Thursday, 29 August 2013

Intervention in Syria: the case not proven

Well, I had intended to reflect again on the Ashes series in England - and on how being close to winning doesn't mean that you're actually ever going to win. But events seem to have overtaken us, haven't they? The Prime Minister's wish to join President Obama in military action against Syria, and the Parliamentary imbroglio he's gotten himself into, dominate all the news bulletins. So let's have a look at where we are, and where we might be going.

First things first: it may well be that some sort of military strike on Syria should be carried out. Those of us who banged our heads against brick walls as Serbian militias made fools of the Western powers in Bosnia, and carried out as many atrocities as they liked (particularly at Srebrenica, where they massacred most of the male population) are as scarred by that inaction as most people seem to be over Iraq. For if you're not going to do anything while a despot at one end of the Mediterranean fires off chemical weapons, what's the point of having an army and a navy at all?

Even so, this blog believes that we're not quite there yet. There is not yet cast-iron proof that the regime itself was responsible - if there ever will be. We have time. We have space. We don't have to fight right now - though it may come to that.

The key need now, and historians can help here, is to avoid just lashing out in what that late, great socialist politician Aneurin Bevan once called 'an emotional spasm'. Far be it for 'Public Policy and the Past' to agree with that wise old bird Max Hastings, but the reason defence chiefs are reportedly very, very nervous about an operation against Syria is very clear: what are its objectives? What are its goals? How might we define victory and an end to operations? What if civilian targets get in the way? Above all: where might this all end? The Western powers risk wading into a quagmire from which there might be no escape. Say President Assad looses off some more chemical weapons. Or attacks Israel. Or fires missiles at Britain's sovereign bases on Cyprus. Or that he wins his civil war in the end - with Iranian and Russian help. What do we do then? 

Emotional outrage, well expressed by both Foreign Secretary Hague and Secretary of State Kerry, is totally understandable. Effecting some sort of change - actually making a difference - is much, much harder.

Britain is, in any case, in absolutely no position to do anything rather than provide a bit of political clout to the operation. A Trafalgar-class submarine (above) might loose off a few Cruise missiles (while the Americans fire off hundreds) before returning to base for more. A handful of Tornado fighter-bombers might attack other targets. That's the reality. Following round after round of defence cuts, the UK now has only a teeny, tiny military capability that cannot make much of a difference on the ground anyway. So one might ask: what's the point? To show President Assad that there are outsiders who care about what he does, I suppose. But is that really enough to justify the death and destruction we will be adding to the mix?

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has got himself into a mess on this one. He seems to have believed that Labour would follow him blindly into the division lobbies, but once again Ed Miliband has reacted to a crisis - as he did over the News International phone-hacking scandal - with some finesse. It might now be the Leader of the Opposition, and not the Prime Minister, who gets to decide when and how we fight - some victory for a leader who was being written off just days ago, but now looks to have rescued himself from political oblivion. For now.

The Government will probably get its Parliamentary vote for war in the end. Cruise missiles will probably start landing in Syria at some point next week. But the Prime Minister has imperilled his very career, along with that of his government - and the lives of innocent Syrian civilians, not to mention British servicemen - for a set of objectives that even he can't really enunciate.

Intervention? The case is not yet proven.

Watch this space.