(This article was also published in The Conversation.)
Yesterday’s debate and vote in the British House of Commons on Syria has demonstrated how little common ground there is between supporters and opponents of military action against the Assad regime in response to the use of chemical weapons last week.
The rejection, by a narrow margin of 285:272, of possible military action against Syria arguably represents a triumph for sceptics of intervention. Yet, this could well turn out to be a hollow victory if the debate on what to do about the crisis in Syria and beyond does not move on quickly.
The rhetoric of punishment and deterrence that has become the main rationale for many who support limited military action against the Syrian government is unlikely to go away, especially not in the United States, and may even intensify in the light of yesterday’s defeat of the government motion meant to pave the way towards intervention.
The British government’s justification for military action and the evidence provided go hand-in-hand with the intention to keep any military strikes clearly limited and use them to demonstrate Western resolve and capability to punish the regime more severely should there be future use of chemical weapons.
The belief, however, that military action in such limited form would not affect the ongoing civil war in the country is misplaced. There simply is no guarantee that strikes against the Assad regime would not make things worse than they already are and draw the West ever more deeply into a dangerous regional war. The question as to whether this is a risk worth taking was answered by British parliamentarians yesterday, but its underlying problems have not been resolved.
One of the few enduring lessons of international intervention – military or otherwise – is the need to get the timing right. This raises two questions in the case of Syria: why now and is it too little too late anyway?
Why now is predicated on the assumption that the widespread use of chemical weapons creates an immediate need to respond in force. Yet, not only is there no coherent track record of such interventions but it also peddles the misconception that some deaths require more intervention than others. In other words, why does the killing of approximately 1,000 civilians by chemical weapons necessitate air strikes while the preceding 99,000 people killed in the same civil war does not?
Any military intervention – in the form of direct strikes and/or increased military support for some rebel factions – is unlikely to undo the damage done by the policy of non-intervention so far. This too little too late perspective should not be mistaken for an argument that earlier intervention would have been preferable or could have achieved another frequently hoped-for by-product of a military intervention now, namely the beginning of good-faith negotiations between regime and insurgents.
Any intervention today would happen in a situation in which the West has no credible allies on the ground with a chance to prevail in the long run and establish a modicum of stability that would serve the long-suffering Syrian people well and not threaten the country’s neighbours or pose a challenge to wider international security.
Seeking unachievable objectives at the wrong time betrays a wider problem with the Western approach to the region in general and the Arab Spring in particular – the lack of a coherent strategy. Justifiably worrying about the case of an Assad victory conveniently ignores the equally hard truths of a rebel victory which may well be equally devastating – the jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates of the radicalised opposition are the enemies the West is already fighting in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Some moderate successes of Western-led intervention in civil wars, such as in the Western Balkans, to one side, more recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya clearly demonstrate the limitations of humanitarian intervention to achieve stable, secure and functioning states that serve their citizens and do not pose a threat to regional and international security.
As I have argued earlier elsewhere, the trajectory of any intervention in Syria would arguably be worse than Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Assad’s regime and the Alewite community in which it is rooted perceive the current situation as a struggle for survival. The more desperate the regime would become as a result of military intervention, the more ruthless its response will be. Apart from the obvious danger of really widespread use of chemical weapons, further regional destabilisation would be on the cards drawing Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and possibly Israel ever deeper into a regional quagmire from which there will be no easy escape and which will be difficult to contain or roll back.
Beyond the region, the question needs to be considered whether further upsetting relations with Russia (and China) is worth it in the absence of any likely tangible positive outcome of military intervention. Similarly, at a time when there are signs that the new government in Iran is taking some tentative steps towards reducing tensions over its nuclear programme, the cost of military intervention – triggering a hostile Iranian response – outweighs any potential, and remote, benefits.
What is required above all is a new honesty with ourselves. We need to accept that it is beyond our ability to manage crises like that in Syria in the absence of a united international community and in the face of local leaderships that are interested in anything but compromise.
There is no question that Western interests are at stake in Syria, but so are Russian, Iranian, Israeli and Saudi ones. Above all, ordinary Syrians continue to bear the brunt of a civil war that has steadily intensified, spread, and partially morphed into a proxy contest over a reordering of the entire region in the course, and apparent demise, of the Arab Spring.
Military action, limited or otherwise, is not the answer to the much more fundamental problems that the region faces and poses. It is likely not even part of that answer. The quicker we move beyond the narrow debate over military responses to a more comprehensive strategy, the better for Syria, the Arab Spring, and ultimately for us.