country

By Christopher Phillips, Arab News 12 November 2022

Rishi Sunak’s attendance at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, in Cairo last week was his first major appearance on the global stage as UK prime minister. He has sought to portray himself as a reliable, safe pair of hands after the relative chaos overseen by his two predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and his team had hoped that COP27 would be a chance to showcase Britain’s new stability to the world.

However, even before he arrived Sunak partly undermined this by wavering over whether or not he would attend at all, confirming that he would only at the last minute.

When he arrived in Sharm El-Sheikh, his message of stability was further called into question by events unfolding at home: One of his ministers, a close political ally, was accused of bullying colleagues and forced to resign. The minister in question, Gavin Williamson, had been sacked from previous ministerial positions and accused of bullying before Sunak appointed him.

Immediately, the opposition Labour party, and some in Sunak’s own Conservative party, raised questions about the new prime minister’s capabilities as a judge of character. Whatever honeymoon period he might have hoped to enjoy was seemingly over. Far from projecting an image of stability, the new premier appeared to be overseeing yet more uncertainty.

This, of course, is unsurprising. There is a new leader at the top but the problems Sunak faces are the same ones that helped topple the previous three Prime Ministers: Truss, Johnson and Theresa May.

At their heart lie the deep divisions within the ruling Conservative Party. These fractures are complex and fluid. In the past they were ideological; for example, the pro- and anti-Brexit camps that hobbled May’s government. Yet even when Johnson solved this problem by expelling some MPs and orientating the party more firmly into a pro-Brexit camp, new fissures still emerged.

Those splits were over Johnson himself — including his repeated mistakes in office and his creative relationship with the truth, particularly over whether he broke his own lockdown rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eventually the anti-Johnson group won out and dispatched their leader, much to the outrage of his supporters.

The contest to succeed him prompted yet more splits within the party, with MPs coalescing around several candidates in what became a bitter leadership battle.

Though Liz Truss emerged victorious in the vote by party members, she faced resentment from many MPs, a plurality of whom had supported her main rival, Sunak. When her initial economic policies proved disastrous, those same anti-Truss MPs acted with brutal speed, toppling her within weeks. Her reign as premier was the shortest in UK history.

Though Sunak has tried to present a display of unity by appointing to his government members who previously served in the cabinets of Johnson and Truss, alongside his own allies, divisions remain. It is no coincidence that the MP who first accused Williamson of bullying was a Truss appointee, although a civil servant subsequently weighed in to say he had been treated in a similar way.

One of the challenges facing Sunak is to try to hold his fractured party together without it undermining his ability to govern. Another example of this dilemma could be observed during his first week in office and concerned Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

She had resigned from Truss’ government for breaching security protocols but days later, after Truss had gone, Sunak reappointed her. Insiders suggested Sunak brought her back because she is a powerful figure with her own following in the Conservative Party, who could prove troublesome outside of government. But as with the Williamson situation, the decision to appoint someone with a questionable record undermined Sunak’s claims of being a leader of integrity and stability.

As the Labour leadership was quick to point out, it seemed like he was putting the needs of his party ahead of the country.

So, what does all of this mean for Britain’s place in the world? Whatever his hopes for an international reset, if he cannot keep his party in line it will prove difficult for Sunak to make much progress.

Arguably the most contentious issue will be Britain’s relations with the EU. Johnson took a highly confrontational approach, especially over the Brexit-related issue of the Northern Ireland protocol governing the border with Ireland, and Liz Truss had promised to replicate this in her leadership campaign.

EU leaders were initially hopeful that the aura of reliability and sensibleness projected by Sunak might mean there would be a more conciliatory tone from London, especially now that the UK’s economic troubles mean it cannot afford a trade war with Brussels.

However, with hard-line Brexiteers still prominent within the Conservative party, many of whom backed first Johnson and then Truss, they will make it difficult for Sunak to pursue any detente with the EU if his position looks weak.

More generally, if Sunak’s administration is riven by the kind of splits, backstabbing and frequent ministerial changes that have characterized the party for the past six years, it will be hard for him to convince international partners that things have changed under his leadership.

Indeed, Brexit and its fallout, of which Conservative party infighting is but one effect, has seriously undermined Britain’s global reputation. A change of leader at the top of the Conservative government, however well-intentioned, will not suddenly fix this.

This does not mean the UK will be inert internationally under Sunak. Internal rifts will not prevent it from playing a prominent role in supporting Ukraine, or other policies Conservatives are largely united on.

But areas of contention, such as relations with the EU or the green policies being discussed at COP27, will be harder for Sunak to push through. Until he is able to unite his party behind him, perhaps by winning a general election, against the odds, or until the fractious Conservatives are voted out of office, Britain is likely to remain divided at home and weak abroad.

Even then, such has been the damage caused over the past few years, it will prove to be an uphill task for any new government to reverse course and repair Britain’s reputation as a global player.

Turkey’s growing ‘empire’ in northern Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Arab News, 19 August 2022

Several Syrians were arrested last week in the Turkish controlled city of Jarablus in northern Syria for“desecrating the Turkish flag” after protests against suggestions that Ankara was considering normalising ties with Damascus and its ruler, Bashar Assad.

The arrests, extending a Turkish law against flag desecration to occupied territory, are intriguing and, to some, alarming — and revive questions about Ankara’s long-term goals in northern Syria. Though Turkey claims its presence is necessary to combat Kurdish terrorism and protect Syrians from Assad, does it also harbor neo-imperial ambitions for a permanent outpost?

Turkey first sent troops into northern Syria in 2016 and since then has launched three further major military operations. As a result it is now the key external player in Idlib, the last redoubt of the anti-Assad opposition, and the de facto ruler in three further northern pockets, centered on Afrin, Jarablus/Al-Bab and Tal Abyad. It is in these three pockets where it is most accused of creeping imperialism.

The operations to capture them, launched in 2016, 2018 and 2019, were designed to push terrorists away from Turkey’s southern border. Daesh was the first target but PYD Kurdish militants, who allied with the US to fight Daesh and who Ankara claims are an arm of its own outlawed Kurdish separatists the PKK, soon became the primary focus. Once captured and purged of the PYD and Daesh, these zones served two further purposes. First, they provided a “safe zone” for two million Syrians, mostly opponents of Assad. Ankara had backed the rebels in their unsuccessful efforts to oust the Syrian president and these zones offered the last remnants fleeing Assad’s reconquest a final enclave, along with Idlib. Second, as the 3.4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey proved increasingly unpopular among Turks, these zones were promoted as a resettlement location, with Ankara stating in 2019 it intended to move 1 million refugees to Tal Abyad.

However, the scale of Turkish involvement has raised eyebrows. The Financial Times notes that Turkey has deployed up to 5,000 troops and is spending $2 billion a year there. This includes extending Turkish state services. The Turkish lira has replaced Syrian currency, Turkish banks and the Turkish post office are the only financial services, children learn Turkish as a second language at school, the Turkish Red Crescent operate the hospitals, Turkish ministries direct education and religion, and power comes from Turkey’s grid. Turkish can now be found alongside Arabic on street signs, while some landmarks, such as Saraya Square in Afrin, have been renamed after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Officially these zones are ruled over by Turkey’s Syrian allies — local councils and the Syrian National Army — but these are all salaried and trained by Ankara and it is widely acknowledged they have little independence.

On the one hand, the Turkish government and many of their Syrian supporters reject the accusation of imperialism. After all, there is a legitimate threat from the PKK — an organisation the US and EU have designated as terrorist — and PYD activity along the border has diminished with the advent of these safe zones. Moreover, as seen by the Jarablus protests, Syrian dissidents living there want Turkey to stay and are angry at any suggestion they will normalise with Assad and abandon them. Turkey can further claim that by providing services it is giving northern Syrians a better life than if they remained in Assad-controlled Syria or in refugee camps elsewhere.

But there is a darker side to Turkey’s operations. First, there seems to be a concerted effort by Ankara to shift demographics in its favor. To prevent the PYD’s return Turkey has sought to settle pro-Turkish Sunni Arabs to dilute the Kurdish presence. The most obvious example is Afrin. In 2011 there were an estimated 350,000 Kurds in the city but barely 150,000 after Turkey’s 2018 invasion. Those who remained faced discrimination as Turkey’s Syrian allies looted Kurdish homes, while Kurds were largely excluded from the new ruling and security structures, despite once forming a majority in the city. Turkey then encouraged over 85,000 Sunni Arabs displaced from elsewhere in Syria to move into the vacated Kurdish homes. A once-Kurdish city was transformed into a mostly Sunni Arab pro-Turkish ally.

Second, there have been complaints that Turkey is illegally building permanent structures on occupied land. Rather like Israel’s West Bank settlements, Turkey’s vast new housing projects for the proposed 1 million refugees in Tal Abyad may contravene international law. Third, the character of Turkey’s Syrian allies is questionable. While they’re not as bad as the Assad regime, many of the leading figures in the local councils and the Syrian Arab Army have been accused of acting like thugs and warlords. This is why Turkey’s move to arrest protesters over desecrating the Turkish flag is so controversial. It fits a wider pattern of thuggish autocracy in these “safe zones” that also points to an increasing informal de facto annexation by Ankara.

The future remains unclear. There does seem a degree of genuine support for Turkey’s presence among the local population — at least those who have remained, unlike the many Kurds that fled. As long as Assad remains in Damascus it seems unlikely these opposition-minded Syrians will seek to eject Turkey, nor would they be able to. The future is more likely to be decided in Ankara. These zones are seen as Erdogan’s project, with his domestic opponents less enthusiastic. Were he to lose the 2023 presidential election it is conceivable a new government would cuts its losses. If, however, Erdogan remains for some time, it is plausible to see the imperialism creep more and more, until these regions come to represent de facto Turkish client regimes in the North Cyprus mould.

The dangers of forgetting Syria’s refugees

by Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye 4 May 2022

Syria’s refugees are in danger of becoming forgotten. Western governments have, for the most part, opened their arms to the 5.3 million refugees fleeing Ukraine, providing homes and support during the conflict.

Yet, even more fled the Syria war a decade earlier, but most foreign governments were less welcoming. Instead, many Syrian refugees face a bleak existence: marginalised in their host societies but still terrified of returning to Syria. As western governments cut financial support, their prospects could soon get even bleaker.

The numbers of Syrian refugees are stark. Of a pre-war population of around 23 million, over half had to flee their homes. Over six-and-a-half million fled Syria altogether, with the majority, 5.6 million, staying in countries near Syria.

The greatest number, 3.6 million, is in Turkey, while 1.5 million are in Lebanon (increasing the population by nearly 40 percent) and 660,000 are in Jordan.

Contrary to popular myth, only one in 20 lives in a refugee camp, but many are struggling financially. The UNHCR estimates that over a million have little or no financial resources, while in Lebanon nine out of 10 live in extreme poverty.

Fear of reprisals

There is little prospect of these refugees returning home soon. Most fled the violent regime of Bashar al-Assad, which has now regained control over most of Syria, and fear reprisals if they return. Even were the situation more accommodating, research shows that it takes years for refugees to return, and many never do.

But the situation in their host societies is worsening. In Lebanon, refugees are not granted formal access to the economy, while in Jordan jobs are similarly restricted. Turkey has been the most accommodating host state, with refugees able to access jobs and education, but this has prompted a social backlash, and hostility towards the refugees has increased.

Yet western governments have been cutting their support. The UK has been one of the worst offenders. As part of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge to reduce international aid from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of GDP, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s Syria budget has been cut by 67 percent.

While last year the EU was able to mobilise international donors to plug any shortfalls in funding, there are fears that the focus on Ukraine and a general weariness towards Syria and its refugees will prompt a permanent decline in support.

There are moral arguments against such neglect, especially given that many of the governments withdrawing their funds, such as the UK, were active players in Syria’s civil war.

But if this doesn’t convince policymakers to change course, perhaps a security argument will. Research shows that refugees that are not integrated into their host societies, as is the case for Syrians in Lebanon, Jordan and, to an extent, Turkey, are more likely to militarise and destabilise their host country.

Recent Middle Eastern history sadly gives several examples of this. Marginalised Palestinian refugees joined Fatah and other militant groups contributing to the 1970 Black September civil war in Jordan.

Similarly excluded Palestinians in Lebanon, who were even more restricted, also joined militia groups to fight in the Lebanese civil war from 1975-90. Elsewhere, the Taliban recruited heavily from discontented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan to enable their military victory in 1996.

Security threat

This is not to suggest that any Syrian refugee is currently contemplating taking up arms against their host government, or that these governments should view them as a potential security threat. However, history has shown that leaving refugees unsupported for a prolonged period of time is more likely to prompt some to militarise.

In the Syrian case, there is the added threat of radical jihadism, which might find eager recruits among a generation growing up in poverty-stricken exile.

To prevent this, ideally, governments would make more effort to resolve the Syria crisis and find a way for refugees to safely return home. However, the last decade has shown that none is willing to commit the economic or military resources needed.

Instead, it should perhaps be recognised that many of Syria’s refugees are not going home anytime soon and the governments hosting them need more support.

At the minimum, this should entail reversing recent aid cuts and ensuring that Ukraine does not distract from the ongoing Syria refugee crisis. But it would also be wise for foreign governments to make serious efforts to help the host governments properly integrate their refugee population. This is especially true in Lebanon and Jordan, with both economies struggling and barely able to support their own populations.

Though western governments have the resources to take this on, they’re sadly unlikely to do so given their recent aid priorities and their focus on Ukraine.

Instead, wealthy regional governments, notably Saudi ArabiaQatar and the UAE, would do well to reconsider and enhance their engagement with the refugees.

It may lack the glamour of their other foreign policy projects, but could head off a future security threat while ensuring greater regional stability.     

Russia-Ukraine war casts new shadow over Syria

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 7 March 2022

The Ukraine and Syria conflicts have long been intertwined. One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s motivations for intervening in Syria in the first place was to break out of the diplomatic isolation he faced after annexing Crimea in 2014.

The success of this action, and the lack of western pushback for subsequent atrocities, have led some commentators to argue that the February invasion was emboldened by western passivity over Syria. Today, as Ukraine suffers, the overlap is evident once more as Russian military tactics from Syria are now at the forefront of the Ukraine operation. 

Clearly, the Syria war has impacted Ukraine, but how might the current crisis impact the situation in Syria? It is a fair assumption that the crisis will not be resolved soon, meaning it will continue to dominate global media and diplomatic attention. Syria has already been falling down the global priority list and its obscurity will likely continue, despite its civil war being far from over.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s continued domestic repression, ongoing economic suffering, and the sporadic fighting between different extremist factions will get less and less global interest as, like Iraq and Afghanistan before it, Syria becomes yesterday’s war. The ongoing suffering in Yemen and Libya could similarly slip further from focus.

This is arguably most significant for the 5.7 million registered Syrian refugees. Already, they were suffering cuts in funding from international donors such as the UK, but the emergence of a new refugee crisis from Ukraine will draw more money and support away from the Middle East and towards Eastern Europe. There are sadly countless examples in history of refugees being forgotten once the conflict they were fleeing drops from public interest, often having miserable consequences for the refugees and the countries hosting them. 

Drained military resources

Beyond a loss of attention, the geopolitics of Syria’s war could be significantly impacted by the fallout from the Russia-Ukraine war. At the most extreme, if this leads to Putin’s fall in Moscow, it could radically alter Russia’s presence in Syria. Yet, even less dramatic consequences could have an impact. A long, gruelling war that drains Russia’s military resources, while western sanctions cripple its economy, might force Putin to pull money and military forces from Syria. An alternative scenario might be for an embattled Putin to double down on Syria, drawing Assad’s regime even closer into his network of client states. 

Neither of these outcomes is good for Assad. Any Russian military or economic pullback would weaken him, possibly fatally if it emboldens his dormant opponents. Assad also won’t want to be sucked into a “Putin-sphere” that’s isolated from the rest of the world.

Damascus has been desperately trying to reintegrate into its region. It is already badly sanctioned by western governments, and the last thing it needs is further punishment for its proximity to Putin. A besieged Putin might come to view Assad as he does Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko: indebted to him and obligated to help in his hour of need, whether through statements of support or by sending military aid.

Putin and Assad’s other ally, Iran, will also watch closely how events in Ukraine will impact Syria. Less beholden to Moscow than Damascus, it is unlikely Tehran will feel obligated to stand by Putin, although its leadership instinctively blamed the US for the Ukraine crisis rather than Russia. Despite a few wrangles with Russia over the (very few) spoils of Syria’s civil war, and Moscow permitting Israel to launch frequent attacks on Iranian positions, Tehran broadly benefits from the status quo in Syria. Any change to Russia’s position there – which Iran played a major role in engineering – will not be welcomed. 

Israel’s balancing act

Israel has also become comfortable with the status quo. Though it is alarmed by the numerous Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria as a result of the war, Russia’s presence alleviates this. Its close ties to Moscow have given the Israeli army a free hand to strike deep into Syria.

The Israeli government has thus walked a fine line since the Ukraine crisis began. It is close to the US, Ukraine, and Russia, and has been sure to condemn Putin’s aggression in a relatively muted way, conscious that an angry Moscow could prevent its Syria raids. At the same time, Israel probably doesn’t want the conflict to prompt Putin’s departure from Syria, as this would leave Iran and Hezbollah unchecked and increase the chances of direct clashes.

Like Israel, Turkey has approached the Ukraine crisis cautiously, having close military, diplomatic, and economic ties with both sides. Both Moscow and Kyiv, as well as its western allies, are courting Ankara, given its control of the Dardanelles.

Turkey could use this favourable position to squeeze greater concessions from either Russia or the US in Syria, where it has clashed with both. Ankara has long wanted to expand the areas of northern Syria that its proxies control, and could conceivably tie its position on the Ukraine crisis with either Moscow or Washington depending on whether it captures Manbij or Kobane. 

But Erdogan may choose to hold his cards close. His immediate concern is Turkey’s struggling economy and a related decline in his popularity. He is probably more worried about how the war will impact oil and gas prices and the fate of vital gas and wheat supplies from Russia, than about taking advantage of the crisis to boost his position in Syria – for now.   

Of course, it remains early days in the Russia-Ukraine war, and it is hard to forecast how great a shadow it will cast over Syria or elsewhere. But given the conflict’s global nature and the number of key players in Syria impacted by this new war, it seems unlikely it will avoid the fallout.   

Syria: Joining China’s Belt and Road will not bring in billions for Assad

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 4 February 2022

In January, Syria signed up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), raising hopes that Beijing will provide its war-weary economy with much-needed investment.

The UN estimates that Bashar al-Assad’s Syria will need $400bn to rebuild after a decade of conflict – but he has struggled to find anywhere near that sum. Assad’s allies Russia and Iran lack the funds, western governments refuse to work with a dictator they accuse of war crimes ,and Gulf investors are wary given Syria’s continued instability. So, might China now finally be coming to Assad’s aid? It is unlikely.

This BRI invitation is primarily a political rather than an economic move and won’t initiate a wave of Chinese investment.

China’s current embrace of Assad is unsurprising. Throughout the civil war, it rejected western claims that the Syrian president had lost his legitimacy and joined Russia in vetoing multiple UN resolutions that threatened him. As well as insisting on Syria’s sovereignty – an argument China has repeatedly made elsewhere, partly to ensure that it too has a free hand with its own population – Beijing believed Assad was the best chance for stability.

It helped that Chinese Islamists had travelled to rebel-held Syria to fight alongside anti-Assad forces, and Beijing was happy to support Damascus’s efforts to eliminate them. Unlike Russia and Iran, China kept its distance from the fighting, but there was little question it was in Assad’s camp.

With Assad long stating his admiration for the “Chinese model” of economic development, it was logical that Damascus hoped to transform this nominal wartime backing into post-conflict investment. In September 2017, Damascus named China, alongside Russia and Iran, as “friendly governments” that would be given priority for reconstruction projects.

Cautious investor

Beijing did show some interest. Over 1,000 Chinese companies attended the First Trade Fair on Syrian Reconstruction Projects in Beijing, pledging $2bn worth of investment, while a further 200 attended the 2018 Damascus International Trade Fair. There has also been some limited investment in the Syrian automotive sector, while Beijing agreed to send $16bn worth of aid, including 150,000 Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine doses.

However, China is a cautious investor and Syria is not an attractive proposition. Though Assad’s position in Damascus looks secure, he has not extended his control over the whole country and there remains the risk of renewed fighting as well as sporadic terror attacks.

There is a limited consumer market, given that most Syrians have been impoverished by the war and post-war hyperinflation, while the deep corruption of the Assad regime means a lot of investment will be skimmed off. In addition, the US’s Caesar sanctions, which punish any company that deals with Assad, are a deterrent.

Importantly, despite limited oil and gas deposits, Syria lacks the wealth of key raw materials that has seen China risk investing in unstable places elsewhere. Syria’s entry into the BRI has changed none of these deterrents and while the memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed sets out an intention for eventual investment, it will not produce the sudden injection of funds Assad badly needs.

So why has it been signed now? For China, there is a geostrategic logic. This public embrace of Assad sends a signal to three important actors.

Firstly, to the United States, which has upped its confrontation with China under President Joe Biden. Bringing Assad into the BRI highlights how ineffective the US and its allies have been at isolating post-war Damascus, underlining the sense of ebbing US global power.

Secondly, to Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, who want Syria’s isolation broken. This is a relatively easy way for Beijing to earn goodwill from both, with Iran in particular already an important BRI partner.

Finally, to other Middle Eastern powers, such as Israel and the Gulf states. Another Middle Eastern state entering the BRI indicates the deepening role of China and the need for regional powers to further their already considerable cooperation with Beijing – much to the chagrin of Biden.

The economic side of things is not insignificant for China, of course. Syria is strategically located with a sizeable Mediterranean coast and, should it ever stabilise sufficiently, could prove an attractive partner for China. But this is a potential long-term bonus for Beijing, rather than the immediate driver of the MOU. 

Indirect economic benefits

And what of Assad? He is surely aware of the unlikelihood of significant Chinese reconstruction funds in the short term. But again, politics is an important driver. Joining the BRI serves a domestic agenda, holding out hope, however forlorn, of major Chinese investment for an impoverished population struggling in a crippled economy.

It also reinforces the ruling regime’s narrative that the rest of the non-western world is accepting Assad, strengthening his claims to legitimacy. Internationally, too, Damascus hopes that alignment with China will encourage other non-western nations, and even some rebellious European ones, to re-engage with Syria.

There may also be some indirect economic benefits. While China may not stump up the cash needed, its nominal presence in Syria signals to others that Damascus is one step closer to stabilising. This might prompt Gulf players to tentatively invest, reigniting pre-war networks to get in before Beijing. 

While huge sums from Beijing are unlikely, joining the BRI might still facilitate a limited increase in Gulf investment and some funds from China. If it comes alongside further normalisation from Middle Eastern states, non-western Chinese allies and even some European states, it is clearly of benefit to Assad.

This may not mean his economy gets the hundreds of billions that it needs to recover, but it helps prop up the beleaguered dictatorship for a bit longer. 

How Boris Johnson sabotaged the notion of ‘Global Britain’

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 24 December 2021

It is increasingly clear that “Global Britain” is a hollow slogan, and the UK government has few intentions of enhancing London’s place in the world.

An integrated review launched this past March offered a blueprint for how post-Brexit Britain might amplify its global influence, touting its position as a “global leader in diplomacy and development” and a “world leader in climate action”. Yet, whether intentionally or not, many of these lofty plans are being shelved, ignored, or sabotaged. 

The review boasts that the UK, a “soft power superpower”, is the 3rd-ranked soft power in the world, and links this to the wide reach of two institutions: the BBC and the British Council.

Yet, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has repeatedly expressed its desire to cut funding to the former. And this week, it reportedly offered a key education contract to a private contractor, seriously damaging the finances of the latter.

The Johnson government seems intent on sabotaging the very assets it needs to retain and improve Britain’s soft power reach.

American academic Joseph Nye, who developed the notion of soft power, argued that as well as coercing states to do what you want with “hard power” instruments – such as military threats or financial rewards – governments can “attract”’ foreign powers to want the same things as them.

Having policies, culture, and values that foreign governments and their populations admire gives governments “soft power” that can aid a country’s international agenda.

Crafting a global image

The UK has historically punched above its weight in terms of global soft power. British culture, education, language, and, to an extent, values have been admired globally by an array of different governments and peoples. Importantly, this has helped balance against London’s unpopular foreign policies, such as the 2003 Iraq invasion, allowing a positive image of Britain to survive political misadventures.

Yet, this image-making is not accidental. Just as US governments encouraged Hollywood movies to spread a positive image of the US beyond its borders during the Cold War, for decades, UK governments have invested in soft power instruments. But many of these are now under threat. 

The British Council is one such major soft power asset. It has more than 100 offices around the world, offering educational and cultural programmes to help build a positive image of Britain abroad. It is not alone; most major international players have their own equivalents, such as Germany’s Goethe Institut, France’s Alliance Francaise, and China’s Confucius Institute

Yet, the government has dealt a double blow to the Council. First, it cut the budget. When the Foreign Office had its budget slashed, it called on the British Council, which it partly funds, to cut its costs too, leading to 20 offices and 20 percent of its staff being lost. Second, Johnson has reportedly opted to outsource oversight of Britain’s new Turing student exchange scheme, historically run by the British Council, creating an even bigger hole in its finances.

If more cuts and closures follow, the British Council’s influence could well be outstripped by rival Chinese, German or French educational and cultural institutions. 

Increasing pressure

Hobbling the British Council is not an anomaly, however, and the Johnson government seems determined to slash at other key soft power institutions. The Foreign Office, one of whose key purposes is to promote Britain’s interests and image abroad, is cutting its staff by 20 percent. The BBC, which the integrated review called the world’s “most trusted broadcaster” – reaching 468 million people every week – is braced for budget cuts, under pressure from a government keen to weaken it. 

Aid, one of the most visible soft power tools to promote a state as compassionate and attractive, has famously been cut from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of gross national income. Even the UK’s university sector, a soft power institution that attracts foreigners to the UK to study and (hopefully) disseminate their positive experience upon returning home, is suffering from the government’s Brexit policies, with the prospect that it could be excluded from key European funding.

Alongside these budget cuts, the government’s own policies are further undermining Britain’s soft power. The disastrous withdrawal from Kabul is being slowly dissected by the UK establishment; it is increasingly clear that London abandoned some Afghan allies to the Taliban, and much of this was down to government incompetence. Closer to home, the hostility towards immigrants and seeming nonchalance towards tragic drownings in the channel further damages British prestige.

Likewise, it is weakened by the ongoing fallout of Brexit, including petty squabbling with France and the EU, as well as the suggestion that London might break international law over the Northern Ireland protocol.     

Added together, Johnson’s Britain looks a long way from being a “soft power superpower”. Indeed, his government’s actions look likely to diminish Britain’s global attractiveness, not enhance it. Yet, this need not be a bad thing. Arguably, the UK today is a global middle power, and “right-sizing” its soft power institutions to align with its equally diminished military and economic reach might be the best way for Britain to build a sustainable foreign policy within its limited means. 

However, that is not the “Global Britain” that Johnson promised during and since the Brexit campaign. If he and his government are serious about using soft power to amplify London’s global role, they need to accept it won’t come cheap. To get serious about soft power requires not just talking it up, but stopping the cuts and bad headlines, alongside major investment.

Will detente with Jordan bring Assad back into the Arab fold?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 8 November 2021

Jordan and Syria are officially friends again. After a decade of hostilities, prompted by King Abdullah II backing President Bashar al-Assad’s enemies in the Syrian civil war, the estranged neighbours recently announced a raft of measures to normalise relations.

The border will fully reopen to trade, and flights between the capitals will resume, as will security and water cooperation. Assad and Abdullah even spoke on the telephone for the first time in a decade. The king has also lobbied his ally, US President Joe Biden, to ease pressure on Damascus – quite the departure from a few years ago, when Jordan hosted American-armed Syrian rebels.

Yet, this reconciliation is unsurprising. Detente serves both leaders’ domestic and international agendas, and the warming of ties is driven primarily by pragmatism. This conforms to the historical pattern of Jordanian-Syrian ties. They may fluctuate between enmity and friendship every few years – often due to global and regional politics – but given the importance of these neighbours to each other, realism invariably triumphs and amends are made.

Jordan’s opposition to Assad was lukewarm at best. Unlike many Arab leaders, Abdullah never closed his embassy in Damascus, although staff numbers were cut. Jordan hosted the Military Operations Center, which facilitated the training and arming of moderate anti-Assad rebels, but it carefully controlled its border and did not allow rebels to come and go as they wished, unlike Turkey to Syria’s north. This contributed to the relative weakness of the southern rebels.

Similarly, Assad was careful in his hostility towards Jordan. Jordan was not as heavily criticised as some of Damascus’ other enemies, such as Turkey, IsraelSaudi Arabia and the US. Even at the height of Syria’s civil war, relations were not as strained as they might have been.

Political differences

It is likely that both governments were conscious of the two countries’ historical interdependence and wary of irreparably damaging the relationship. Historically, southern Syria has been more closely linked to northern Jordan than to northern Syria, being in the same Ottoman province.

Though British and French imperialists created separate countries, family and tribal ties straddled the border, particularly around the Hauran region. Indeed, early in Syria’s war, the first refugees were Hauranis crossing into Jordan to seek shelter with relatives. Such connections helped forge important trade links; southern Syria and northern Jordan are economically dependent on each other in different ways. In addition, Syria provides Jordan with access to the Mediterranean and overland routes to Europe, while Jordan offers Syria access to the Red Sea and overland routes to the Gulf.

Yet, despite this cultural and economic closeness, political differences have prompted tensions. Since 1963, Syria has been ruled by left-leaning, anti-western Baathist autocrats, seemingly the polar opposite of Jordan’s pro-western, capitalist Hashemite monarchy. They were on different sides of the Cold War and had different regional allies. In 1970, Syria even briefly invaded Jordan in support of Palestinian guerillas fighting a civil war with the Hashemites, while a decade later, Jordan was sponsoring Muslim Brotherhood militants trying to topple the Syrian Baathist regime.

In between these rounds of enmity came bouts of friendship, as the two states fought together against Israel in 1967 and 1973. Ties were then strained in the 1980s when they favoured opposite sides in the Iran-Iraq War, but warmed in the 1990s when both engaged with the Arab-Israeli peace process. They soured again in the mid-2000s when Jordan aligned with US attempts to diplomatically isolate Syria after its involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, but warmed again a few years later when this isolation failed

Throughout this stormy relationship, both governments have been willing to shift away from confrontation rapidly when their interests shifted. This has prompted the current reconciliation.

Influence over Damascus

For Jordan, it is clear that the campaign to oust Assad, to which it reluctantly signed up, has failed. Yet, unlike the other anti-Assad states that have lost interest, it is suffering the immediate effects of the conflict in the form of more than 650,000 Syrian refugees and a struggling economy.

Abdullah hopes that detente with Assad will open trade routes and create more stability in southern Syria, allowing some refugees to go home. By opening air links with Damascus and urging Washington to exempt Jordan from its harsh anti-Assad Caesar sanctions, which it recently did on a regional gas deal, Abdullah sees the financial benefits of Jordan becoming a conduit for outsiders dealing with Syria.

Moreover, geopolitically, Abdullah is adjusting to the shifting landscape. With Washington retreating, Jordan needs to find other ways of ensuring the peace and stability it craves, beyond relying on the former hegemon. Engaging Assad, it hopes, will allow it a degree of influence over Damascus, particularly on the presence of Iranian and Iran-aligned troops on its and Israel’s border, which could provoke an unwanted conflict.

Assad also clearly benefits. Full trade with Jordan and help bypassing the Caesar sanctions offer some reprieve to Syria’s flagging economy – although these measures are unlikely to have a transformative effect. More important are the geopolitical gains: Assad has not had to make any concessions to earn this rapprochement, so it serves to legitimise his cause.

Turbulent ties

Jordan is not alone in normalising ties with Syria, as Egypt also seeks to enhance links, and the UAE is leading a campaign to bring Damascus back into the Arab fold. Normalising relations with Jordan could be a stepping stone towards reconciliation with the wider Middle East, readmittance to the Arab League, and – Assad hopes, perhaps forlornly – much-needed reconstruction funds.

Detente, therefore, makes sense for now, but ties are more likely to be functional than friendly. The ideological differences between the regimes and a degree of mutual suspicion remain, as much as the deep structural reasons why they cannot stay estranged for too long.

It is highly likely that this current round of friendship will collapse into enmity whenever the next local or regional crisis pits Amman and Damascus against one another, but it is also likely that such hostilities will eventually subside, as they always do. Such is the cyclical nature of Jordan and Syria’s turbulent ties. 

Syria: Is withdrawal Biden’s next move?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 23 September 2021

America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has made its Kurdish allies in eastern Syria nervous. The White House was quick to reassure the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it would not initiate a similar pull-out from Syria, but can US President Joe Biden be trusted?

After all, the Trump administration gave similar assurances before abruptly withdrawing over half its forces in 2019 and greenlighting a Turkish invasion.

More recently, Washington was muted when several SDF fighters were killed in Turkish attacks in August. Biden’s Kabul withdrawal, in which he prioritised saving “American lives” over his allies, will only heighten fears among the SDF that they too will be soon be abandoned.

So how likely is Biden to pull out? The signs are not good for the SDF. By withdrawing from Afghanistan, and also with the recent Aukus alliance, Biden has indicated clearly that great power competition, particularly the containment of China, is his primary foreign concern. This means ending involvement in the “forever war” legacies of the “war on terror” like Afghanistan and, possibly, Syria.

Related to this, Biden’s withdrawal suggests he has accelerated the move to fight Islamic terrorism “offshore”. He seems to accept that Taliban rule may see Afghanistan become a haven for jihadists once more. Yet rather than tackling this with troops, he prefers to strike from distance – already the practice in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Extending this approach to Syria, Biden might conclude he doesn’t need boots on the ground to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State (IS) group.

Softer line with Assad

Biden has never been much interested in Syria and, while he agreed to the anti-IS campaign, he opposed wider involvement in the conflict when he was vice president under Barack Obama. There are already hints that he might take a softer line with Bashar al-Assad, recently exempting an Egypt-Jordan-Syria-Lebanon gas deal from the US’s Caesar sanctions. Keeping US troops in eastern Syria to deprive Assad of oil may no longer be the strong motivator it once was.

Yet there are reasons for the SDF to be hopeful. Firstly, Biden was defiant on Afghanistan, but he will be wary of attracting more negative press by abandoning another ally so soon. This alone suggests that even were Biden keen to leave Syria, he may hold off until the post-Kabul criticism has died down.

Secondly, the operation in Syria is far less costly than the one in Afghanistan. While in 2018 the US still had 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, dropping to 4,000 before the withdrawal, it only has 900 supporting the SDF. Added to this, Syria is less of a live theatre now that IS’s caliphate has largely been destroyed, so American casualties remain low and Biden faces less domestic pressure to withdraw.

Then there is the international dimension. Key regional allies – especially Israel and Saudi Arabia – want the US to remain in eastern Syria to guard against Iran moving in. That said, another ally, Turkey, is eager for the US to leave so it can stamp down on the SDF unimpeded, believing its strongest faction, the PYD, to be Kurdish nationalist terrorists. Biden cannot please all of his allies, but there is certainly no regional consensus pressuring him to leave.

For the time being, then, even if Biden might prefer to get out, there is little internal or external impetus for a sudden withdrawal. However, that could change. In particular, the dynamics between Turkey and Russia in Syria are significant, and events in Afghanistan could yet have reverberations there.

Russian strategy

One of Russia’s long-term goals is to get eastern Syria back in Assad’s hands, which would give Damascus’s beleaguered economy access to oilfields it badly needs. But unlike rebel-held Idlib, which Assad and Moscow seem intent on capturing militarily, Russia’s strategy in the east seems to be persuasion. Ideally, it wants the SDF to accept a settlement with Assad and ask the Americans to leave.

This is not so far-fetched. The PYD had a good relationship with both Assad and Russia before Syria’s civil war and there is a faction that sees the SDF’s future under the protection of Damascus and Moscow rather than Washington. Indeed, when Trump permitted Turkey to invade in 2019, the SDF immediately looked to Moscow, which brokered a ceasefire in exchange for Russian and Assad troops gaining positions in SDF-held territory.  

Turkey’s activities are also helping Russia to nudge the SDF into swapping sides. Ankara increasingly sees the PYD as its number one concern in Syria, with defeating Assad and defending the rebels slipping down the priority list. As it struggles to moderate the extremist Idlib rebels, and Russian air strikes frustrate Ankara there, the frontline with the SDF further east is one of the few areas of Turkish success.

Consequently, it has stepped up attacks on SDF positions, either with drones or using its proxy Syrian rebel allies. Every time it does, and Washington fails to respond, it adds more evidence to Moscow’s claim that only Russia can protect the SDF from Turkey. Ankara might actually be open to some kind of eventual Assad-SDF-Russia deal, as long as it means ultimately disarming or neutralising the PYD.

Both Moscow and Ankara will feel that the US pull-out from Afghanistan has increased their chances of getting what they want.

For Turkey, it suggests a lack of interest and staying power that, at the least, might see Washington tolerate Ankara’s raids on SDF positions, and at best see the US cut and run.

For Vladimir Putin, Biden has given him the gift of doubt to sow in the SDF leaders’ minds. Even if the White House has no plans to immediately leave eastern Syria, and faces little pressure to do so, both Russia and Turkey will try to exploit the fallout from Afghanistan to further their goals, which might ultimately hasten an American departure anyway.

Global Britain fails to make its mark in the Middle East

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 18 August 2021

The UK’s 2021 Integrated Review made the case for post-Brexit Britain’s leadership in the world. In its foreword, Boris Johnson wrote of his optimism in the UK’s, “ability to seize the opportunities ahead”, particularly now that it could diverge in some areas from the EU.

However, despite the review promising “thriving relationships in the Middle East”, the region has actually seen very limited interest from London post-Brexit.

Despite having spent considerable energy and resources on the region in recent decades, and its historical ties as a colonial power, the Middle East and North Africa seem low down the list of Global Britain’s priorities. More often than not, UK policy reacts to events in the region, largely in line with and echoing statements made by its western allies in the US and EU.

At times this makes sense. The West is less influential in the Middle East than it once was and, since leaving the EU, the UK is less influential within the western bloc, so staying broadly aligned on key strategic issues makes sense. 

However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities for Britain to stand out and use its newfound “independence” to carve out a unique position for itself in the region while still supporting allies’ broader strategic goals. Such opportunities do present themselves, but Britain rarely seems interested in “seizing” them, in the way Johnson urged. 

Recent examples are Tunisia and Lebanon. Tunisia was shaken in July when its president, Kais Saied, invoked emergency powers and sacked the prime minister, prompting accusations of a coup. The situation remains unresolved and the fate of Tunisia’s fragile democracy hangs in the balance. 

Yet Britain, which the Integrated Review said would be promoting democratic values, upholding human rights and helping to shape the new world order, using active diplomacy, has been relatively silent. Neither Johnson nor Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has commented on events in Tunisia, while the Foreign Office released a short, timid statementurging all sides to respect  “democracy, transparency, human rights, and free speech”.

If anything, this is even meeker than comments made by allies, with the US urging Tunisia to “return to the democratic path”, while the EUurged parliamentary government to be restored, though neither set any deadlines or punishments were Saied to refuse.

Democratic credentials

The space was there for Britain to be more active. With Britain not especially close to the Tunisian government or a key trade partner, it could have afforded to be more robust in its concern over Saied’s move. This need not mean condemning him completely, an unwise move given the complexities of the Tunisian case, but pressing more firmly for a timetable to restore parliamentary government would have allowed London to show its democratic credentials above and beyond its allies.

Likewise offering incentives for doing so in the form of aid, notably much-needed Covid vaccinations, might have been another way of emphasising Global Britain’s values. Instead, the UK looks disinterested at best and disingenuous at worst when it comes to supporting democracy.

Similarly, in Lebanon, more could have been done. One of the Middle East’s other fragile democracies has been suffering an economic and political crisis for years, but Britain and other western governments have offered only limited support. Raab at least has spoken about this recently, listing at a conference on Lebanon the aid the UK provided after the 2020 Beirut explosion. Yet while recognising that a political solution is the only way forward, and urging reform from Lebanon’s corrupt political elite, the UK and its western allies have done little beyond words. 

Again, there is an opportunity for Britain to lead. In July, the EU finally placed sanctions on culpable individuals in Lebanon and there’s no reason why the UK could not similarly place its new “Magnitsky” measures on the same people.

Arguably, if it really wanted to lead in Lebanon it would have done this earlier. While France is currently the leading western state trying to help break the Lebanon impasse, its efforts are still relatively limited and there is scope for Britain to play a greater role if it was so inclined.

And yet increased British efforts in either Tunisia or Lebanon seem highly unlikely. For all the Integrated Review’s talk of wanting to help shape the new world order and promote democratic values, it is clear that the Middle East and North Africa is not the intended focus of this rhetoric.

Post-Brexit Britain has more limited capacity and bandwidth for foreign policy and most energy is instead being focused on Europe (carving out a post-Brexit relationship) and South East Asia, where London seeks to expand its presence.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the UK has spent a disproportionate amount of attention on the Middle East in recent years, gaining little and often doing more harm than good. That said, stepping back is not the same as stepping out, and more modest engagement in the region should not mean jettisoning diplomatic innovation and seizing apt opportunities.

Crises such as those in Lebanon and Tunisia, less well reported than more high-profile cases in the Middle East but important security and governance concerns, actually provide chances for Britain to show its value as a newly “independent” actor.

Likewise, there is scope to enhance Britain’s relationship with other less high-profile Middle Eastern allies, such as Jordan and Oman. However, despite Johnson’s confident boasts, few such opportunities are currently being seized. 

Syria war: While other states jockey for influence, the EU pays

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 21 July 2021

If someone were to ask who the most important external power in Syria is right now, most would probably say Russia, which intervened militarily in 2015 to save the floundering regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Some might also point to Iran, which backed the embattled president by sending money, weapons and armed fighters; Turkey, which supported anti-Assad rebels and has occupied parts of northern Syria; or the US, which led the international anti-Islamic-State campaign in eastern Syria and continues to back the Kurdish-led post-IS administration.

Few, however, would point to the European Union. Yet, the EU is a major stakeholder in the conflict, and has been heavily involved from the beginning. Brussels placed targeted sanctions on Assad regime figures as early as May 2011in response to the president’s violent crackdown on protests, which sparked the war.

Likewise, the leading EU powers of France, Germany and, at the time, the UK, joined former US President Barack Obama in calling for Assad to “step aside” a few months later. The economic sanctions regime they initiated, including banning imports of Syrian oil, had a far greater impact than Washington’s, as the EU was Syria’s biggest trade partner. This, in turn, contributed to Assad’s increasing economic dependence on Moscow and Tehran. Indeed, until the harsh US Caesar sanctions were introduced in 2019, European sanctions hit Syria’s economy hardest.

Coalition against IS

As well as sanctioning Assad, the EU sponsored his opponents, with France and the UK especially active in providing non-lethal aid to rebel fighters and oppositionists. London and Paris also joined Washington in air strikes against Assad’s forces in 2018, and had been prepared to do so in 2013, before the UK parliament vetoed any involvement. All EU members, moreover, joined the global coalition against IS, with many sending combat forces into eastern Syria.

At the same time, EU members have been significantly impacted by the effects of the conflict, with more than two dozen terrorist attacks linked to IS in EU states since 2013, killing hundreds of people.

EU members, particularly Germany and Sweden, have received more than a million Syrian refugees, while Brussels continues to spend considerably on the consequences of the war, being the largest donor of aid. Of the €5.3bn ($6.2bn) in aid money pledged to Syria by the international community in 2021, €3.7bn came from the EU (€1.12bn from the European Commission and €2.6bn from member states). 

In total, it is estimated the EU has spent €24.9bn ($29.32bn) on aid since 2011. With fears that Syria could erupt into conflict once more, or collapse into a failed state on its doorstep – sending further refugees or terrorists its way – this aid is unlikely to dry up anytime soon.

Clearly, the EU has a lot at stake in Syria, and it has expended much energy and money on the conflict. Yet, its influence is negligible compared to others, for two primary reasons.

Structural weaknesses

Firstly, the EU’s own structural weaknesses make it difficult for it to lead on any foreign issue. Uniting 27 (previously 28) members on a single strategy towards Syria has been challenging. Several states objected to sanctions in 2011, while today, at least five members are hoping to improve relations with Assad, despite Brussels’ official line of no reconciliation without political concessions.

The more powerful players in Paris, Berlin and, previously, London, have largely been able to cajole the more sceptical members to agree on a united line. But holding this coalition together limits how assertive and activist the union can be.

Secondly, the EU lacks the military capacity needed to significantly increase its influence in Syria. The early years of the war were largely fought between Syrians backed financially by outside players, and this might have been an opportunity for the EU to up its influence. But once Iran, Russia, Turkey and the US began sending their own forces, plus foreign allies in the case of Iran, the conflict shifted to one requiring a military presence to garner influence.

With Brussels lacking its own military and the members with the largest militaries unwilling to deploy them, it would have been tough to implement a more interventionist policy, even if the EU had been able to agree on one.

With these obstacles unlikely to change, the EU looks set to be in the paradoxical role of bankrolling Syrian aid, while simultaneously having very little influence over the conflict. Most members remain committed to maintaining sanctions and refusing accommodation, in line with the US.

While the EU could theoretically amplify its influence by diverging from Washington and opening a dialogue with Damascus, such a rupture with the White House would be too costly for too little gain, and thus seems unlikely. Instead, Brussels will continue as it has: paying for the consequences of the war, limiting the spillover at home, and hoping someone else will ultimately sort out a mess it actually bears quite a bit of responsibility for causing.