The New East of Suez Question: Damage Limitation after Failure Over Syria

The UK can do little to affect the Syrian civil war. But it is shoring up its interests on the periphery of the conflagration, reinforcing the UK’s military reorientation East of Suez. The question is whether, in light of Parliament’s vote last month, the Government now wants to say so.

The events of the last month have reinforced the fact, as if it needed any reinforcement, that the UK has neither the appetite nor the capacity to get meaningfully involved in the Syria crisis. A year or more ago a major military/diplomatic initiative might have had a beneficial effect, and in another year or two the conditions may be right for such an initiative to help close some sort of peace deal. But for now, the suffering will go on while the Western powers have little more to offer than a prayer for the weak and a cheer for the brave.

The international community cannot address the centre of the crisis – a deeply sectarian civil war in which the political choice is between many sets of bad guys who control the fate of the victims. But the war is destabilising the region. The Levant could go into a meltdown that would see political collapse in Lebanon and Iraq, whatever happens in Syria, immense pressure on Jordan and Israel, and a not-so-proxy war throughout the region between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. [1] 

In response to these prospects, the Western powers are being drawn into much greater involvement at the periphery of the crisis. As with the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, if the time is not propitious for an imposed peace, at least the external powers could act to contain the conflict and limit its political fallout. That is no comfort to the victims of a vicious civil war, but neither is it a dishonourable political strategy.

Shoring Up Syria’s Neighbours

Not far below the surface a natural division of roles is emerging between the US and the UK (and now France) in moving to shore up Jordan and reinforce security across the Gulf.

The US may be smarting from the humiliation of not enforcing the ‘red lines’ it has asserted, but its more subtle military role in the region may be more significant in the long run.  In summer 2013 exercise Eagle Lion took place in Jordan involving over 8,000 foreign troops from nineteen different countries, but 5,000 of these troops came from the US CENTCOM command. And around 1,000 of them have stayed in-country. ‘CENTCOM Forward-Jordan’ is now a major US military hub that serves the personnel manning US Patriot air defence batteries, technical advisers, trainers and Special Forces elements. [2] A squadron of F16s has stayed on to work alongside the Jordanian Air Force in providing air defence. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey has already visited CENTCOM Forward-Jordan to explain to those involved the importance of their reassurance mission to Jordan. A marine assault ship stays close to provide extra support. The US is bolstering the territorial integrity of Jordan even as its aid efforts try to relieve the pressure created by well over 600,000 refugees flooding into a country of only six million people. Not least, NATO has provided Patriot batteries to Turkey, supplied by the US, with some support also from Germany and the Netherlands.

The UK’s Position in the Gulf

Meanwhile, the UK has been quietly bolstering its position in the Gulf, especially in Qatar, UAE, Oman and Bahrain. The Defence Cooperation Agreement of 1996 between the UK and the UAE was effectively revived in 2012 with a Prime Ministerial visit in November that concluded a ‘long-term defence partnership’ accompanied by renewed hopes of a major deal to sell Typhoon fighters to the UAE along with other new, and sensitive, technologies.

 The Al Minhad airbase in Dubai is no longer just a staging post for UK forces in and out of Afghanistan, but will become a major transport hub for UK forces moving across and outside the region and a base for a fair amount of pre-positioned equipment for Army training in hot and desert environments. Training with Omani forces is also expected to be stepped up to provide training in hot and mountainous environments. The Royal Navy’s use of the Jufair naval base is likely to be expanded as facilities at Jufair are upgraded by the Bahrainis. [3] 

Qatar has emerged as a major political and economic partner of the UK. Saudi Arabia is the West’s most important partner in the region. The huge US base at Al-Udeid, outside Doha, makes it impractical, and unnecessary, to develop more facilities in Qatar, and Saudi Arabia does not permit foreign bases or stationed forces on its territory; but the UK has done a good deal in the last three years to renew its defence and security relationships with both countries, in part to displace some French influence that was thought to be already waning in Doha and Riyadh.  

There was a good long term strategic logic to all this. The UK was perceived as neglecting its Gulf allies during the last two Labour governments and Whitehall felt it was time to correct this perception. There was a clear ‘prosperity agenda’ behind an enhanced defence relationship with the Gulf, particularly on the back of what might be more than one Typhoon deal and all that would accompany it. And if the US was ‘pivoting’ towards Asia and the Pacific, then Washington would express its Middle Eastern interests in a different way and would presumably welcome an unobtrusive but ‘smart’ military footprint in the Gulf from one of its allies. Not least, the long-term health of the US-UK relationship would depend on the UK being seen to be as globally-minded as the US, and not caught only in a post-Cold War straitjacket across the European continent.

The rejection of the principle of military action in Syria in the UK Parliament on 29 August created a much more compelling logic to these ideas. Suddenly, the UK looked like an unreliable ally. The Prime Minister had been urging more assertive approaches to the Syrian crisis from both the US and France for some time.  Now, as he aspired to lead a military/diplomatic push on the back of the Syrian Army’s chemical attack of 21 August, he was suddenly checked by his own MPs and the UK would no longer be part of a military response to the crisis.

Whatever damage this may have done to US-UK relations – still a matter of speculation – it was a disaster for the UK’s relations with its partners in the Gulf.  The Sheikhs and Emirs may understand the vicissitudes of a democracy but they have very limited sympathy with what they see as weak leadership and inconsistency.  The sense that the UK is minded to take itself out of the diplomatic frontline was only exacerbated by a frankly stunned reaction to the Parliamentary vote across Whitehall.

The governmental machinery did not swing into immediate damage-limitation mode or assertive diplomacy to compensate for a lack of deployed military capacity. In truth, very little happened in those most critical days after 29 August while the government awaited developments in Washington – themselves truly astonishing with President Obama’s announcement on 1 September that he would consult Congress before launching any attack.

The damage that has been done may partly be mitigated by a governmental attempt to shore up some of its strategic and economic stakes in the Gulf by making a more explicit commitment to its security partners. The time is more than right for the government to repair the damage. In a sense, it only has to declare more clearly what it has been doing quietly; making sensible arrangements to engage East of Suez should it feel the need to do so. It will not be surprising if the government does not make some explicit statement to this effect in the near future. The UK strategic logic as well as the dynamic of the Syrian crisis and its regional implications push the government in this direction. It has important interests to defend on the periphery of the Syrian crisis even if it has little direct national interests to defend within the centre of the conflagration.

There are, however, two difficulties in making such an explicit statement. Firstly, any such declaration would also play more explicitly into the Iranian nuclear crisis. The UK would be putting itself further into the diplomatic limelight on Iran by talking openly about its commitments to its partners in the Gulf, most of whom feel overshadowed and threatened by Iranian power. Such limelight may not be entirely unwelcome, however, where Iran’s posture shows at least some chinks of light in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons.

More significantly, the UK would be making a statement that – however carefully couched – would be widely labelled as a ‘return to East of Suez commitments’.  This is all well and good in such a globalised and changing world, but a hostage to fortune when the country’s military ability to deploy strategically significant forces is so low. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have taught us that, in reality, the UK can now only really take on one fighting commitment at a time, and even that stretches us more than military planning has habitually assumed.  A diplomatic ‘return to East of Suez’ may be logical and necessary in the present hiatus over Syria, but could also widen the gap between the country’s strategic ambitions and its military capabilities.




Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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