In the deep recesses of Britain’s security services, a debate is taking place on exactly how many British Muslims are fighting in Syria (low hundreds – they say), whether they’ll end up being more radicalised while out there (yes – they say), and whether they pose a threat to Britons if they get back. We know the answer to the last question, given how fast Theresa May is revoking citizenship of dual-nationals already there. But the debate we actually need is on what form of military intervention in Syria would stop the civil war escalating beyond anyone’s control.
If Iraq was a powerful argument against intervention, Syria will be a symbol of the danger of sitting on our hands. We will look back and regret not intervening earlier.
There are three powerful reasons for this. First, the Syrian rebel forces are becoming dominated by al-Qaeda affiliated groups who aren’t interested in working with local rebels, but to establish a permanent base in Syria away from the drones of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Second, as these groups become prominent, the fallout is being felt in surrounding countries like Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and even Pakistan (all bombings over the last 48 hours). People are dying with such regularity that we have long given up trying to process the carnage.
Thirdly, there is no viable ‘diplomatic solution’ that some keep hoping will present itself by magic. Assad does not want to leave, and Russia, Iran and Hezbollah will back him to the hilt. The now weakened Syrian rebels (who are fighting against Al-Qaeda and Assad) are unlikely to want to give up hope – and would face brutal purges if they did. And even if they did agree to melt away, the Al-Qaeda groups won’t. But hardly anyone wants to admit to this deadly stalemate or the lack of a ‘diplomatic solution’, because the alternative is military action.
Let me briefly expand on those points. As Germany’s Spiegel International reported in late December, the balance of power among rebels has shifted from relatively moderate local fighters to increasingly brutal foreign fighters who affiliate themselves with Al-Qaeda. The latest and most brutal iteration, ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), wants a caliphate in both countries before other Middle Eastern countries are also absorbed. Their brutality against the Free Syrian Army and other rebels, already weakened by a lack of western support, has made them the most feared fighting force in many parts of the country.
In effect, Assad’s initial claims that the opposition were al-Qaeda (conveniently swallowed by some western journalists against intervention), has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. ISIS is said to be responsible for as many as 68 car bombings a month in Iraq. Lebanon is also on its way to becoming a war-zone. A group calling itself ‘Jabhat al-Nusra’, which grew out of Syria, said yesterday it carried out the latest car-bombing in retaliation for Hezbollah’s support for Assad. It was the second attack in less than a month in that Shia-heavy part of town.
In Pakistan, a bomb attack on a bus carrying pilgrims in South-West Pakistan killed 22 people yesterday. They were all Shia Muslims.
But this is more than the old Sunni-Shia conflict flaring up again. What Al-Qaeda needs more than anything else is a geographical base to recruit and train volunteers without the threat of drones or a security agency. Geographically and theologically (it’s where the caliphate is meant to arise from), Syria is perfect. They are not going away anytime soon.
And I say all this without any mention of millions of displaced people who are having to live in other countries or in refugee camps. If the conflict escalates, as it is already, then millions more across the Middle East will affected. Photos released just yesterday illustrate widespread Nazi-style torture and the extent to which Assad is willing to go.
If, not when
Intervention in Syria is not a matter of ‘If’, but a matter of ‘When’. Do we wait until the situation spirals further out of control, and Al-Qaeda re-establish a powerful base, or go for damage limitation earlier?
I supported Ed Miliband’s vote against immediate intervention in Syria on the basis that the case for war (backed up by evidence) had to be made properly to the public. And it had to be clear about its aim (the Obama administration weren’t) of going for regime-change, not just limited strikes over chemical weapons. But the Labour Party sadly followed the Tories in taking military action off the table. That is not a sustainable position.
If we wait for a few more years, the cost of human intervention is likely to be much, much higher.