David Cameron and William Hague are at risk of over-simplifying a dangerous and complex situation
By Peter Oborne
18 Feb 2012
When two car bombings killed nearly 50 people in the heart of the Syrian capital of Damascus just before Christmas, we in the West were quick to challenge claims made on state TV that the atrocities had been carried out by al-Qaeda. We were inclined to award more credibility to the Syrian rebels, who denied that the terror group was involved at all, and insisted that the attacks had been cynically staged by the government, perhaps as a bid for international sympathy.
However, all doubt ended last week when James Clapper, director of US national intelligence, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Damascus bombings “had all the earmarks of an al-Qaeda attack”. Mr Clapper added that “we believe al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria”. So, it’s official. Al-Qaeda is acknowledged as an ally of Britain and America in our desire to overturn the Syrian government.
Think about it. Ten years ago, in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers, we invaded Afghanistan to eliminate al-Qaeda. Now the world’s most notorious terror organisation wants to join a new “coalition of the willing” in Syria (not just al-Qaeda: yesterday the Muslim group Hizb ut-Tahrir staged a march through west London in support of their Syrian brothers and the establishment of the Khilafah state).
This may be the most profound turnaround in global politics since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 converted Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany from bitter enemies into allies – and it is important to understand that the affinity of interests between al-Qaeda and the West extends far beyond Syria. Britain, the United States and al-Qaeda also have a deep, structural hostility to President Assad’s biggest sponsor, Iran.
Like al-Qaeda, we are interested in undermining Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in the Lebanon. In Libya, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy threw their weight behind the destruction of Gaddafi’s government and its replacement by a new regime which reportedly embraces al-Qaeda-connected figures. We and the terror group have come to share the same hostility to the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, and for very much the same reason: we both agree that he takes his orders from Tehran.
Of course, it remains the case that we have different methods and contrasting ideals. But we share unnervingly similar short-term objectives. Although it is unlikely that Britain and America have significant direct dealings with al-Qaeda, it may be that some of our allies do.
Let’s consider for a moment one of the most glaring hypocrisies of American foreign policy: the differential treatment between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Washington never ceases to complain about the connection between the Pakistani intelligence services and the Taliban. But we never hear a whisper of concerns about the connection between Saudi intelligence and Salafi movements across the Middle East, of which al-Qaeda is the best known offshoot.
For months, the region has been alive with rumours that al-Qaeda and other Sunni fighters have been sneaking into Syria through Lebanon and Turkey. Many of these extremist Sunni infiltrators fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq before being driven out and taking refuge in the Lebanon. It is likely that they are backed with money and arms by Saudi interests, and inconceivable that they could act without the knowledge, and perhaps the assistance, of Saudi intelligence.
So what has brought al-Qaeda in from the cold? The answer lies in the Arab Spring. Certainly the revolutions in Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere started out as popular uprisings; many of the rebels in Syria continue to fight, and often die, for human rights and democracy. But, as time has gone by, other agendas are coming into play, and other interests have sought to assert themselves. The statecraft of Saudi Arabia demonstrates how complex the situation has become. The gerontocracy which governs that desert kingdom will never countenance internal opposition. Indeed, Saudi troops marched into Bahrain to suppress the democracy movement there. On the other hand, the Saudis backed the Libyan rebels and are reportedly active in the destabilisation of President Assad.
This deeply reactionary monarchy remains Britain and America’s closest ally in the Middle East. As the Arab Spring has unfolded, we have encouraged the Saudis to develop a makeshift alliance that embraces Qatar, Jordan, the Israelis, al-Qaeda and, it would seem, elements of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have very strong historical reasons for wishing to dislodge the Assad regime, in the light of its brutal crushing of the Brotherhood-inspired revolt in Hama 30 years ago. All members of this alliance would agree that they want the Shiite-Allawi regime in Syria to be replaced by some form of majority Sunni rule. Britain and America hope this would be democratic; doubtless al-Qaeda and its Saudi allies have something else in mind. Ranged on the other side are Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraq’s al-Maliki government. In Iraq, many of the Awakening Councils (the militia set up by the US six years ago to defeat al-Qaeda) now feel betrayed and are said to have joined forces again with their Sunni brethren.
The situation could hardly be more dangerous or more complex. Yet, in recent public pronouncements David Cameron has repeatedly spoken of the conflict in Syria as a struggle between an illegal and autocratic regime at war with what he likes to call “the people”. Either he is poorly briefed, or he is coming dangerously close to a calculated deception of the British public. For the situation is far more complicated than he has admitted. It is far from obvious, for example, even that a majority of Syrians are opposed to the Assad regime. Russia calculates that perhaps two thirds of Syrians are still broadly supportive, and it is worth recalling that Russia was a more accurate source of information in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq than either Britain or the US.
Foreign policy is perhaps the area where David Cameron’s Government has copied New Labour most closely. Mr Cameron shares much of Tony Blair’s slavish adherence to American foreign policy aims, especially in the Middle East. Like Mr Blair, he wilfully simplifies intractable foreign policy decisions and has shown a fondness for overseas adventures. In Syria, British rhetoric may raise expectations among the opposition which we can never satisfy.
Meanwhile, in Libya there are menacing signs that last year’s Anglo-French intervention is starting to go wrong. The toppling of the Gaddafi regime has not brought an end to the killing. If anything, the fighting appears to be getting worse, as the country breaks into hostile armed fractions – a fertile hunting ground for al-Qaeda, our latest collaborator in the war on terror. I hope that the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary, William Hague, know what they are doing as they allow Britain to be dragged closer towards further intervention in the Middle East. But judging from their public remarks they may be playing a game whose rules they do not fully understand.