The PM’s risk calculus appears to have changed – and European officials do not know what to make of his new stance
The British prime minister, David Cameron, looks into Syria from the Jordanian border near the al-Wahdah dam during his visit to Jordan last week. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA
In the space of a week, Britain has flagged talks with Syria’s armed rebels, renewed an offer of exile to Bashar al-Assad, embraced a new opposition body and convened a donor conference to help oust the regime. The pace of the moves and what they potentially represent has left many in government, and indeed in Europe, stunned. For the first time in almost 20 months a real clamour has started about a potential intervention in a conflict that had been too delicate and dangerous for any country to confront.
The new British posture on Syria was announced by David Cameron an hour after Barack Obama claimed victory in the US election. It has strengthened ever since, every step personally backed by the prime minister, who government officials say has become fed up with the endless slaughter and intransigence and is now willing to do something about it.
Britain’s new stance on Syria is well ahead of its allies in Europe, or across the Atlantic, with the exception of France. It is also increasingly at odds with Damascus’s key European backer, Russia, which shows no sign of watering down its resolute support for its Soviet-era ally.
Both Downing Street and Whitehall know the risks of being well out in front on Syria. Attempts to build meaningful diplomatic alliances have so far led to nothing more than condemnations and sanctions.
While seething at the death toll in Syria’s Sunni-led insurrection and sending funds to fighting groups, the Gulf states – all led by Sunni regimes – have insisted that the US, or another western power, take public charge of dealing with Assad. None had been willing, especially without UN security council backing.
Last week, a key US official, the former ambassador to Damascus Robert Ford, now a senior player in the White House national security council, said a re-elected Obama was unlikely to change his opposition to a US role. A no-fly zone, a key hope of Syrian rebel groups, would continue to remain off the table.
If Assad’s friends and foes agree on one thing, it is the grave risk of miscalculating in Syria – a state created along several of the region’s main geopolitical fault lines and secured by alliances with key western protagonists. But something in Cameron’s risk calculus appears to have changed. His advisers suggest he lost patience with daily reports of death and depravity and with an international response that has offered few solutions.
European officials, meanwhile, do not know what to make of Britain’s stance. While broadly supporting the Syrian opposition, key European powers remain stymied by Russia and China and deeply wary of the combustible Middle East igniting if or when Assad falls.
With so much at stake and with enmity between both sides so entrenched, a seamless transition of power seems next to impossible. Missteps could lead the Levant towards a Balkanisation along ethnic sectarian lines – a nightmare scenario with widespread ramifications elsewhere in the region.
Nevertheless, an opposition momentum, so elusive since the now stalled armed push into Aleppo and Damascus in July, has clearly energised a reluctant west. The ink on the hard-fought deal to form what is in effect an alternative government in waiting had barely dried before Britain, Turkey and Qatar, among others, were rushing to endorse it.
The arrival of Sunni Arab donors in London later this week will mark potentially the most decisive phase yet in the campaign against Assad. With a new, more representative body now in place, Britain no longer seems shy about what the cash that the conference will surely attract will end up being used for.
Weapons no longer seems to be a dirty word in government circles. Rebels who had complained that binoculars and satellite phones, which Britain promised over the summer, were not helping them win seem to sense that their time may have arrived.
Just what the British support will end up entailing is still being thrashed out, primarily in Downing Street and Whitehall. British officials in the region had complained over the summer that the government response to the Syrian crisis was around three months out of synch with events on the ground.
That lost ground is now rapidly being reclaimed. Whether Cameron has the will to directly involve Britain in the conflict is something he seems yet to decide. While he does, Damascus, for the first time in many months, has reason to calibrate its actions. “It was obvious that he was acting without fear or restraint in recent months,” one Western official said of Assad in Beirut last week. “That position is not sustainable.”