Forget the British Empire – Syria’s fate is not ours to determine
June 5, 2013
Mark had the following piece published this morning by the Daily Telegraph. To read it online, here
Anyone listening to recent reports on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad government in Syria would no doubt have uttered to themselves that familiar conclusion, ‘Something must be done’.
As tales from Syria get bloodier and more barbaric, as more women and children get caught up in the fighting, and as the displaced swell Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish refugee camps, it is an understandable and powerful sentiment.
But the compulsion to ‘do something’ is a dangerous one. For a start, it is tainted by unintentional arrogance often underpinned by misguided echoes of the British Empire. An opinion piece in last week’s Evening Standard, was a case in point. ‘Cameron could not allow Syria to be a failed state,’ the headline declared, as if that nation’s future lies firmly in our Prime Minister’s hands. It does not.
While a ‘do nothing’ mentality often appears to infect the entire UK political class when it comes to tackling a host of long term domestic issues, one might be forgiven for thinking that our medium sized European nation is omnipotent when it comes to foreign affairs. Perhaps the starker truth is that Syria’s fate was never in our hands. In reality the fortunes of foreign nations are, in fact, rarely dictated by UK intervention. That is not to say that Britain has no influence in such matters. In some instances, as Libya proved, our intervention can be decisive in facilitating regime change. But our ability to control what happens next is far less certain, particularly in a complex situation like Syria. To take such a view does not amount to defeatism or Britain turning a blind eye to suffering. It is a practical acceptance of our considerable diplomatic and military limitations.
Second, let us look at the realities of any intervention. Huge question marks would surely linger over the extent of any UK commitment to the Syrian crisis. British intervention in Afghanistan was aided not only by a far higher degree of domestic financial and political support than can be garnered for Syria, but was driven by the political will and economic clout of the United States, the world’s unchallenged superpower at that time. In spite of that commitment, we have remained in Afghanistan for over a decade with a dubious record of success. What hope for a Syrian intervention – whether military or humanitarian? The UK government is not advocating involvement on anywhere like as large a scale, but even its limited actions thus far have lacked the explicit support either of the British public or the US government. Without clear backing from these quarters, it is very difficult to see how our government can provide the sort of long term commitment required for any meaningful solution.
Third, and most importantly in the case of Syria, in ‘doing something’ just who are we supporting? And with what objective in mind? The vast majority of correspondents among my electors are utterly opposed to the UK becoming engaged in yet another Middle Eastern military adventure. In a nutshell the main worry is that we are gradually being sucked into a civil war that will rapidly escalate along Sunni/Shia dividing lines throughout the region. Last week’s EU declaration lifting the arms embargo to the Syrian opposition has prepared the ground to aid and arm some pretty unsavoury folk who, if they were living in the UK, would almost certainly be subject to a TPIM and twenty-four hour police surveillance.
Many constituents have expressed concern that in assisting the disparate and disunited Syrian opposition, we are also inadvertently arming those who seek to drive out the Christian communities in that nation, who currently feel safer under the Assad regime. The near unspeakable truth now is that the sizeable Christian communities in war-torn Syria are at greater threat from their ancestral homes than has been the case for generations – often at the hands of the self-styled freedom fighters so feted by the Western press.
Syria is an emotive issue. The notion that we are abandoning the vulnerable, and allowing a government to kills its own people, naturally sits incredibly uneasily with all of us. But the urge to ‘do something’ is not reason enough to intervene in such an ethnically complex and rapidly evolving situation. As Syria descends into a darker spiral of violence, I am not convinced that its people’s fate is any longer within our capacity to determine.
I support the coalition government in examining carefully and meticulously all our options. I accept that the Foreign Office has worked tirelessly to find common ground within the international community. But to arm rebel factions is to take things to a radically new level. We must be incredibly clear about what we are trying to achieve here. Nobody wishes to see rent-a-mob Jihadists, with no real stake in the affairs of Damascus, as our next set of Middle Eastern allies. The people of the UK, via their parliamentary representatives, will understandably demand that they have their say before our involvement in Syria escalates.