Syria and the Middle East: should we really take military action off the table?

We shouldn't allow the experience of Iraq to prejudice us against intervention in every other case.

The Syrian conflict, now over two years old, has reached new levels of horrific farce over the past few weeks. On 11 May, 46 people were killed in a border town in Turkey in an attack linked to Assad’s regime, leading to Turkey shutting its border and inching closer to direct conflict with its war-ridden neighbour. The previous week, a statement by Syrian state television following Israel’s bombing of several military targets outside of Damascus read: "the flagrant Israeli attack on armed forces sites in Syria underlines the co-ordination between 'Israel', terrorist groups and the al-Nusra Front". I’ve tried most of the past month to think of an analogy that did justice to the absurdity of this statement, but I was at a loss to think of anything less plausible than Israel teaming up with jihadists.

Then came the Russians saying they are arming the Assad regime in order to provide a "stabilising factor". Following this, the non-renewal of the EU arms embargo is another factor in the equation, although in reality, whatever is said, Britain and France are unlikely to do anything in Syria very soon. 

So the real question is should Britain, France, the US, the EU, or some combination of the above, intervene? Let’s define the options. First the easiest one: the west does nothing. Just watches from the side lines and lets the whole thing play out to its grisly end. I include in this category simply giving aid or helping refugees outside of Syria’s borders – "nothing" in this context refers specifically to not getting involved militarily at any level. This has the charm of simplicity but is discomforting to most western governments as it takes any control of the outcome out of their reach. Given that Assad winning the civil war and reasserting his power over the whole of Syria is as equally alarming to the west as a jihadist force gaining control of the country, sitting on our hands looks decidedly iffy. Particularly when you look at the possible ethnic cleansing Assad's regime has already participated in and then extrapolate what might occur should he gain solid control of the country once again.

Next up is the choice that seems most popular with the US right, among others: arm the rebels. This is fraught with incredible peril, and that is only when one imagines the more likely scenarios before getting into the really nightmarish possibilities. To state the obvious, no one can predict where the weapons given to Syrian rebels might end up, particularly as a post-Assad Syria is looking increasingly fundamentalist.

So that leaves only one option on the table and it is, interestingly enough, the only one nobody is really discussing openly at all. That is genuine military intervention, sending the troops in a la Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a barometer of just how far this is from anyone’s minds that John McCain, a Republican hawk if one walked (recall if you will the "Bomb Iran!" chants during the 2008 presidential campaign), said of intervention in Syria: "We need to have a game-changing action: no American boots on the ground, establish a safe zone, and protect it and supply weapons to the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in." Ignore some of the greater problems with McCain’s statement and focus for a moment on him ruling out categorically any "American boots on the ground". When even Republican hawks say that sending in the troops is a bad move, you know just how far from the range possibilities it has been removed. Obama, for his part, has said he foresees no American troops in Syria.

The major reason for this is Iraq. Yes, Russian involvement also plays its part, but I think the disaster that was the "coalition of the willing" and their intervention into Hussein’s fiefdom seems to have destroyed, at least in the medium term, the concept of direct liberal interventionism. I, for one, think this is rather sad. Some of you may disagree with this statement of mine out of hand. You might say that the concept of intervention is based on an outdated view of the world, one based on the west being the centre of all things; liberal interventionism as an outdated relic of imperialism. I would counter by saying that European imperialism caused a huge number of the problems in the first place and so it remains our duty to try, at the very least, to palliate the problems.

But even if you disagree that liberal interventionism has its merits, I ask you this: can anyone really say that going into Iraq in 2003 was a more deserving example of interventionism than getting involved in Syria would be? Iraq at the time was not in a state of war; Syria most definitely is. More selfishly, deposing Hussein in Iraq only made Iran more powerful and thus the region more hostile to western interests; if the Americans and Europeans intervened in Syria now, it would be with the express purpose of making sure that a post-civil war Syria wasn’t a disaster for us. Of course, I’m extrapolating here on the motives of a series of events that will never take place.

The worst thing about the current situation is that even though the west is seemingly ruling out military intervention in the Middle East at present, there may come a time when leaving it off the table is no longer an option. With Hezbollah making its intentions clear, the possibility of an all-out Shia-Sunni war creeps closer to being a real threat. Could the US and its western allies really stay out of such a situation, particularly if Israel becomes severely threatened or even attacked as a consequence? Let’s hope these questions are never seriously asked. If they are someday, I suppose we’ll see then for certain how much the idea of liberal interventionism has become unstuck.

Nick Tyrone is senior adviser, public affairs at the Electoral Reform Society

Syrian demonstrators shout slogans while waving former Syrian flags, currently used by the rebels, during an anti-regime protest in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.

Photo: Getty
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The three big mistakes the government has made in its Brexit talks

Nicola Sturgeon fears that the UK has no negotiating position at all. It's worse than she thinks. 

It’s fair to say that the first meeting of the government’s Brexit ministers and the leaders of the devolved legislatures did not go well.

Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon told reporters outside that it had all been “deeply frustrating”, and that it was impossible for her to undermine the United Kingdom’s negotiating position as “I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy”.

To which cynical observers might say: she would, wouldn’t she? It’s in Sturgeon’s interest to paint the Westminster government as clueless and operating in a way that puts Scotland’s interests at risk. Maybe so, but Carwyn Jones, her Welsh opposite number, tends to strike a more conciliatory figure at these events – he’s praised both George Osborne and David Cameron in the past.

So it’s hard not to be alarmed at his statement to the press that there is still “huge uncertainty” about what the British government’s negotiating position. Even Arlene Foster, the first minister in Northern Ireland, whose party, the DUP, is seen as an increasingly reliable ally for the Conservative government, could only really volunteer that “we’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex”.

All of which makes Jeremy Corbyn’s one-liner in the Commons today that the government is pursuing neither hard Brexit nor soft Brexit but “chaotic Brexit” ring true.

It all adds to a growing suspicion that the government’s negotiating strategy might be, as Jacqui Smith once quipped of Ed Miliband’s policy review, something of “a pregnant panda – it's been a very long time in the making and no one's quite sure if there's anything in there anyway”.

That’s not the case – but the reality is not much more comforting. The government has long believed, as Philip Hammond put when being grilled by the House of Lords on the issue:

"There's an intrinsic tension here between democratic accountability of the government and effective negotiation with a third party. Our paramount objective must be to get a good deal for Britain. I am afraid will not be achieved by spelling out our negotiating strategy."

That was echoed by Theresa May in response to Corbyn’s claim that the government has no plan for Brexit:

 “We have a plan, which is not to give out details of the negotiation as they are being negotiated”

Are Hammond and May right? Well, sort of. There is an innate tension between democratic accountability and a good deal, of course. The more is known about what the government’s red lines in negotiations, the higher the price they will have to pay to protect. That’s why, sensibly, Hammond, both as Foreign Secretary during the dying days of David Cameron’s government, and now as Chancellor, has attempted to head off public commitments about the shape of the Brexit deal.

But – and it’s a big but – the government has already shown a great deal of its hand. May made three big reveals about the government’s Brexit strategy it in her conference speech: firstly, she started the clock ticking on when Britain will definitely leave the European Union, by saying she will activate Article 50 no later than 31 March 2017. Secondly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would control its own borders. And thirdly, she said that Brexit meant that Britain would no longer be subject to the judgements of the European Court of Justice.

The first reveal means that there is no chance that any of 27 remaining nations of the European Union will break ranks and begin informal talks before Article 50 is triggered.

The second reveal makes it clear that Britain will leave the single market, because none of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital or people – can be negotiated away, not least because of the fear of political contagion within the EU27, as an exit deal which allowed the United Kingdom to maintain the three other freedoms while giving up the fourth would cause increased pressure from Eurosceptics in western Europe.

And the third reveal makes it equally clear that Britain will leave the customs union as there is no way you can be part of a union if you do not wish to accept its legal arbiter.

So the government has already revealed its big priorities and has therefore jacked up the price, meaning that the arguments about not revealing the government’s hand is not as strong as it ideally would be.

The other problem, though, is this: Theresa May’s Brexit objectives cannot be met without a hard Brexit, with the only question the scale of the initial shock. As I’ve written before, there is a sense that the government might be able to “pay to play”, ie, in exchange for continuing to send money to Brussels and to member states, the United Kingdom could maintain a decent standard of access to the single market.

My impression is that the mood in Brussels now makes this very tricky. The tone coming out of Conservative party conference has left goodwill in short supply, meaning that a “pay to play” deal is unlikely. But the other problem is that, by leaving so much of its objectives in the dark, Theresa May is not really laying the groundwork for a situation where she can return to Britain with an exit deal where Britain pays large sums to the European Union for a worse deal than the one it has now. (By the way, that is very much the best case scenario for what she might come back with.) Silence may make for good negotiations in Brussels – but in terms of the negotiation that may follow swiftly after in Westminster, it has entirely the opposite effect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.