Over the coming months, the Government is expected to put forward proposals for a military intervention in Syria to a vote in the House of Commons. While Jeremy Corbyn is likely to oppose any plans, it is not clear whether that will be the official Labour Party line. Here, journalist Sunny Hundal and former deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society Marcus Roberts debate the issue.
We all want what is best for the people of Syria, and we both agree that Britain needs to take a more proactive role to end the Syrian crisis.
But doing something is not the same as doing what is right, for Syrians. We need intelligent and considered action, not a headlong rush into action that could inflame the problem. I called for military intervention in January 2014, but two major developments have complicated the situation: the establishment of the Islamic State and Putin’s more recent intervention.
I’m not going to question the intention of Labourites who want intervention in Syria – I’m questioning the effectiveness of what is being proposed. Just saying ‘we must do something to help’ is not an argument: it is a plea that could lead to horrible consequences if not thought through properly.
Cameron says he wants to oust Assad. It is a laudable goal but given Russia is investing significant military resources to protect him – how would that be achieved?
Secondly, he wants permission for air-strikes against ISIS on Syrian soil. But a year of American strikes have barely dented ISIS capabilities there (except when they’re helping Kurd troops on the ground). How would British air-strikes, which will be even more limited, have any impact? And what if they end up colliding with the Russian military, or hit civilians? Are we prepared for the blowback from that?
We both know Cameron’s proposal is not large-scale enough to spell the end for Assad or ISIS. It is a merely ploy designed to hand him a political victory at home, so he can pretend he is tackling ISIS. The only outcome will be a more divided and fractious Labour Party.
You’re right: “we need intelligent and considered action, not a headlong rush into action”. But after nearly five years of catastrophe in Syria I don’t think we need worry about a “rush” to action. Rather the West’s extremely slow response to the disaster has been a factor in seeing the disaster worsen.
I also think your arguments of January 2014 were sound then and are still sound now. What’s more, the establishment of Islamic State and Putin’s intervention both exacerbate the very problems you correctly highlighted last year.
And you’re right that Britain and our allies need to think through the consequences of action. In this, clarity of objective is essential as is a clear understanding as to what means we are prepared to employ for our objectives.
Where we differ is that I believe we should intervene militarily to limit ISIS’s growth and provide air support for anti-Assad rebels and Kurdish forces. By so doing I think we can reduce rather than increase the scale of civilian Syrian deaths as otherwise ISIS and Assad will, unchecked, cause far greater civilian death.
Simply put, we should intervene in Syria to achieve the limited political objective of constraining both ISIS and Assad in terms of their freedom to engage in acts of terror against Syrians. This should be achieved through the military objective of assisting anti-ISIS and anti-Assad forces on the ground and assisting in the continuing American effort to degrade ISIS through airpower. I accept that whilst the removal of Assad is desirable it is not a practical military objective at this time.
In this, I propose the more limited political objective of containment (not Assad or even IS regime change) which is more easily matched by the more limited military means of air power and arms but not boots on the ground.
On the question of Russia, I share concerns that further Western involvement risks increased Russian/Western tensions. But strategically, the history of dealing with Putin is the history of the dead end of appeasement. Putin is only ever emboldened by Western weakness – see the events in Ukraine last summer. Unless we want to see Russia intervening in support of more atrocious regimes the world over we should not be cowed by their involvement in Syria.
Finally, I must disagree with you that the Prime Minister is proposing this action for any domestic political reasons. The idea that the internal politics of the Labour Party weigh at all in the national and international security decision making of the UK is not plausible, to put it politely. What’s more, when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism and state-orchestrated mass murder there are more important things than the comity of our Labour Party – surely we agree on that?
You’re right that we must balance reasonable expectations in terms of what is militarily and politically possible. Where we differ is that I think there is still more that the West can do, even though I admit that is still less than the Syrian people deserve.
By adopting a policy of containment towards Assad and ISIS alike and backing that up with air strikes and, if practicable, limited no-fly zones, Britain and our allies can protect some civilians, help sustain anti-Assad and anti-ISIS forces on the ground and send a clear signal to Putin that Western appeasement towards Russia is at an end.
Morally, this is the right thing to do because it will help save the lives of civilians at risk from ISIS and Assad alike. Strategically, this is the right thing to do because it establishes limited political objectives matched to limited military means.
Russia’s presence further complicates the situation and limits our options – again necessitating a limiting of our goals in the region and the adoption of a containment strategy. As former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen has argued, the full and proper functioning of the international community’s Contact Group for Syria is an urgent need for the proper co-ordination of allied and Russian action in Syria.
What I advocate is far from a perfect solution but Syria in 2015 is the land of bad options for policy makers. Containment means working with the reality on the ground: limited scope for regime change, complicated rules of engagement and less than palatable deal-making with everyone from the Kurds to Iran to Saudi Arabia. But at least by practicing containment some lives can be saved, further ISIS growth can be prevented, Assad can be some what curtailed in the murder of his own people and Russia will know that it can no longer act with impunity.