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Protesters demonstrate against military intervention in Syria in central London.
Protesters demonstrate against military intervention in Syria in central London.

Britain's vote against Syria action could affect its Middle East role

It may have delayed military action in Syria, perhaps even undermined western resolve, but last week's vote by Britain's parliament could also affect the country's role in the Middle East. Omar Karmi reports

LONDON // It may have delayed military action in Syria, perhaps even undermined western resolve, but last week's vote by Britain's parliament against military involvement in Syria could also affect the country's role in the Middle East.

It marked Britain's "last imperial act", according to some analysts, and exposed the difficulty after the US invasion of Iraq of convincing sceptical politicians and a wary public of any more military interventions in the region.

Things seemed different just two years ago when Britain, along with France, took a leading military role in Libya, supporting the insurgency against Muammar Qaddafi that eventually led to his ousting and murder.

There the US played a deliberate backup role, however crucial, and the intervention was seen as a potential model for future western military involvement in the Middle East. It seemed to signal expanded French and British influence as the US appeared to want out.

With the US seeking to pivot away from the region and shift its focus towards China, European nations were called upon to take a more aggressive role.

That impression was strengthened early this year, when French troops were deployed to Mali to prevent an insurgency by extremist Islamist rebels in the north from spreading.

When extremist rebels seized an oil facility in southern Algeria in January, the UK and France also declared themselves ready to fight even if Algerian authorities turned down offers of support.

On Syria, meanwhile, London and Paris have sounded strident from the start, often willing to go further rhetorically than a reticent Washington.

They ensured that reluctant EU countries would not extend a Syrian arms embargo, clearing the way for arms shipments to rebels.

The shipments have yet to materialise, however. Early supporters of the motley alliance of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's military, London and Paris, like Washington, were given pause by the involvement of Al Qaeda fighters.

And the country that was created by the two former colonial powers was proving a far more considerable test than North Africa had.

The chemical attack on August 21, which the US says was carried out by the Assad regime, was an opportunity for the government of David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister and a liberal interventionist in the mould of Tony Blair, to restate the case for intervention in a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced some seven million.

But the parliamentary vote last Thursday proved a "terrible miscalculation" by Mr Cameron, said George Joffe, a professor of international relations at the University of Cambridge.

The vote, he said, was Britain's "last imperial act".

"It was the moment when Britain renounced its imperial past," Mr Joffe said. "It drew a clear line to say: 'We are not a global power anymore.'"

The consequences will be felt in the UK-US alliance, said Dave Hartwell, a Middle East analyst with IHS Jane's, a London-based publisher focused on international military and intelligence affairs.

Citing "irritation" in Washington with Mr Cameron's "blasé" handling of the vote, Mr Hartwell suggested that aspect was the "most galling" for London. But the vote also suggested that the assumption that the UK would always back the US has "changed quite substantially".

Nevertheless, British interests in the region have sharply contracted and lie primarily now in Arabian Gulf countries where relations are based on historic ties, trade and arms sales, as well as intelligence sharing. Those ties, Mr Hartwell suggested, are "strong enough" to survive any disappointment with the British vote.

In any case, said Neil Partrick, a Gulf specialist and visiting fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, the US was, and had been since 1990, seen as the preeminent military player in the region. That has not changed with the vote.

"I think some Gulf states are disappointed, not least as the UK's reluctance to get involved has made US involvement dependent on a congressional vote. However the UK military have a presence or at least access in all the Gulf Arab states … while the UK's close relationship with the US continues and is appreciated.

However, the vote also made clear that the US does not need Britain, said Mr Joffe. The vote did not alter the reality of Britain's reduced role in the region, the damage was "perceptual".

"From now, Britain's role can always be dismissed with: 'Remember Syria?'" said Mr Joffe.

"The vote set a new scene for Britain, in the world and in the region."


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