Russia's military intervention into Syria has served to amplify the hollowness of much of the UK political debate on this four year old crisis, which, in government and parliamentary circles remains largely centred on whether or not the UK should launch a small number of air strikes against Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria. For many this represents an increasingly irrelevant side show to the wider civil war feeding both IS and the devastating humanitarian situation – with a new level of internationalisation now added by Russian intervention – towards which the UK government appears to have no real strategy.
Even as Russia's intervention advances, bringing new complexity and potential intractability to the crisis, the UK debate remains consumed by the IS strikes question, which is itself driven in part by an inward-facing political focus rather than questions of means, efficacy and strategy.
For the prime minister David Cameron, on the back of his recent election victory and the securing of a parliamentary majority, attention is fixed on whether or not he can now secure parliamentary support for the strikes. A central preoccupation is rectifying the perceived national and international humiliation suffered by his government in August 2013 when parliament voted down proposed anti-Assad strikes. For the Cameron government the initiation of air strikes would be a mark of the UK’s international stature and a sign of ’doing something’ in response to the intensifying threat. Despite wide doubts about Cameron's proposed approach including the utility of limited UK air strikes, particularly given the inability of the US to achieve meaningful results through air strikes over the past year, the prime minister has not felt compelled, even on the back of Russia's latest actions, to adapt the UK’s intended approach or articulate a more comprehensive approach.
At the same time the wider political community is equally focused on what the proposed vote will mean for the nature of the Labour party's new leader Jeremy Corbyn's foreign policy outlook, including his ability or not to enforce party discipline given that some Labour party MPs favour voting with the government.
Interestingly Corbyn, who has long assumed a principled anti-intervention position, may now be using Russia's actions to row back his position slightly, though it remains uncertain whether this is due to conviction or political imperative. The shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn recently suggested that Russia's actions, which have been framed by Moscow as anti-Islamic State in nature even if they have by and large refrained from going after the group at the expense of other rebel groups, could open the door to new diplomacy with Moscow, including a UN Security Council chapter 7 resolution permitting UK air strikes in Syria. Given the strong – almost certain – likelihood that Russia would not support any resolution paving the way to international military action in Syria not connected to shoring up the government, Labour has hinted that it may be willing to subsequently reconsider its position on unilateral strikes, which would mark a significant turnaround for Corbyn.
In many respects, then, the ongoing debate over UK policy towards Syria is more a question of the respective leadership of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition than a true appraisal of what a coherent UK strategy could and should look like. In this context, Russia's intervention appears to have provoked little serious reflection at the political level. UK diplomatic messaging has quickly condemned Russian actions, while also expressing a hope that Moscow could pivot to a political track and rein in regime actions, including the use of barrel bombs. But, as with other international actors, the UK has been left somewhat helpless in the face of Moscow's firm show of military support for Assad. Here, the ongoing focus on securing parliamentary support for air strikes, despite the substantial change of circumstances on the ground, may point towards a UK desire to demonstrate international resolve, but in truth continues to reflect a strong measure of disconnect.
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