Yougov-Cambridge Forum 2015: Panel discussion on Syria, Britain and the future of EU foreign policy

Milan DinicResearch Manager
Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
December 21, 2015, 9:52 AM UTC

The final session of YouGov-Cambridge Forum 15 saw a panel discussion on the challenges for common EU foreign and security policy, with a particular focus on Syria and relations with Russia. Chaired by Dr Christopher Bickerton (University Lecturer in Politics, POLIS), speakers included: General Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC DL (Constable, HM Tower of London/ Chief of the General Staff 2006-2009), Mary Dejevsky (Columnist, The Independent), and Charles Grant (Director, Centre for European Reform).

Highlights: General Lord Dannatt GCB CBE MC DL

From the Arab Spring to ISIS

“Syria is rather like Iraq and Libya - not a natural nation state but a combination of different factions held together, up until now, by a strong regime. In the downwash from the Arab Spring… it suddenly became unpopular to be a dictator - and the Western governments perfectly reasonably were favouring the people having a greater say – and dictators became undesired.”

In Syria, argued Dannatt, the West very quickly painted Assad “into the naughty corner”, portraying him as a part of the problem and not part of the solution.

“But because we were a bit stuck and didn’t know what to do about the Syrian civil war, for a couple of years we conveniently took the attitude that this is a fight between the Sunni and Shia factions, ‘it’s their fight and not ours.’ That position became unsustainable eighteen months ago when ISIL swept through from Syria into Iraq and set up the so called Islamic State provoking us to do something in a way that the use of chemical weapons by Assad in 2013 hadn’t done. That case was a very specific issue and I think we took a reasonable and correct view that a bombing intervention in the summer of 2013 would have complicated the already complicated situation.”

ISIS is not going to be responsive to political pressure or economic sanctions

“Its currency is violence, its currency is force and therefore the way it has to be removed is through defeat through a military intervention within a wider diplomatic envelope and with a proper plan for the future.” Furthermore, the process of defeating ISIS must involve discrediting it. “The narrative,” said Dannatt, “has to be changed and to make it clear that it’s not attractive to go off and be a jihadi in Raqqa”.

There is a logic for Russian backing of Assad

“Russia has for years been a staunch ally of Syria and has supplied their armed forces with equipment and training. But Putin suddenly realised that he had to act. Just as we see threats to our security from IS to the West, Putin saw the same sort of threats taking into account the wider Russia, its Muslim population, and the number of Russian Muslim fighters taking part in that. So, his interests and our interests are very much the same, and we should be mindful of that.”

“The [Assad] regime troops are quite well equipped, quite determined, quite experienced now and they are fighting hard to preserve the regime against ISIL. When it comes to Assad, I think there is a debate to be held back here as whether enemy’s enemy is my friend at least to an extent. Assad is a problem. But I think he can be put on the backburner for a while and dealt with somewhere down the line.”

West and Russia share same goals in Syria

“The military destruction of ISIL is the western objective, it must be the Russian objective as well. Therefore it’s absolutely important that we all get around a table and agree a coordinated plan. You can’t have two major entities – the Russians and the West – fighting for a single common objective through two different plans. There has got to be a coordinated military campaign.”

“In the interests of having a common plan with the Russians, I think our dispute with Russia over Crimea, Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic states can also be placed on the backburner for the time being. If you sit back and ask yourself what is the most pressing security issue – it is the threat from the Islamic state, it’s not the threat from Assad. Therefore, the principle on shooting the wolf closes to the sled has to be the one that is guiding us at the present moment.”

Boots on the ground needed to defeat ISIL

“I believe very much that the way to defeat ISIL is not from the air. Defeat will come about from engagement down close, dirty and personal – on the ground. Therefore, we need boots on the ground.”

“There is very little appetite for western boots on the ground. If we’ve learnt anything from our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last ten to twelve years is that, even though we go to Muslim countries with the best of intentions to be a part of the solution, our presence there turns around to be a part of the problem. So we must do everything we possibly can short of putting British, American, French, European, Judeo-Christian boots on the ground on Muslim soil.”

“But the issue is only going to be settled by boots on the ground. That brings us back to the utility of Syrian regime’s armed forces – they have got a role to play and we have to find a way of managing them into our coordinated fight.”

Brexit is “on the cards” if EU doesn’t sort out itself quickly

“It’s a bad time for David Cameron to be renegotiating the UK’s terms of membership to the EU club that’s itself in a degree of crisis [because of the migrant issue and other things]. In my view, unless the EU can sort itself out, and sort itself out quickly, and David Cameron can renegotiate good terms, I think a British exit is very much on the cards as far as the UK populous is concerned”.

“The business community will always say we’ve got to stay in but I think the popular and social movement will be to come out…The people that determine that vote are the readers of the Sun and the Mirror and not the readers of the Times or the Telegraph.”

Highlights: Mary Dejevsky (Columnist, The Independent)

Brexit challenges foundations of the European Union and, for some, means the UK could avoid foreign wars

Brexit, Dejevsky believes, endangers the idea that “being in the EU is a permanent commitment".

"There is this colossal fear [around Europe] that if Britain voted to leave then what would happen would be a waterfall effect on all sorts of other countries across Europe”, she argued.

However, Dejevsky said she is not convinced that “the idea that Britain should be great and sovereign and autonomous again is a particularly strong argument for a section of British public opinion.”

“There is section of British opinion who have been scarred by the experience of Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Libya". They, thinks Dejevsky, “would vote to come out of the EU, not to make Britain great again but to have total control over not interfering; overlooking internally rather than externally.”

The security challenge of Ukraine and the role of the EU

“We are more culpable than anybody for the crisis and for giving Ukraine inflated expectations of what was possible in terms of relations to the EU. I think that was an enormous mistake and we have suffered the consequences.”

“Crimea is lost and I think there is no reversing on that. On leaving Ukraine as a sovereign country with a pro-western direction I think is an entirely realistic expectation and I think that Russia is preparing ground with its own domestic opinion to reach that objective.”

However, the way the EU went on to build a common approach towards Russia solidified its strength, she believes: “The sanctions were adopted and they’ve held. Russia can be in absolutely no doubt about the position of the EU and Moscow knows what it needs to do to improve things.”

No meaningful comparison between the EU’s approach to Syria and Ukraine

“You can look at the policy towards Ukraine to be credible and successful from the EU perspective. It seems as it was seen as a European regional issues and that it was up to us to react. Moving to Syria, there is no sign of a suggestion that there should be anything like a coherent policy stance.”  

Highlights: Charles Grant (Director, Centre for European Reform)

The Syrian crisis has come at a bad time for the west in general and the EU in particular

“The Western countries and allies, committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The last ten years has been a very bad time for the West. The Afghan and Iraq wars have damaged the West’s soft power, so did the financial crisis in 2008.”

“Meanwhile the rise of China is bad for the West. China is much more politically repressive today than 15 years ago. The Russian defence budget is now 9% of GDP, compared to Britain’s 2%. A lot of emerging powers like Brazil, India and South Africa are democratic but they don’t support democratic values in their foreign policies. Also, the EU is having a bad time with the Euro crisis and the Schengen crisis”.

The UK can do a lot to help the EU achieve its foreign policy objectives

Charles Grant pointed out four examples which show how the UK contributes to EU’s foreign policy.

“The Balkans. This is where the EU does have some purchase. The EU has been providing useful peacekeepers in Bosnia and it has a mission in Kosovo.”

“Iran. The Iran diplomacy started in 2003 and is finished, hopefully, this year. The American involvement was crucial, but the Iranians trusted Javier Solana and Catherine Ashton later.”

“Somalia. Not often noticed but the British have lead EU’s efforts there. The EU-led naval mission has helped to reduce the pirate attacks off the coast. Also, the EU has paid for the African Union peace keepers that have pacified the area around Mogadishu. There is also the rule of law mission – building up courts in neighbouring countries to put the pirates on trial.”

“Ukraine. The British have played an important role in getting the sanctions on Russia which have been effective, creating the red lines for Moscow. One of the reasons why the Russians have retreated in Donbas because of the number of dead Russians as a result and also the sanctions would have increased. Those are the two reasons why Russia has not gone further in the Donbas”.

In Syria the EU’ has been fairly irrelevant apart from the humanitarian aid

“The EU has never been a big player in the Middle East, partly because the Americans don’t want it to be, and partly because the EU countries are divided. Some lean to Israel, some lean to Palestine, some are in the middle. Right now on Syria the French are playing the most important role because of their bombing”.

(See the full programme: YouGov-Cambridge Forum 2015)

PA Image

YouGov-Cambridge Centre

The YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research is a joint research centre run by YouGov and the Cambridge University POLIS Department, which promotes in-depth collaboration between pollsters and academic experts. Alongside research and events, the Centre contributes to teaching at the University and provides several postgraduate scholarships each year.
View all publications