Syria and the Interventionist’s Dilemma

A checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus. Photograph:Alex Rossi

“Worse than a slaughterhouse” were the words the outgoing UN Chief, Ban Ki Moon, used to describe the killing in eastern Aleppo. And it is easy to see why he used such a graphic analogy.

The pictures streaming out of the city have been horrific. Little boys bloodied and caked in dust; their eyes dead with trauma. Babies dug out from the rubble. Their limp bodies held aloft accusingly by rescue workers.

But, none of these appalling attacks on civilians have changed the calculations in the West — intervention, it seems for the moment at least, is not the answer.

History tells us there are generally four guiding principles by which leaders are moved to act.

  1. Public pressure means they have the democratic mandate needed to do something. This something usually involves deploying military force. Although people in the West are appalled by what is happening there is not a groundswell of support for sending troops or military assets into Syria.
  2. The leader(s) own political convictions. In the current zeitgeist, against the backdrop of Afghanistan, Iraq and to a lesser degree Libya, intervention has lost much of its allure.
  3. And this leads onto point number three. ‘Will an intervention make a difference and will it ease the suffering of Syrian civilians?’ This is debatable. But broadly the argument can be summed up as ‘more bombs to stop the bombs against more bombs are just going to make things worse’. We could describe this as oil on the fire vs water on the fire.
  4. It is in the country’s strategic interest to act — it might be a case of protecting an ally, or military foothold in a region, or even denying that advantage to another power. Syria does not fall into this category as it has been in Russia’s sphere of influence since the Cold War.

It is easy when faced with such violence to see leaders as pusillanimous but it is hard to think that western statesmen of the past, when taking into consideration the above, would have acted much differently. The complexity of the battlefield in Syria and the presence of Russia in the fight make intervention a risky option. The obvious danger is that the conflict turns into a big power confrontation, which clearly carries the possibility of escalation well beyond Syria’s borders.

A Syrian government forces fighter in a suburb of Damascus. Photograph:Alex Rossi

It is also hard to identify what the West’s objectives are in Syria. As a consequence of that, US and European policy is confused at best. Is the objective simply to stop the killing and save lives? That seems to be one of the aims but evidentially it is not the core objective. If it were the West would work with Russia (and by default Assad) and target the extremist groups — some of whom now make up the opposition.

They would be targeted not because they are doing the most killing, they are not Assad is, but because it would be the quickest way to bring a close to the fighting. President Assad would then be able to exert control over the country again and the bombing would stop. In this scenario stability would return (so too would torture and the police state but neither of those things seemed to give the West sleepless nights prior to the so called ‘Arab Spring’). From a purely utilitarian perspective (to save the most lives) this may well be the best course of action but there is also much that is morally unpalatable about it, which is one of the reasons, as the latest ceasefire showed, it was doomed to fail.

So, what then is the West’s objective? It appears that it not only wants to end the killing but it is also seeking to prevent President Assad from remaining in power. But this is where the West is unrealistic. It is not prepared to go to the lengths Russia is to achieve its ends.

Russia is willing — demonstrably — to send men and military assets into Syria to keep President Assad in power. It does not make it right but it does make it real. It is doing so because Syria is an old Cold War ally, it wants a naval base in the Mediterranean and there’s a bit of old fashioned revanchism thrown into the mix — Putin, obsessed with history, wants to reestablish Russia as a great power after the loss of the Soviet Union.

With this in mind it is more than a little ridiculous then when you hear Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnston, call for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London as a response. Moscow will no doubt be rethinking its Syria policy as a result, if this is what western intervention means.

This however does not excuse the West from giving up, doing nothing or continuing to mouth off from the sidelines; but to do something positive it first needs to form a coherent policy.

It really is simply a matter of going back to first principles — define the ‘red lines’ and define what your goals are and what you will actually do to enforce them.

It is impossible to argue against Moscow — or indeed anyone — if you don’t know what you want, or are not clear in your own mind what your position is.

If the West fails to do this it can hardly expect to look anything other than weak, or have any bearing on the outcome of the Syrian civil war.