There is absolutely no question that the use of chemical weapons in Syria is an appalling development, and an affront to basic human rights. It is shocking. And there is little doubt in my mind, based on the news coverage (I have no inside track) that the Assad régime is responsible. Despite the line taken by Moscow, and by a number of well-meaning letter-writers in national newspapers, I don’t think that a nerve gas attack, and the numerous videos, on the scale we have seen, could or would have been set up by the rebels.
So the headlines are screaming that an attack on Syria is due within 48 hours, by the US, UK and France (Germany has indicated it doesn’t want to join in).
The UK government (or at least the Tory side) is gung-ho. Again. Cameron, with Hague not far behind, has said “We cannot stand idly by” in the face of this atrocity. Yet all the indications I have suggest that the British public, and many of their MPs, have serious reservations. I rarely agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but I see that even he has urged caution.
I Tweeted this morning Cameron on Syria: “We cannot stand idly by”. Yes we can, Dave. And perhaps we should. Here’s why.
I believe that any engagement by British forces should satisfy a number of criteria. Is there a clear and immediate threat to this country? Do we have a clear objective? Do we have a reasonable prospect of achieving that objective? If achieved, can we be sure that the outcome for Britain will be better than doing nothing – and significantly better, to justify inevitable costs and losses? Are the potential downsides, and the consequences of possible failure, tolerable? Is there an exit strategy?
It’s not clear to me that a Syrian adventure satisfies any one of those criteria, let alone all of them. And we don’t reach that conclusion in a vacuum. On the contrary, we have our recent experience in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and Libya, to inform our judgement. I don’t think anyone would argue that we’ve made things a whole lot better in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the jury is still out on Libya. British forces, however, are not yet out of Afghanistan, after ten long years.
But aren’t the gas attacks in Syria too much to tolerate? Don’t we have a moral duty to go in? (I seem to hear you ask, or at least to hear William Hague ask). OK. And what about the atrocious position of Southern Rhodesia (alright, Zimbabwe, if you must)? There at least we have the argument of our responsibility as the former Colonial Power. Or what about the Kafka-esque police state of North Korea, where deaths and abuse of human rights exceed even the Syrian scale, and where there is a nuclear threat, if not to the UK, then at least to friendly countries in the region?
Where do we stop? If things go from bad to worse in Egypt, will it be boots-on-the-ground in Cairo? You could even imagine the current trouble in Turkey turning to armed confrontation between Islamists and the Army. So Istanbul next stop?
We talk glibly about arming “the good guys” amongst the rebels in Syria. Yet we have a fast-moving situation with many competing groups, more or less Islamist, some indigenous, some sponsored by external countries or terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda. It is risible to imagine that we can arm one group without arming others, or that we can somehow control the ownership and use of the arms in a war zone.
What we have in fact is a proxy Islamist civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite, fought out in Syria (and to an extent Lebanon), but involving much of the Middle East as surrogate combatants. There is no way we can resolve those centuries-old divisions with a few hundred Tomahawk missiles. We may have honourable intentions, but by going in and bombing, with inevitable “collateral damage”, we feed the Islamist narrative that the West hates Muslims and wants to kill them (and to steal their oil, as they usually add). It’s a bit like using a sledge-hammer to repair a watch.
Let’s stay out. I don’t want to see any British soldier die merely to enable Cameron and Hague to enjoy a warm feeling of moral rectitude.
This morning, Thursday, Cameron seems to be backing down. Maybe he read my blog.