A Russian ship of shame or a UK ship of fools?

Michael Fallon, Britain’s ludicrous Defence Secretary, has referred to the Russian aircraft carrier (or cruiser) which is currently returning to Russia from a mission in Syria as a “ship of shame” which “skulked” up the English channel. [1]

He claimed that Russia’s mission in Syria has “extended the suffering of the Syrian people”.

This is the usual narrative we are well familiar with.

The UK along with other Western powers leapt on the civil unrest in Syria in 2011. They got involved opportunistically to topple the Assad government/regime. They did this because it meshed with their broader geopolitical ambitions. (Anti-Iran. A change of heart vis á vis old style Middle Eastern dictators and support for ‘democracy’ in the Middle East). Initially they hoped that a military campaign by ‘moderate rebels’ would quickly topple Assad. Who would put into place a Western-leaning secular democracy. This was the same policy which they tried in Libya. It is astonishing that with the evidence of the failure of this policy in Libya staring them in the face they thought it worth trying it in Syria. (The Foreign Affairs Committee has produced a report on Libya which is heavily critical of policy failures by the UK on Libya). [2] In Syria something similar has happened as happened in Libya. Once the strong centre is removed there is a rise of rival militias contending for supremacy from some groups who are just about palatable by professed Western standards to many who are not. In Libya tribal affiliations seem to play a stronger role and in Syria religious affiliations a stronger role. In Syria it is Sunni Islamist groups which are leading the fight against Assad.

That this is essentially what has happened in Syria cannot really be questioned. The evidence is all available in the mainstream press. Only today the UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, has suddenly announced that, after 4 years of chanting “Assad must go”, it must now be admitted that democracy requires that the West graciously allows Assad to stand in an election in Syria. This is Mr Johnson tripping over his tongue as he explains how after 4 years of chanting “Assad must go” in the name, apparently, of democracy, Britain is now contemplating a democratic solution for Syria:

We have been wedded for a long time to the mantra that Assad must go, and we have not been able at any stage to make that happen, and that has produced the difficulty we now face…

We are getting to the stage where some sort of democratic resolution has got to be introduced … We believe in democracy, we support democracy, and if there is a political solution then I don’t think we can really avoid such a democratic event. I think that is the way forward [3]

When the West chants that “Russia is extending the suffering of the Syrian people” this should be understood not as analysis but as narrative. They have to say this to cover-up their own wretched policy failures. It is true at the theoretical level that if two sides are in a fight then if a third-party gives support to one side they are “prolonging the fight”. But the subtext of the Western narrative that it is Russia that is prolonging the war in Syria is that the West is justified in supporting the “rebels” against Assad. (This support ranges from political and diplomatic to military and intelligence [4]). But why should this be the case? The UK’s actions in Syria are similar to the UK’s actions in Libya, criticised by the House of Commons Committee. Opportunistic. Characterised by incoherent policy. And, we would add, fundamentally unethical. The groups supported by the West either directly or by virtue of their support for other groups would, if they came to power in Syria, usher in a regime no less brutal that that of Syria’s President Assad. One such group is Anhar al-Sham. This group is seen by Russia as terrorist but not by the US. They are clearly opposed to Shia Islam. They are also linked to Al-Qaeda. [5] They may represent in a way a legitimate strand in Syrian opinion – though it is hard to portray groups which are funded by external countries as representatives of the Syrian people. But they certainly don’t represent the kind of “moderate” and “democratic” forces the West claims to be supporting in Syria. Even if the West was backing forces of democratic change in Syria it remains the case that there is no mandate in international law for this kind of interference in the development of other countries. But, in reality, they aren’t even doing that.

The legitimacy of Russia’s case in backing one side in the Syrian conflict has much more merit than the West’s. Both in terms of existing international law and in terms of an analysis based on looking at recent history. It was the West itself which used to tirelessly explain that “terrorism loves a political vacuum”. This was when they were trying to justify their involvement in Somalia. Iraq, Libya and now Syria itself all provide evidence of what happens in these tumultuous countries when the strong centre is attacked or toppled. In backing Assad Russia can very reasonably claim to be preventing a political vacuum from developing.

When Michael Fallon uses language like “ship of shame” and “skulking” he is attempting the usual Western feat. He is trying to cover reality with a false narrative. A narrative in which the West is always high-minded and virtuous, and, in recent times, Russia is always evil. A narrative wholly at odds with reality.

Apart from anything else this kind of language is profoundly stupid. At some point either the West will have to make up with Russia or we will have to go to war with them. These kinds of statements will be remembered – by the Russian military – and pave the way for future conflict. The most likely reason for Mr Fallon making these comments is that as the Russian warship sails up the channel after a campaign against Mr Fallon’s terrorists in Syria Mr Fallon himself feels ashamed.


1. Sky News

2. Guardian

3. Guardian. February 2017

4. Stop the War Coalition. UK

5. WikiPedia article on Ahrar al-Sham



Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer