Tribune column, 6 September 2013
The fall-out from last Thursday’s House of Commons defeat for David Cameron over military intervention in Syria has been spectacular. The newspapers and current affairs broadcasters have had a week of field days as the various political protagonists have laid into one another and pundits have tried to grasp the significance of the vote. Is Cameron finished? Is Ed Miliband an opportunist toe-rag? Is this the end of the special relationship?
Largely sidelined by the furore, however, has been any serious concern for the substantive issue supposedly at stake – what if anything the rest of the world should do about the civil war in Syria, in which some 100,000 people have died, 2 million have fled the country as refugees and 4 million have become displaced persons within its borders.
Of course, that’s not an easy question to answer. Although the internet is awash with images of atrocities, it is by no means clear exactly what is happening in Syria except that it’s bloody and unpleasant. There are conflicting reports about the strength and nature of the opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime: some say it’s still largely composed of moderate Sunnis who would be quite happy to live in harmony with everyone else, others that it is now dominated by murderous jihadists with strong al-Qa’ida connections. It’s not obvious how far Assad is now reliant on support from Iran and its Lebanese surrogate Hezbollah – rather more important regional players than his friends in Moscow, who have been grandstanding for all they are worth as well as supplying him with arms – and we don’t know how far the opposition is serving the interests of Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. As I write, it’s not even beyond question that it was the regime and not agents provocateurs that unleashed the nerve gas massacre that brought about last week’s call to action from Cameron (and I’ve not succumbed to conspiracy theory, honest).
It’s possible that the intelligence agencies of the world know a lot about the situation on the ground of which journalists are wholly unaware, but even if they do that’s not the end of the problem. The strong opposition of Russia and China to any sort of international intervention against Assad might well be more a matter of cynical self-interest than a statement of anti-imperialist principle, but it rules out the possibility of United Nations endorsement of even the most minimal “shots across the bow”. Israel is a wild card, utterly unpredictable because driven by hostility both to Assad and his enemies. Egypt is more-or-less under martial law after the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood; Iraq is out of the headlines but seething with sectarian tensions. And public opinion in the US and the UK is sceptical about the claims of the political class that intervention will work: memories are fresh of Afghanistan and Iraq, where successful regime-changing assaults were followed by years of bloody counter-insurgency operations. An invasion of Syria that learnt the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq – Germany 1945-style, with regime-change, forcible disarmament of the population, an occupation involving hundreds of thousands of troops, the securing of borders and all the rest – would probably do the business, but “boots on the ground” are the last thing any western politician could now sell to an electorate. Proper imperialism is not on the agenda.
Which means that the people of Syria will continue to suffer in agony as humanitarians and liberals in the west wring their hands. The most that Barack Obama will sanction, as things stand, is a no-fly zone, and that’s assuming Congress gives him its backing. It won’t work, and will lead to lots more innocent people being killed.
Last week in the House of Commons, MPs refused to back something even more minimal. I can understand why, though I have no sympathy with the Tory and Liberal isolationists who can’t be bothered with quarrels in faraway countries between people of whom they know nothing. And it matters, because it creates a crisis of authority for the British government and marks a change in Britain’s perception of its role in world affairs. It makes very little difference, however, to what happens in Syria. If I were a Syrian, I think I would probably have a lot to say about that.