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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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