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Time to recalibrate

Britain can help build new security and defence alliances

By Karin von Hippel  

A detention camp in Syria housing some of those who had joined Islamic State. Photo: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

I was recently asked by a journalist if Britain was trying too hard to be a player on the global stage. Was Britain punching above its weight? If so, wouldn’t this only be exacerbated by Brexit? My answer is that a number of countries punch above their weight, in different ways, in different parts of the world.

A more appropriate question might have been whether they are doing so for positive or negative purposes. Russia clearly punches above its weight, but in a disruptive manner. It is hard to think of any positive outcomes from Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its election interference campaigns in Europe and the United States, its support for the Assad regime in Syria, or its use of chemical agents in Salisbury.

At the same time, the US is punching
far below. It is no longer playing the critical role it has in the past in terms of promoting a rules-based international order. If anything, President Trump has withdrawn from that role, while heaping scorn on close friends and cosying up to his autocratic mates.

The underlying question therefore should be: what more can and should Britain do, given this current leadership vacuum? Today, the case could be made that we need Britain to punch above its weight, in partnership with like-minded states.

Britain has the expertise, experience and ideas in the security and defence realm, and has more often than not played such a role in Europe and Nato over the last few decades. This is not to say that Britain should
move away from the US. While President Trump and Theresa May do not have the relationship that many of their predecessors have had, below that level, the relationships are enduring and meaningful. US and UK civilian and military officials work closely together throughout the world in embassies, between intelligence agencies and law enforcement organisations, on military bases, and in conflict zones. They will carry on doing so, unless explicitly told not to.

But it is also important not to wait for
the US. With or without America’s active engagement, we need leadership to deal with a number of critical security challenges, none of which can be managed bilaterally, and all requiring close partnerships across borders. Beyond the well-known security and defence challenges related to China, Iran and Russia, others require urgent attention.

Two examples come to mind, both
in the Middle East, and both have had enormous spill-over effects that have impacted this side of the Channel. The first is the Syrian civil war, which has evolved into a nightmarish war of attrition, with President Assad pretty much the last man standing on top of the rubble heap. The regime has been largely responsible for half a million civilian deaths and the displacement of half the population.

The UN is still pursuing a peace plan
that would include some sort of political transition, even though it is hard to imagine Assad compromising on much, or the UN making quick progress. But such a transition needs to be pushed so that we do not reward a leader who doesn’t just have blood all
over his hands, but whose whole body is drenched in it. That is not a precedent we should be setting. The UK could play this convening, advocacy and supporting role, along with its close partners.

The second example relates to the end of Islamic State’s territorial control. In Syria and Iraq, while the military component of the campaign undertaken by the US-led Global Coalition is mostly complete, this by no means signifies the end of IS. Even if the group no longer controls substantial territory, there are thousands of fighters who have not been captured or killed, and many will go underground as sleeper cells. Others will travel to weak states in the hopes of setting up new safe havens.

As for the thousands of captured foreign fighters and their families, it is not clear that the international community has a plan.
The majority are being held in overcrowded detention camps in northern Syria and
parts of Iraq, while their countries of origin, including the US and the UK, say that many of their nationals are not welcome back. Adopting an ostrich-like approach and leaving them in no-man’s land is not going to resolve this issue.

IS fighters and some family members need to go through proper judicial process, preferably in their countries of origin, and some may be eligible for de-radicalisation programmes. Otherwise, if left to fester,
the detainees will surely forge the hard core of the next Jihadi terror organisation,
which will most definitely have European and North American targets in its sights. Here too, the UK has the right skill set to marry hard and soft tools in ensuring the coalition adopts a comprehensive approach to this challenge.

There are numerous other security threats requiring urgent attention, leadership and strong partnerships. No country alone can manage these. The UK has significant expertise and experience, and should be playing a leadership role with like-minded countries, especially now that the US has mostly withdrawn. This is not about becoming the global policeman, but rather addressing real challenges that have already found their way to these shores. And this requires a concerted, well-planned megapunch.

Read more from the global Britain report

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