It is more than ten years since I first sat down with members of the Syrian opposition. Back then they included real moderates, but even these didn’t predict a bloodless transition. ‘We will have to unite the country against the Alawites,’ I remember one saying, referring to the minority from which the Assad dynasty comes. ‘Kill them?’ I asked nervously. ‘Or chase them into the mountains,’ he replied.
Now, more than two years into the Syrian civil war, there may still be some Alawites but, as Paul Wood points out opposite, there are hardly any moderates. What good opposition elements there were have been killed, have fallen away or otherwise become insignificant since calls for outside help began. By now even the most ardent interventionist hawk must have come to the same conclusion: the time to intervene in Syria, if it ever existed, is past.
There are only ever two reasons for military intervention: strategic gain or moral necessity. Either must be accompanied by the likelihood of success. In Libya and Sierra Leone, moral necessity persuaded different UK governments to act. Both interventions did more good than harm, but they were small-scale conflicts. The larger wars (Iraq, Afghanistan) have brought more equivocal lessons and stand as a warning. There is certainly a moral case for stopping the fighting in Syria — as Samantha Cameron observed the other week when visiting refugees in Lebanon. But nobody knows how to do it in a way which won’t make things worse. Whereas Iraq imploded after 2003, there already exists a likelihood that Syria will explode across the region. If that happens, we may help contain it. But we should not be in any position to share the blame.
So what to do? Of course the Assad regime is vile. But the opposition is, if anything, now worse. Even the most cursory analysis today confirms that arming the rebels means arming Islamists, including al-Qa’eda and related groups. The only reason for arming them would be to create a more level killing field.
There are strategic attainments to be gained from doing this. We might use Syria to wear down the regional destabiliser of Iran — to do to them in Syria what they tried to do to us in Iraq. Decoupling Syria and Iran and unravelling both from their terror proxies in Lebanon would be a desirable goal. If pulling up these regional leads also destabilises the mullahs in Tehran (and there are signs this is already happening), then it would be more desirable still. But western foreign ministries and politicians no longer wish to think in strategic terms. The only wars they still believe in are ones in which we have no strategic interest and where no one gets hurt. Syria is not that conflict.
‘Something must be done’ remains a cry of our day. But perhaps people are finally starting to realise that ‘something’ always meant ‘America’ and Obama’s nation doesn’t want the job any more. There may never have been a time when a useful western intervention in Syria could have worked. But now — without the power or the will — is the least likely time of all.
Samantha Cameron will have returned from her visit with horror stories, and it’s said that her husband, keen on another foreign adventure, hoped she’d make the case for ‘doing something’. What she should have told him is that if you want to prevent humanitarian catastrophes, you have to be prepared to go in early and go in strong. Which means paying for the world’s best equipped and best funded military. Mr Cameron and all his immediate predecessors decided they did not want this. It was their choice. And if they no longer wish to mould the world in a better way, they will have to be accepting when it goes to hell all on its own.