Putin and May. Image, Kremlin.ru
Moscow’s warning that any Trump-led coalition which launches air strikes on Syria could escalate to all-out war, should bring the playbook drawn up by Sir John Chilcot into service. After seven years examining the run-in and fall-out from the 2003 Iraq invasion, one of Chilcot’s Inquiry conclusions specified that the peaceful alternatives to war had not been exhausted before Tony Blair’s decision to unconditionally side with George W Bush against Saddam Hussein.
Without knowing the full strategic details of what the United States is planning – as most of Congress, the State Department and even the US Defence Secretary don’t know either and can’t predict what Donald Trump will do next – the UK cabinet has unanimously agreed “on the need to take action” against the Assad regime. They also agreed that the use of chemical weapons could not go “unchallenged”.
Chilcot’s findings were not intended to be a how-to guide to future conflict. His expensive inquiry’s efforts to identify mistakes, deception and miscalculations by Downing Street were laid out to ensure that lessons could be learned. Some of those key lessons are now being ignored by Theresa May.
Blair never gave his cabinet the full picture, and the House of Commons was told even less. How much the current cabinet were told before they fully backed the prime minister remains unclear. But on the current timetable, it seems likely that MPs will have no say before military action takes place over Syria, alongside the US and potentially France.
The author Salman Rushdie said that war was no longer something you casually watched from the top of a hill. He said we now have total war, where everybody’s in it; and we have total economics where everybody is affected. The role of the blind spectator in both scenarios is not sustainable, and is damaging for any democracy.
There is a moral argument that Assad’s use of chemical weapons, when proven, should not go unpunished. If the evidence is there – and France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, says he has proof the Syrian government were behind the chemical weapons attack on Douma – then it should be made public.
The need for open debate
Equally, there is a political argument that says the risks of escalation need to be debated. A two hour cabinet meeting called by an under-siege prime minister of a minority government is not a full debate.
Downing Street’s statement on Thursday focused on Assad and Syria. The cabinet was briefed on discussions between May and president Trump. But what of Russia’s role and potential response? Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said the political solution that needs to be found means continuing engagement with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
Although the cabinet discussed military options, we are already engaged in an economic war with Russia. US sanctions have been in place since 2014, and were hardened last week with more names added to a blacklist. The City of London has no choice – it is a major battlefield in this conflict.
Russian business in London
As openDemocracy pointed out last month, embedded Russian business interests in London markets are already under severe pressure. The Salisbury nerve gas attack, the expulsion of Russian diplomats by more than 20 western allies of the UK, and Russia’s tit-for-tat reply, nevertheless meant Russian-owned companies still doing business on the London Stock Exchange.
America’s economic war against Russia, supposedly aiming to punish Moscow for its state-driven meddling in the 2016 presidential election, has yet to reach an all-out phase. Economic casualties however continue to mount up.
Rusal and EN+, the Russian energy companies owned by the billionaire oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, one of Putin’s closest friends, were on the new US sanctions blacklist. Deripaska is best known in the UK for hosting meetings between George Osborne and Peter Mandelson, one aboard his yacht in 2008.
EN+ was pulled from trading on the LSE this week after billions were slashed from its value. It suffered consecutive days of massive losses, down 20 percent on the first, 27 percent the next. In Moscow the value of Rusal halved.
This is the war being fought by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control. And it has effect on UK soil. EN+’s non-executive chairman is Lord Barker, the former energy minister and former adviser to the former chancellor, George Osborne. Lord Mandelson’s Global Counsel company was recently hired by Barker to offer policy advice.
Barker says he plans to battle on and remain at the helm of Deripaska’s company. His appointment as chairman last year ahead of a share stock sale in London that raised $1.5 billion, was more about adding House-of-Lords respectability for EN+ than his business acumen.
But in the wake of sanctions, experienced board members have resigned, there has been an exodus of investors, and detailed questions are now being asked about EN+’s environmental credentials and of its alleged links to Russia’s military.
One MP with frontline experience in international relations told openDemocracy: “Greg [Barker] is heading a company owned by one of Putin’s pals, which is being ripped apart by US sanctions. Meanwhile the UK is potentially risking an escalation into God knows where by again marching behind the US in military action in the Middle East. What does he think he’s there for? He should get out.”
Chilcot found that in the run-up to war against Saddam, “peaceful diplomatic options to avoid instability” had not been exhausted. Sir John could have added that there is also economic weaponry which can be deployed – and these can, and do, cause damage. With the head of Hermitage Capital Management recently telling the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington DC that he believed Putin to be the “world’s richest man” with a net worth of $200 billion, it’s likely that the Russia president knows how markets rise and fall. But does he care? You should know the answer to this before you do anything else.
Get our weekly email