Syria: the same mistakes again

This week has been another Parliamentary tragedy. Back in 2013 I described the decision not to keep a possibility alive of intervention to stop Assad attacking Syrians with chemical weapons as Parliament’s nadir. This week was close- if not worse. We are about to intervene in an as ill-thought through fashion as we did when we failed to keep intervention on the table in 2013. The Syrian people paid a heavy price then and they are likely to do so again. Yes, it is a tragedy.

At times of likely war I reach for Robert McNamara’s reflective and apologetic ‘In Retrospect’.

It is one of the most valuable books of the twentieth century: an account of the failures of Vietnam by the Defense Secretary who expanded the US presence there. I sometimes think that it would be wonderful for Tony Blair to write something similar about Iraq.

McNamara lists twelve failures that led to the US’s moral, political and military defeat in Vietnam. How many does the current Syrian ‘strategy’ fall short on? I make it possibly six out of McNamara’s eleven:

  1. We may be underestimating the power of extremist Islamism to motivate.
  2. We have profound ignorance of history, culture and politics of the area and little knowledge of Da’esh’s leaders or, indeed, Assad. This has been demonstrated repeatedly.
  3. We fail to recognise the limitations of modern, high-tech military equipment.
  4. We are not drawing the public into a full and frank discussion about what may become a large-scale military involvement.
  5. We have not recognised that we and our leaders are not omniscient.
  6. We have failed to recognise that in international affairs, as in other aspects in life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions.

This is a pretty disastrous assessment of the Prime Minister’s strategy. The big lesson from Iraq is not ‘do not intervene’ as some have wrongly concluded. It’s that those who favour intervention should be far more forensic about the strategy.

The notion that the Free Syrian Army is going to march to glorious victory is farcical (and Assad is their main concern anyhow). I took the time to read Jeremy Corbyn’s statement that was emailed to Labour Party members last night. It asked many of the right questions. It seems to me that he did a good job in attempting to hold the Prime Minister to account. He was then cack-handed in his handing of the Shadow Cabinet. For Labour to turn such an important issue into the latest round of its internal battles over the leadership is irresponsible, however. For the media to fixate on Corbyn’s leadership rather than Cameron’s strategy is an historical failure.

Labour – pro or anti intervention – needs desperately to start holding the Government to account. The Government needs Labour to hold the Government to account. At present, the strategy could lead to disaster. If the objective is the defeat of Da’esh, the strategy is half-baked to say the least. It took a troop surge to defeat Al-Qaeda in Iraq (the forerunner to Da’esh). It is likely to take the same in this circumstance. There is no honest debate about this.

Ultimately, I do believe intervention is necessary. Da’esh are a direct risk as Al’Qaeda were from their Afghanistan base. I also believe that Jeremy Corbyn is asking important questions. How on earth have we lost out humility just twelve years after Iraq? Are we such a dumb political culture?

The Government is slap-dash over such a vital decision. Labour is distracted. Let’s pray that the combination of those two factors doesn’t end in disaster. The recent past is not reassuring.

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