Syria: Should we intervene?

Child in Syria bombing

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.

Child in Syria bombing

Sunny Hundal:

Dear Marcus,

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.

Marcus Roberts:

Dear Sunny,

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?

Sunny Hundal:

Dear Marcus,

You are right that we spent years fiddling around while Syria was burning, but the rise of ISIS and Putin’s overt support for Assad has made this conflict far more intractable than when I proposed intervention.

At least you admit that British action in Syria can, at best, only contain Assad or ISIS. Even that is likely to be of marginal impact. Except this is not the Cameron plan (which claims to focus on ousting Assad) nor the reason many Labour MPs say they support action. For example, MP Jo Cox says she wants “no bombing zones“, with support from American and French naval assets. But the NYT says Russia’s involvement has significantly escalated a “proxy war” between the US and Russia, and weapons are flowing in from all sides. So how realistic is that outcome, and what happens if Russia ignores it? Do we commit to fighting their troops?

I don’t want to see the west cowed by Russia either, but neither should we pretend we can enforce anything without going all in. And yet, our politicians and media claim we can wrangle nice humanitarian outcomes out of Syria without much legwork. That is a fantasy. The problem is that Obama is unwilling to commit heavily in Syria (or he would have done it a while ago) – which means the impact we can have will also be very limited.

By raising the prospect of ‘no bombing zones’ or ‘no fly zones’ or even humanitarian corridors, we are unfairly raising expectations among Syrians that meaningful action is coming their way. And we run the risk of involving ourselves and risking blowback without much to show for it.

As you know, I believe Britain should intervene to protect lives when we can. But our history of botched interventions (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya… just for a start) should at least force a smarter discussion on what we want to achieve, and how. Those questions have not even vaguely been answered yet.

Having the right intentions and some willingness is not enough for Syria. The only way to change the dynamics there would require massive deployment by NATO. And since that isn’t forthcoming, we would be better off spending money helping refugees than pretending we can save Syria.

Marcus Roberts:

Dear Sunny,

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.

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