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.

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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.