Leader: Syria: the case not proven

There is nothing dishonourable in choosing between a bad outcome and a worse one. The risk remains that by intervening we will both widen and intensify the conflict.

British military adventurism in the Middle East is invariably disastrous. Yet, following the recall of parliament on 29 August, here we are again, on the verge of another western military intervention in the Levant, a region with a long history of religious and sectarian conflict.
 
The alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people by the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime was indeed a crime against humanity. No one who has seen photographs, or YouTube footage, of the suffering caused by the attacks – the hollow-eyed children gasping for breath, the terrified screams of mothers, the panic, the mayhem – can be in any doubt that something evil happened in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August. Assad has everything to lose and the rebels fighting him have nothing to lose: the combination is deadly, the suffering perpetual.
 
Intervention has mainly been justified as a necessary response to the Ghouta atrocity. The refrain from the American and British governments is that we cannot allow states to use chemical weapons with impunity. But, even if we assume the regime was responsible for the attack, there is no reason to believe that missile strikes would dissuade Assad from further massacres. Should his chemical weapons capacity be disabled, the Syrian despot will merely resort to other means by which to murder his opponents.
 
For this reason, as with Libya, regime change may become the de facto objective of the coalition against Assad. It is far from clear that the consequences would be benign, however. The rebels – a mixed group of genuine democrats, deserters from the Syrian army, Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fanatics such as Jabhat al-Nusra – are not a unified and coherent force. They are factionalised, united only in their hatred of Assad and his fellow Alawites, who are a heterodox Shia sect. If the regime is toppled, secular liberal democrats will not replace it – as the west once hoped. The Syrian civil war is both a local and an intra-Islamic conflict, and its aftershocks will reverberate long into the future.
 
The Israelis and Turks look on anxiously, wondering if and when they will be drawn directly into the conflict. The Kurds are newly emboldened that before too long they will have their own nation state, carved out of parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. What we are witnessing is the unravelling of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and, surely also before too long, the inevitable break-up of the artificial nation states created by Britain and France: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
 
Barack Obama’s non-interventionist policy of drawing up a “red line” on chemical weapons, beyond which Assad was forbidden to go, while hoping for the best, has failed. The president is no dove: as our correspondent John Bew – author of a book on Lord Castlereagh and a war studies and foreign policy expert – writes on page 20, he is a realist. But he wanted to avoid being sucked into the Syrian civil war at the very moment US troops are preparing to leave Afghanistan.
 
Now, after equivocating for so long, President Obama is acting in haste, encouraged by the fading post-colonial powers Britain and France. Instead of preparing for military strikes against Syrian “strategic targets”, the US, the UK and France should do anything possible to keep diplomatic lines open to the Russians. Unilateral military action will close off that avenue. Russia, given its problems with Muslim minorities in the Caucasus, is desperate not to allow Syria to fall into the hands of Islamists. It therefore has every reason to support a peace conference and to force Assad to attend. Assad has rejected this option before but may yet back down under Iranian and Russian pressure. It is clear that he is not going to achieve a quick victory and that the civil war has, in effect, reached a stalemate. At best for him, Syria will be partitioned but he will retain power, however diminished.
 
There is nothing dishonourable in choosing between a bad outcome and a worse one. The risk remains that by intervening we will both widen and intensify the conflict, and increase rather than reduce the threat to civilian life. Syria and its Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah, might well seek to retaliate with strikes against Israel and Turkey as well as on western forces, creating conditions for the regional conflagration that policymakers have long regarded as the nightmare scenario.
 
The moral case for action against Assad is indisputable. But it is not enough for leaders to consider what is ethical; they must also consider what is prudent and wise. As the baleful consequences of the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have demonstrated, too often high-minded liberals who go to war intent on preserving civilian life achieve the reverse.
 
Peace, as such, in Syria is unrealistic but a ceasefire, with all sides keeping what they hold, may be just about achievable. On the principle that war is justified only when all other options are exhausted, this should at least be tried. 
Syrian army soldiers are seen deployed in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus on August 24, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.