Britain has to maintain its international standing on a reduced budget, says Philip Hammondby Bronwen Maddox / February 18, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Is Britain going to let Russia win in Syria? If not, what can it do about it? That is the quandary which faces British foreign policy: how to have the influence it wants while its appetite—and resources—for military conflict are limited. But Philip Hammond, speaking as Russian airstrikes left the Syrian town of Aleppo all but cut off, holds that there will be no change to the position that President Bashar al-Assad must eventually go.
“Somebody who has murdered hundreds of thousands of their own citizens and deliberately targeted civilians with barrel bombs and displaced two-thirds of the population from their homes cannot be part of the future of the country,” the Foreign Secretary said, speaking to Prospect and an audience of 250 in the imperial splendour of the Locarno Suite of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). He added pragmatically, in an argument shared by many attempting to revive the fledgling peace talks that: “So long as Assad is there, the Sunni oppositionists are not going to lay down their arms. There isn’t going to be an effective end to the civil war.”
That insistence on Assad’s exit has been the cornerstone of the position held by Britain and the United States. But after Russia moved quickly in September to strengthen its forces in Syria, and its support for Assad, it is a position that is conspicuously hard to enforce.
“What the Russians are doing is not what they said they’d do,” Hammond said. “Seventy per cent of Russian airstrikes, even now, are targeted against moderate opposition,” he added. “These are the people we believe have to be an integral part of the new Syria. Destroying them, bombing them, bombing civilian areas—schools, hospitals, mosques—while engaged in a political process in parallel I’m afraid is not a sustainable position.”
In remarks that proved unfortunately prescient, he added: “I don’t think it’s sustainable to continue a political process co-sponsored by a protagonist who is bombing civilians on the ground.” Several days later, the third round of peace talks in Vienna collapsed because of the disarray of the opposition rebels and Russia’s continued bombing in support of the Assad regime.