The US now claims the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government crosses its “red line”, setting in train the “enormous consequences” Obama threatened last year. Yet it is essential we see evidence before we leap to conclusions – Iraq casts a long shadow. We also need greater clarity on what promises of “military support” actually mean. The west would be committing an act of historic folly if it decided to arm the rebels or provide other lethal equipment.
We do not have to follow the American lead. Sometimes good friends tell each other when they are going wrong. In answer to questions from myself and others, the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be a full debate and vote in the House of Commons before we increase our aid to the Syrian rebels. MPs will certainly hold him to this promise.
Providing lethal support to the rebels, or directly intervening in this civil war, would be foolhardy in the extreme. We must guard against mission creep. The more we edge closer to direct involvement, the more we become responsible for events on the ground. And the more we would find it difficult to extricate ourselves.
How would we track and trace the additional weaponry to ensure it does not fall into the hands of extremists on the rebel side? We know that some factions, such as the al-Nusra Front, are forging links with terrorists and jihadists such as al-Qaeda. Some of the rebel groups have also committed atrocities. Short of placing troops on the ground, it would be very difficult to ensure that any weapons only reach moderate elements. Meanwhile, it beggars belief that some maintain that adding weapons to a civil war will not inflate or add to the suffering. Pouring more weapons into this conflict can only increase the violence and casualties. This is one reason why charities such as Oxfam, which have people on the ground, have publicly argued in recent weeks that the west should not arm the rebels.
We should also be aware of the possible consequences of any such policy beyond Syria’s borders. The debate so far has been couched in terms of the conflict within the country. But Syria represents a melting-pot for a proxy war that is being fought out either directly or indirectly at various levels: whether it is Sunni versus Shia, the west versus China or Russia, or Iran versus Saudi Arabia. Pouring more arms into Syria would not only escalate the violence within the country, it could also extend the conflict beyond Syria’s borders. This would be a mistake of historic proportions. Our track record of arming groups or individuals in the region is not good. We armed the Mujahideen in the 1980s and backed Saddam Hussein when he attacked Iran – only to subsequently find some of these weapons being used against us.
The west should instead redouble its other efforts. There is a huge humanitarian crisis, both in Syria and beyond its borders. Refugee camps in both Jordan and the Lebanon are desperately short of basic amenities. And yet, the west stands by and does very little. Meanwhile, our diplomatic efforts have been half-hearted. The Russians are the elephant in the room and they are organising a conference in Geneva. Yet the west plans to exclude Iran from the talks. This is madness. The old adage that you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends, is apposite. The situation inside Syria is desperate and we should not pass up any opportunity to resolve it, even if it requires swallowing a bitter pill.
We need to learn the lessons of history. Promoting democracy through force of arms is often counter-productive. Democracy is taking root across North Africa and the Middle East, which has received little by means of western aid or assistance. Conversely, it is struggling in Iraq or Afghanistan, despite the high cost to the west in blood and treasure.
Interventions in the past have tended to have an ’embedding’ effect. If anything, they have had the unintended consequence of strengthening existing regimes. It is notable, for instance, that communism has survived longest in those countries that have engaged militarily with the west: Korea, China, Vietnam and Cuba. Persuasion through diplomacy and ‘soft power’ has often been far more effective.
Our record of intervention in the Middle East, in particular, has not been good. I fear with Syria it will be no different. Let us hope we do not repeat the errors of the past.
John Baron is Conservative MP for Basildon and Billericay and a member of the foreign affairs select committee