One day we will look back and regret not intervening in Syria earlier

22nd January, 2014 8:37 am

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.

Child in Syria bombing

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.

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  • Danny

    “whether they’ll end up being more radicalised while out there (yes – they say)”

    Intervention will not radicalise anyone though will it.

  • JoeDM

    So on who’s side to we intervene?

    The brutal dictator or the Al-Qaeda extremists? Or does the UN send in a peace keeping force that fights both?

    Remember that almost all civil wars end in one of two ways: either a geographical split of the state; or an overwhelming bloody victory for one side.

    Civil wars are always very nasty. I remember from my school days the terrible statistic that in our own civil war in the 1640s the population of these islands fell by nearly 25%, not through the big set piece battles but though local attrocities. Not sure how accurate that was but it brought home to me just what civil wars are like.

    • treborc1

      We would never go in what we would do is practice with drones , do they have the same capabilities to hide from missiles. The no fly zone that we were talking about would be a dangerous game to play in Syria because the Russians will have given Assad all of the latest technologies in missles, we could watch our billion quid planes hit the ground in flames.

      As for backing Blair I’d not back that little medal of Honor winner on anything.

    • Steve Stubbs

      For the sheer scale of civil war killing, see the American Civil War.

    • Lee Griffin

      It’s time we stopped seeing intervention as stepping in for one side or the other. In a period of global responsibility it shouldn’t be the place of any country or groups of countries to “level the playing field” (ala Libya) or to topple a regime (See Iraq). No-one likes the term “global police force” but yet that is where intervention needs to reside. Stop the killing, stop the violence, on all sides, and don’t accept the job as done until diplomatic and political agreements are found.

      Nationalists dislike the concept, certain kinds of liberals dislike the concept, but we wouldn’t ignore a gang war in one of our cities, so why do we choose to ignore (other than through aid and secretive political moves) a gang war in one of the world’s countries?

      Civil wars get nasty because they’re allowed to, as with any conflict. Sunny in this sense is right… intervention has to happen before it gets too out of hand. Of course that point has now long gone.

      • bsnews

        Lee are you really willing to forget about the rule of law? You seem to be happy to use it as an unmentioned rationale in your gang war scenario and yet happy to flout it when it comes to international relations. I find this more than disturbing. Do you work as PR agent for Hague and Co?

        • Lee Griffin

          I am not forgetting about it, the issue of international law in a modern, and hopefully more ethical, global community…or the lack thereof… is at the very heart of my point.

          • bsnews

            But the international community has rejected the doctrine of humanitarian intervention so on what basis should we intervene?

            “R2P creates no exception to the general rules of conventional and customary international law governing the threat and use of force. From the perspective of international law, the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine is nothing more than imperialist propaganda for wars of aggression in the name of human rights. Most recently , on September 24, 2012 the United Nations General Assembly convened their “High Level Meeting on the Rule of Law at the National and International Levels.”

            The General Assembly’s Declaration on this subject did not utter even one word in support of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine or any variant thereof. A deafening silence!” ~ Francis Boyle

          • Lee Griffin

            I’m not sure I get the point of your quote, but to answer your question. I think it’s unhelpful to refer to humanitarian intervention as a “doctrine”. Humanitarian intervention, or the act of people outside of a conflict however big or small, is just human nature. At least it is for some humans.

            If the international community has rejected it, then it is because the “international” community is a series of nations that all have their own interests in national autonomy free from the rule of law that is held over them globally. Even things as fundamental as human rights are not so much laws as guidelines as countries all around the world flex their meaning to allow for the state to hold maximum power over it’s citizens.

            But why should we intervene? Because people are dying, and standing back sends the message that we think that it is ok for groups of people to settle their differences with violence. The issue of when to intervene, or how, is where there is complexity, complexity that grows with more and more conflict…but with proper international law it would not be that complex. At the start of aggression the world would have a duty to step in, to mediate, and to promote another way. It’s a path we just don’t have right now, as countries hide behind the need to agree on new laws (resolutions) only *after* the conflict has started getting bad, with nations that have their own vested interests in what the law in this particular circumstance should be (and so Veto).

          • bsnews

            The international community has rejected R2P / humanitarian intervention because it flies in the face of the UN charter.

            People are dying precisely because we are intervening. Without the support, financial assistance and diplomatic cover, this would have been over long ago.

            Despite what politicians may tell us, the UK has been
            arming and training rebels (mostly foreign mercenaries and jihadists) for at least 2 years. In late 2011 the Turkish government began allowing commandos from French intelligence and the British MI6 to setup military bases in Hatay in southern Turkey. British MI6 operatives and UKSF (SAS/SBS) personnel have reportedly been training the rebels in urban warfare as well as supplying them with arms and equipment.

            Its worth remembering Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech; it applies equally to UK foreign policy:

            Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America’s favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as ‘low intensity conflict’. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued – or beaten to death – the same thing – and your own friends, the military and the great
            corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed.

            If we can learn anything from the disaster that is Libya we should now realize that we only intervene when it supports western geo-political interests. After all, we didn’t intervene in Bahrain when Saudi forces were murdering peaceful protestors.

            In Libya, the no-fly-zone turned into a legal fig-leaf used to justify the bombing of civilian infrastructure – a war crime. There was no evidence of pro Gadaffi forces committing genocide. The aggression began only when NATO began bombing the country, killing an estimated 50,000 Libyans.

            Similarly, there is no reliable evidence of Assad’s forces
            using chemical weapons in Syria – this was the rationale peddled last year to justify a NATO military strike.

            We must step back and try to ascertain the truth and reach a peaceful settlement. Military intervention can only ever be justified if the Syrian government requests it.

          • Lee Griffin

            Yes, we only intervene now when there is an agenda, that is BECAUSE of the international community rejection of R2P/humanitarian intervention. If it was a duty to intervene earlier in conflicts, then actions would not fall into the realm of agendas and politics.

            You’re defending the current way of international law even though it is the only reasons that ill fated interventionism is able to take place.

          • bsnews

            “we only intervene now when there is an agenda, that is
            BECAUSE of the international community rejection of R2P/humanitarian intervention”

            This can’t be true – the international community only began rejecting humanitarian intervention following western politically motivated intervention.

            We have always and only intervened when there is an agenda. I’m thinking specifically of the UK’s
            intervention in Albania after WW2. The International Court of Justice unanimously rejected the UK government’s
            arguments which were based on intervention, protection and self-help.

            It would be totally wrong of us to interpret the following
            General Assembly resolution to provide a basis for military intervention: No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. Consequently, armed intervention and all other forms of interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or against its political, economic and cultural elements are in violation of international law.

            It’s pretty clear to most people – we should withdraw all UK forces from the region and press our allies and especially those in the GCC to do likewise. Only then will a peaceful solution to this crisis be possible.

            I am defending international law – what else do we have? The law of the jungle?? Might is right??

            International law prohibits military intervention – I can’t accept your premise that its the only reason intervention takes place – this seems to make no sense to me.

  • markmyword49

    Odd isn’t it that this evidence appears in the public domain just when the UN had invited Iran to the conference table?

    This is a civil war. What did we liberals in the West expect? Haven’t we seen atrocities happen time after time when civil wars break out regardless of the geographical location. Haven’t we seen regimes we backed torture their population and kill thousands without a murmur of objection from our political masters? It’s time we kept out of this type of conflict. We only make things worse for the innocents.

  • Mr Arthur Cook

    It’s all quite simple.
    We use our vast military might and our aircraft carriers to create a no fly zone.
    We then bomb the bad people and give arms to the good people.
    Bish bash bosh – “our lads go in” – sort it all out because that’s our job – great headlines in the Sun and a new portrait of William Hague painted to look like the Duke of Wellington.
    Worked in Libya!

    • Steve Stubbs

      Would that be the non-existent aircraft carriers without planes? 🙂

      Please don’t tell the Argentines we cannot now defend or recapture the Falklands and they have about 10 years to get their act together.

      • Mr Arthur Cook

        We now have a millitary agreement with France we can use their aircraft carrier.
        Apparently we get to use it every second Wednesday.

        • Hugh

          And for three hours a day around lunchtime.

          • Mr Arthur Cook

            Zut alors!!! We cannot do zee berming at lernch time?
            Mais non!

  • Doug Smith

    Afghanistan is a mess. Iraq is a mess. Libya is a mess.

    And now Sunny wants to contribute to the mess in Syria.

    Never before have capability and utility been more confused. Never before has the production of instability been so enthusiastically promoted by our political elite.

    • Lee Griffin

      Because it’s all so stable right now?

      • Doug Smith

        An enthusiasm for starting and contributing to wars looks even more reckless when it isn’t balanced by the ability to end them.

        Our efforts would be best deployed finding a resolution to
        the conflicts that have been triggered by previous interventions.

        • BlueGrey

          That’s a very good point Doug. I’ve heard it said that military intervention should only be considered if you can answer Yes to the following questions.I think Syria fails to get a clear Yes on even one of these.
          1. Is there a clear baddie – it’s a difficult choice between Assad and Al Qaeda
          2. Can we definitely militarily “win” – I doubt it very much, especially if Russia and Iran respond with additional support for Assad
          3. Are we confident that a sustainable solution can be brought about by our intervention – clearly not, if Iraq and Afghanistan are anything to go by.

    • Sunil

      I don’t think he like you has a favourable view of western intervention in the Middle East, however it seems he wants intervention for the sake of the thousands that are dying everyday. We refuse to intervene based on the fear that we will make a mess of it so we sit here carry on with our lives and let syrians suffocate in a crippling civil war – what on earth have we become? What if we don’t make a mess of it? What if we can rid Syria of Assad and help Syria become a stable country, minimizing the influence of the ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other radical elements? Realistically you would say that there is not a chance that will happen but that is not an excuse to not intervene when our fellow human beings are being mercilessly slaughtered. I was in Aleppo during the civil war and the terrors i faced within a week left me shaken at the thought of the fact that my near-death experiences were less than microscopic compared to what they have been through. If only all you nay-sayers ever experienced warfare, your opinions will be less disgusting. All i can say is i hope one day we don’t have to face a similar predicament ourselves because nobody wants to hear our fellow human beings telling us we can’t save you because a) it’s not our problem b) we’ll make it worse. History will label us as cowards.

    • James Bloodworth

      “Afghanistan is a mess.” – Actually, life expectancy in Afghanistan is now 20 years higher (62) compared to what it was in 2001 before Western intervention (42).

      • Ostercy

        Unless you get shot.

  • Jack Dees

    You make some very good points Sunny but are silent on the form of intervention. Assad is a butcher and needs to go, but never will I fear, especially when an ICC charge is now looming. ISIS and other Al Qaeda affiliates are equally barbarous.
    Where do we intervene? Even modest military intervention like supporting medicine and food convoys would make western troops targets for suicide bombings and the like.
    I think it is up to the neighbouring countries and Russia, who seem to hold all the cards to solve this one. No state, no matter how ‘rogue’ we think they are can afford an Al Qaeda dominated nation.

  • BusyBeeBuzz

    Please help the people of Syria. Go to this link and sign this Avaaz petition:

  • Steve Stubbs

    Sunny says “But this is more than the old Sunni-Shia conflict flaring up again”

    No it’s not. That’s precisely what it is And that’s why we must keep out of it.

    How many times must that be said?


  • ColinAdkins

    The West reap what it sows by overplaying its hand in Libya by turning a humanitarian mandate into one of regime change. There is a sectarian fight going on across the region and the West is siding with some very unpleasant regimes because they are more in line with their geo-political objectives in the region. The West cynically seeks to take a moral high ground with Russia and China but it is in no position to do so when it defends these regimes like Qatar or turns a blind eye to the Saudi intervention in Bahrain to support a minority regime. By practising Hobbesian international politics why is there surprise that life becomes nasty, brutish and short? The rules need to change and thety need to be consistently applied to everyone.

  • bsnews

    I can’t help but reminisce of those quant notions of international law and UN resolutions – remember UNGA Resolution 2625 Sunny? It states:

    No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or
    indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any
    other State. Consequently, armed intervention and all other forms of
    interference or attempted threats against the personality of the State or
    against its political, economic and cultural elements are in violation of
    international law.

    And to propagate the lie, like an unpaid stenographer for William Hague is unforgivable. ‘WE’ ARE INVERVENING! Late in 2011 Turkey allowed commandos from French intelligence and the British MI6 to setup military bases in Hatay in southern Turkey to train the Free Syrian Army in urban guerilla warfare. The Syrian Arab Army captured German Special Forces last year within Syria – are we to believe they were on exercise and simply got lost?

    Professor of International Law Francis Boyle wrote recently that ‘three seminal U.N. General Assembly Resolutions have distinct bearing on the so-called doctrines of R2P/ humanitarian intervention: the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention in the Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty (1965); the Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in Accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (1970); and the Definition of Aggression (1974). Considered together, these three resolutions stand for the general proposition that, in the emphatic opinion of the member states of the U.N. General Assembly, non-consensual military intervention by one state into the territorial domain of another state is absolutely prohibited for any reason whatsoever.’

  • LeeMatthews

    There are many other countries in the world who have not been given the chances to poke their noses into other peoples business like we have. I think it’s Mongolia and North Korea’s turn.

  • Al
  • 2003james

    If you are going to intervene, I’d suggest intervening against the drone death squads operated by the CIA and NATO in various parts of the world that are radicalising youth and creating problems that may not be sorted out for generations.

    ‘Interventions’ should they be necessary should only be done by honest brokers, not neo-colonial powers up to their necks in war crimes.

    • Carter

      As you can see folks certain idealogues will cast any anti-Assad actions as pro-al-qaeda but also call for an intervention to support the taliban and see no contradiction at all. Apparently the only honest brokers are the taliban to Jimmy.

      • 2003james

        It’s ‘ideologues’.

        And the logic of your reply is faulty as well.

  • David Ross Mann

    Why would anyone think it is possible to end war? Peace can only be a reality when all nations are ruled by governments that are elected by the people and these governments respect freedom of association and freedom of speech.

    Until then, who’s side are you on: the jihadi’s, the stalinists or the democrats? That is the only choice we have. Non-intervention is to abandon the democrats, to favor either theocracy or genocide and to allow war to continue endlessly.

  • Paul J

    “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.”

    No, not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a actual truth.

    Probably the biggest group among the rebels is Ahrah ash Sham, which began organising itself before the protests even started. One of their most senior leaders has very recently admitted close ties to al qeada….

    This idiotic narrative that Assad is the one who’s turned this into a sectarian war, rather than the rebels, is self-serving nonsense. Even at the very begging the protesters used to chant “Christians to Beirut, Allawites to the grave”.

    Labour needs to be very wary of backing the govt over Syria. Cameron knows full well how unpopular his policy is, and would love to rope labour in with him.

  • Mike Barnes

    I’m still not even sure which side we’re supposed to be on. The Prime Minister gassing his own people, or the Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda routinely targetting Christians?

  • Bert3000

    This is just amazing. Will someone explain to the writer that there is absolutely nowhere in the world that needs Britain to go and kill a few people. Labour kept starting wars and every one was a nightmare. Some people still haven’t got the message. Attacking other people’s countries is wrong.

  • Ostercy

    So do I understand correctly that the best way to have prevented the fall of Iraq to the Kurds was to help Assad kill the Islamists in Syria?

  • Guest

    So do I understand correctly that the best way to have prevented the fall of Iraq to the Kurds was to help Assad kill the Islamists in Syria?

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