Alec Cadzow: Global Britain must be prepared to intervene in the Middle East

15 Jan

Alec Cadzow is Researcher to ex-FCDO Middle East & North Africa Minister Dr Andrew Murrison MP. He previously worked for a consultancy in Jordan and specialised in Middle Eastern history at St Andrews University before that.

Parliament has returned from recess (third time lucky), now a fully sovereign entity and ready to forge a new future as a “Global Britain” – a subject which was aptly debated on Monday.

A catchy slogan, but what does it mean? Remainers have often assumed Brexit would usher in a foreign policy of not-so-splendid isolationism, at least in practice.

Conservatives must ensure the contrary, and while Monday’s debate was understandably trade-centric, a mixture of realpolitik and principle will demand that Britain does not neglect the Middle East – which has been conspicuously absent from our foreign policy discourse.

In terms of realpolitik, we have seen how 21st century military actions (or lack thereof) can have blowback on the UK’s influence.

This is particularly the case in Syria, where a pass has been granted to malign powers in our absence.

The failed 2013 vote to approve military action in the wake of Assad’s chemical weapons attack was largely down to mistrust on Middle Eastern intervention caused by the Iraq war, as Philip Hammond then Defence Secretary noted.

This event caused Obama to hesitate before outsourcing the dismantling of Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile to Russia, despite such an attack infamously representing a “red line”. Obama (and the imminently incumbent Biden) was haunted by Iraq – having been elected on a pledge to bring troops home from “endless wars.”

Now, a looming pyrrhic military victory for Assad will bring a pax Russica (with the Iranian theocrats and neo-Ottoman Turks fighting for scraps). Putin sees himself as the Tsar-like protector of the Orthodox Christians and he used the war to eliminate the domestic blight of Chechen Islamists – doing so by opening up the Caucuses (a textbook authoritarian move which both Assad and Saddam employed).

So, Britain, as a result of its inertia – itself largely attributable to a hangover from Iraq – now finds itself without leverage (except for within the superficial – in this case – diplomatic channels of the UN) which has only empowered our enemies.

Indeed, such avoidance has not been atypical, as Tom Tugendhat MP chastised Britain’s abstention from an important UN vote on Iran – itself a symptom of our uneasy relationship with the EU. We can now diverge.

Realpolitik dictates that we must always be asking “if not us, then who?” As well as Russia, Iran and Turkey, there’s the threat from illiberal China extending its Middle Eastern nexus through Belt and Road. This is a power whose facilitators include the EU, and who many Conservatives – including my MP – want to restrain. Unshackled from the EU, one way to ensure we don’t facilitate Chinese hegemony is through not abstaining from the Middle East.

It’s also pragmatic to pay attention to the Middle East because of our security interconnectedness.

Destabilisation abroad, the proliferation of refugees, and extremism at home are interrelated. The statistic that more British Muslims fought for Da’esh than were in the British Army’s ranks at the peak of the former’s power hints at our problems with integrating – particularly Muslim – immigrants.

The 2015 vote to approve military action in Syria came directly after the Paris attacks, as we belatedly realised that non-intervention had empowered terrorists who brought the fight to us.

France understands these consequences, which is why they lead in the Sahel. Current Defence Secretary Ben Wallace MP says he sees them too. However, if it really matters, we can do more than to deploy 250 reconnaissance troops to the UN’s Mali peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA).

There are also principles – intangible values and a complex, interwoven history – which interlock Conservatives with the Middle East.

Edmund Burke, the oft-quoted “father of modern conservatism”, was a popular figure among key Iranian reformers during the 1905 Constitutional Revolution, out of which constitutional limits were applied to the despotic Qajar monarchy. Reformers preferred the stability of gradual change – aspiring to the inherent conservatism which had created British political systems and values – rather than the destructive nature of a French-style overhaul of the Ancien Régime.

At a time when American democracy looks fragile – something which has been made fun of by antithetical regional and global leaders – Britain’s stable constitutional monarchy can provide a blueprint to reformers, many of whom live in absolute monarchies.

We are, however, compelled to remember Britain’s legacy from another perspective.

We often failed to live up to our political principles through our actions. In the case of Iran, two years after the Revolution, the Anglo-Russia Pact divided the country into spheres of influence, granting Russia the revolutionary north where political gains were quickly reversed. We would later contrive a new dynasty – the Pahlavi – and engineer two coups to keep it in power.

Another case is the Levant. The multiple promises we made to Arabs, our French allies, and Zionists during World War One were mutually exclusive and we were unable to appease every party during the Paris peace process. Having lived in Jordan – where it’s estimated 60 per cent of the population is Palestinian – I experienced first-hand some of the animosity held towards Britain borne out of the Sykes-Picot Agreement and Balfour Declaration which reneged on promises to create an autonomous Greater Syria governed by an Arab monarch. Our actions famously tormented T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” in his post-war years too.

This is not to say policy makers should be drawn to the region out of imperial guilt. Instead, Global Britain provides an opportunity to align our values with our actions, and due to our history with the Middle East, where better to demonstrate this?

Some might argue a manifestation of this policy means we must cut ties with Saudi Arabia, after human rights abuses at home and abroad. Others reply that they provide us with valuable intelligence, and fill Treasury coffers through defence spending. Nuance would be leveraging the latter to positively affect the former, an argument Crispin Blunt MP has convincingly made.

It’s clear that we are obliged by too many pragmatic factors and historical-ideological principles to retreat to isolationism regarding the Middle East. Backbenchers and policy-makers alike ought to realise this as the new era of a Global Britain begins.

Garvan Walshe: Strife in the Caucasus. How Armenia and Azerbaijan are pawns in a new great game between Russia and Turkey.

8 Oct

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Soviet Union’s strategy of ruling its non-Russian subjects by giving them autonomous regions where they would be in the local majority unravelled with the USSR’s collapse. Instead of having locally-rooted patronage networks controlled by the Communist Party, Russia’s periphery became a zone of chaos, terrorism and frozen conflicts.

Vladimir Putin, who exploited the Chechen war in his rise to power, learned to live with this. He was able to disrupt neighbouring states enough by allowing “frozen conflicts” to fester, threatening their territorial integrity and ensuring they didn’t, as the saying goes, poke the bear. This strategy is starting to wear thin in the Caucasus, however, as an increasingly assertive Turkey has begun to boost its own influence in the region.

The last big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region which had some autonomy from the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh itself was ruled by supposedly independent institutions under Armenian protection. Armenia, meanwhile, helped itself to land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, guaranteeing access to the former enclave.

Azerbaijan considers these territories to be illegally occupied by Armenia and promotes a narrative and eventual “return” for the tens of thousands Azeris displaced from there and Nagorno-Karabakh itself, while Armenia tolerates the settlement of the territories with the support of major funding from the Armenian diaspora (incidentally, Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan, which it sees as a check on Iranian influence).

Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, including one near the capital Yerevan, and has signed a defence pact with the country, but the power balance has tilted in Azerbaijan’s favour since the 1990s. First, Azerbaijan has prospered thanks to plentiful natural gas, but more importantly it now has strong backing from another important regional power and, historic enemy of the Armenians whose genocide it denies ever committing, Turkey.

Tensions have been building between Yerevan and Baku for the best part of a year, and serious skirmishes broke out in June. Azerbaijan’s irredentism as been appears to have been turned up a notch, while Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, who came to power following a popular revolution in 2018, has also been happy to keep the temperature high.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched a much larger than expected offensive, even reportedly commandeering civilian trucks, and deploying mercenaries demobilised from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. It has bombed Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened the main highway supplying the enclave from Armenia (Armenia retaliated by bombing Ganja). It does not seem to have yet met with much success, in part due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s not much time left before winter makes offensive operations difficult.

It also appears that Turkey is egging Azerbaijan on, adding to the flare-ups between Erdogan and Putin. Having long been at loggerheads in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh forms a third front in their proxy war. Russia, which backs the Assad regime has the upper hand in Syria thanks to a major error of judgement by Erdogan. The Turkish leader persuaded Trump to withdraw American protection for Kurdish forces in Syria, tilting the balance of the war towards Assad. In Libya, Turkey which supports the internationally recognised Libyan government, has come out on top, and General Haftar, backed by both Russia and France, is much weakened.

By backing Azerbaijan so strongly, Turkey is making two strong geopolitical claims. First, it is getting involved against Russia not in North Africa or the Middle East, but in a conflict between former Soviet states. Second, Turkey is not currently a member of the Minsk Group, convened by the OSCE to address the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, but will surely have to be involved in any new ceasefire. This is partly due to Erdogan’s ambitious (some would say neo-Ottoman) foreign policy, but it also reflects Turkey’s growing economic importance.

This significant shift would normally attract the attention of the United States. It has a close ally of its own in the Caucasus – Georgia – and a significant and influential domestic Armenian constituency (there are between half a million and a million Armenian Americans). Though if an election campaign is never the best time to attract Washington’s attention, the Trump Administration’s evisceration of the State Department meant the US couldn’t use its weight to damp the conflict down.

America’s absence has left two aggressive powers – Russia and Turkey – to begin to test their strength against each other in the small countries that border them. Whatever happens in this particular conflict, it seems a new Great Game is afoot in the Caucasus.

Tom Tugendhat: It’s time for the Government to stand with its allies – and stand up to Iran

26 Aug

Tom Tugendhat is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.

Israel is losing its reputation in the Middle East. For decades, it played the role of chief villain with nations around the region blaming Mossad for every mishap. Today, Jerusalem is a partner with the United Arab Emirates – just the latest of many to build ties to Jerusalem and seek cooperation.

Jordan and Egypt are about to be joined by some or all of Bahrain, Oman, Sudan. Even Saudi Arabia, while insisting that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains the basis of its policy, is making sympathetic noises. Arab popular opinion may still find Israel a difficult issue. But the higher-level dynamics are changing, as new interest-based alignments emerge blinking into the light of day.

Tehran is seeing to that. Over the past decade or so, Britain’s friends and partners have focussed on one thing – the threat of violent Iranian subversion and perhaps direct attack.

From Syria to Yemen, Arab states know well the danger that Iran poses. Militias paid for by Tehran and controlled by the Revolutionary Guard Corps have turned tension into conflict, and fuelled wars that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed whole countries.

That makes the UK’s recent UN vote even more surprising. On 14 August we, along with France, Germany, Belgium and Estonia, abstained on a motion to extend the UN arms embargo on Iran. Only the United States and the Dominican Republic voted in favour.

As Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, put it: “the result of the vote in [the UNSC] on arms embargo against Iran shows—once more—the US’ isolation.” It’s hard to argue that’s in Britain’s interest. Even less so, given how many of our regional allies are counting on us to hold the line.

Should the embargo end, the next step is clear: Iran will be looking to buy Russian or Chinese air defence weapons to put around the nuclear plants that it has long believed is essential to the regime’s survival. The International Atomic Energy Agency has already confirmed that Iran has increased its low-enriched uranium stockpile to more than 300 kilograms, enriched uranium to a purity greater than 3.67 percent, stored excess heavy water, tested advanced centrifuges, refused inspections into suspected nuclear sites and may be concealing more undeclared nuclear materials and activities.

It will seek to accelerate the development of its ballistic missile programme, particularly in the area of guidance systems. It will become even more aggressive in cyberspace. And it will redouble its political and material support for the Shia militias that are corruptly colonising Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Again, it’s hard to see how that helps Britain.

Over the past four years, the approach of the Trump Administration can hardly be described as diplomatic but, despite its tone, its respose to the clear violations of the Iranian regime is based on the actions it’s seeing in Tehran. The UK, by contrast, seems to have an Iran policy more focussed on remaining close to European allies (with a disdain for the current US administration) than on the actions of the dictatorship in Tehran.

That decision to abstain puts us even further apart from our most important security partner and regional allies – undermining a global approach, and pushing us firmly back towards the EU we have just left. Worse, it risks raising questions about the veto that none of us would like to have posed.

Now that the US has lost the vote on renewing the embargo, the White House will, no doubt, use the so-called snapback mechanism to reimpose sanctions as agreed in a 2015 United Nations Security Council Resolution (SCR). This poses a problem for us.

The snapback mechanism included in SCR 2231 allows participants in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran deal’s full name) to reimpose sanctions unilaterally. In 2018, the US withdrew from the deal, so some – Russia and China, no doubt – will claim that Washington can no longer trigger the snapback. UK, France, and others will have to decide: is the deal worth it?

Blocking or even abstaining on the likely vote against the US’s determination to trigger a snapback would undermine the alliance and weaken the UN. The temporary relief of allowing the Iran deal to continue, with the UK standing alongside European allies against the Trump White House, would be overwhelmed in coming years, since no US administration could accept being bound into a UN system without a veto.

“Iran continues to conduct ballistic missile activity that is inconsistent with SCR 2231.” Karen Pierce, our Ambassador to the United States, said in June 2019. That hasn’t changed. But nor has the UK’s posture. We continue to try to perform the diplomatic splits – denouncing Iran, but at the same time remaining committed to a JCPOA that has been consistently violated by Tehran and effectively abandoned by the US.

Iran continues to hold British hostages, most notably Nazanin Zaghari-Radcliffe, and spread terror in the region. In Iraq, its militia allies are assassinating young activists – female and male – with impunity.  They are rocketing Baghdad’s Green Zone and bombing military convoys, with the aim of humiliating the new Prime Minister, Mustafa al Kadhimi, and showing him he cannot depend on the US – or any other Western power – for his survival.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah clearly thinks it will not be held to account for the assassination of Rafiq al Hariri in 2005 or for the massive recent explosion at Beirut’s port.

In Syria, Iran has saved the murderous Bashar al Assad and will want rewarding. Some of the militias it has deployed there recently held a public event in Mashhad to advertise their successes, and announce that Jerusalem was their next target.

And now Tehran is offering Beijing privileged access to its energy resources and perhaps also a trading and naval base on the Indian Ocean. None of this is in our interests. But instead of siding with our allies and giving ourselves more leverage over a dictatorship that respects nothing but strength, we are remaining wedded to a deal that has become irrelevant to the two principal signatories.

The time has come for us to change policy. Even under the Obama administration, it is far from certain the JCPOA would have endured as US strategic interests – no matter who is in the White House – lie with regional allies, not the Iranian autocrats, and it seems unlikely that a new Democratic administration would attempt to breathe life into the deal.

The UK should now be joining the US in calling out the real threat to peace in the Middle East and standing with our friends in the region—from Abu Dhabi to Jerusalem. We need to defend the principles of international cooperation, not see them used as a fig leaf for human rights violations, war and nuclear proliferation.

If we’re going to convince allies around the world our place at the UN Security Council works for them and defends our common interest in a world based on agreements, our policy on Iran has got to change. Abstaining shows we’re not prepared to stand up for our friends and won’t stand with our allies – and that weakens everyone, but most of all us.