There has been lots of debate about our impending intervention in the Syrian conflict today. Many of my Coffee House colleagues have counselled against intervention, arguing against Danny Finkelstein’s piece in the Times yesterday. I’m in broad agreement with the general sentiment of the piece, but some of its subtexts need greater illumination.
Leave aside Finkelstein’s argument about omission bias. For a moment, forget the ‘complexities’ of the conflict, imbibed as it is with sectarian differences, confessional rivalries, and great power posturing. Even the discussion of what should happen next in Syria can wait for another day.
The use of chemical weapons against civilians is an affront to the very idea of civilisation itself. It is the kind of nihilism we hoped would have been relegated to the history of more barbarous times. The issue of whether we are now prepared, however tacitly, to allow rogue regimes to use these weapons is one our leaders and society must carefully consider.
It is often said the Syrian conflict is no business of ours. That view has triumphed and resisted the urge for intervention so far. And what is to be achieved anyway? While the spectre of Iraq continues to linger, there is little appetite for committing our troops to yet another Arabian quagmire.
Those are perfectly legitimate concerns but last week’s events have shifted the calculus. Imagine letting them pass. What message do we send, not just to Assad but to any number of mad and millenarian actors around the world? The Iranians are already invested in Syria while continuing their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Along with their regional arm, Hezbollah, they pose a serious threat to American, European, and Israeli security as evidenced by the Burgas bombing last year. North Korea and Pakistan, both of whom have defied rules on the proliferation of nuclear material in recent years will also be following events in Syria with interest.
Hitting Assad – and hitting him hard – is urgent and necessary. Only that will restore the strategic balance which forces rogue regimes to think about the consequences of their actions. This matters to us more than you might think. Consider the next time British troops find themselves in active combat, whenever and wherever that might be. The message must resound: use weapons of mass destruction and you'll suffer a ferocious and very personal counterblast.
Shiraz Maher is a Senior Fellow at ICSR, King’s College London, where he looks at political violence in the Middle East and South Asia. He previously worked for the BBC and Policy Exchange.