Should we have intervened in Syria? I don’t know – and neither do most armchair generals

Intervention worked in Sierra Leone, but not in Iraq. Non-intervention allowed massacres in Rwanda. So let’s not pretend there are easy answers to the crisis in Syria.

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In a 100 day period of 1994, Rwanda’s Hutu majority government attempted to completely wipe out its ethnic Tutsi population. US intelligence was aware the genocide was coming; but, still smarting from loss of American lives in Somalia the year before, its government chose not to intervene. In the ensuing slaughter, as many as a million Tutsi died. Bill Clinton later described it as one of his biggest foreign policy failings.

Six years later, Tony Blair’s government sent British forces to engage in Sierra Leone’s civil war. There was no British strategic or commercial interest in doing this, no plaudits to be won: Blair and his foreign secretary, Robin Cook, simply felt that Britain had a responsibility to help because it could.

And it did help: Britain’s intervention turned the tide of that decade-long war, and Blair remains a hero in Sierra Leone. The whole escapade proved that liberal intervention can be a force for good in the world.

Three years after that, the coalition marched into Iraq, and we all know what happened with that.

I’m going to stop there. I can’t immediately think of an example of a time we didn’t intervene and this turned out to be the right choice – events that end in neither military action nor humanitarian disaster don’t stick in the memory in quite the same way – but the point, I hope, is clear. Foreign policy is difficult, and the stakes are unimaginably high. Sometimes, the west’s failure to act will result in mass slaughter. Sometimes, its attempts to intervene will do much the same. Either choice can result in blood on your hands, and your name being damned forever.

All of which leads me to wonder why so many people this week seem so sure that they know how to fix Syria – indeed, have known the right course of action since 2013 when, thanks to the duplicity of Ed Miliband/incompetence of David Cameron (delete to taste), Britain failed to take it.

I cannot confidently say that they’re wrong, of course. That I don’t know is my entire point here. The case against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime was strong, and by 2013 there was already plenty of proof it was using chemical weapons against the rebels. Perhaps a show of western strength at that relatively early stage would have made a difference – forcing regime change, or at least forcing moderation.

Then again, perhaps not. Those backing military action three years ago said it wouldn’t require a long commitment – but that’s something that people tend to say about wars, and it’s the work of seconds to think of countless examples when they were wrong. Perhaps intervening would have prevented the horrors taking place this week in Aleppo. Perhaps it would have unleashed a whole different set of horrors. Perhaps Syria would have been the new Iraq, or even the new Vietnam. Perhaps, even, we would now be at war with Russia.

Who knows. I certainly don’t. Military action is a nasty, complicated business, and when you roll the dice on these things no one truly knows how they’re going to land. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to make these decisions.

I am impressed, then, by the confidence of those who have such certainty about their views. Who know that western intervention is always wrong (despite the clear examples, like Sierra Leone, when it turned out it was right); or who know that western inaction is the always greatest sin we can commit (despite the rather glaring counter-example of Iraq). I’m impressed most of all by those who have the wisdom, somehow, to know which is which. Perhaps some of them genuinely do, though I fear they are fewer in number than they might think.

I am impressed, too, by those who think the western alliance is so powerful that there is no force in the world that can prevent it from enforcing its will except its own lack of moral fibre – that bad things only happen in the world because the west somehow allows it. I commend them for having far greater confidence in the strength and wisdom of our leaders than I do.

I don’t want to sound too panglossian about this. Maybe that 2013 vote was an inglorious turning point. Events in Aleppo must rank among the greatest horrors of my lifetime, and there are no doubt myriad ways in which we could have done, and should now do, more. Chief among them to my mind is to change our entire national narrative on refugees. That is hard to do, as Angela Merkel’s recent experiences have proved, but it is to David Cameron’s eternal shame that he didn’t even try.

I would, however, pose a question to those armchair generals who think they know how we could have prevented this mess. The greatest military minds have shown, time and again, that they don’t know how to prevent atrocities or stop wars from spiralling out of control. So what is it that makes you so clever?

Jonn Elledge is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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