There have been calls for Western military intervention against the Ba’athist regime in Syria since it began its murderous repression of the protest movement. These calls have escalated in the last week since the regime (again) used chemical weapons on its own population. Yet, I have to register my deep concerns that intervention is a most unwise course of action to counsel.
My first concern is with the outlines of any military intervention. We have yet to hear, from the advocates of intervention, what would be the desired political objective of the campaign. Is it to be removal of the chemical weapons arsenal held by the regime, the removal of the regime or an Iraq-style solution whereby the entire regime is uprooted and a colonial administration establishes a new regime by force?
The first objective is actually difficult to achieve with a air campaign. Targets would need to be assessed, the regime might simply go into full scale attack on rebel-held areas or, worse, result in al-Qaeda et al gaining control of these weapons. This would likely be politically successful but would not bring down the regime. Arab regimes boast that survival is a form of victory.
The second objective could potentially be achieved, although our erstwhile allies might attack us while doing so and would certainly run into other issues.
The third objective would require a massive military and economic mobilisation on the part of the Western powers. If the mistakes of Iraq are to be avoided, massive combat forces would need to be committed to take control of the cities, the borders and the road networks to ensure security, close down the militias and destroy the resistance and terrorist networks. I do not believe for one minute that there is the political will for this level of commitment and certainly not for the length of time that this would require.
The other issues are critical to evaluating any such decision and need to be raised.
Whom are we supporting? Even if we merely attack the regime, we are objectively supporting the Syrian rebels, yet these are not pro-Western forces. Dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the best troops of the rebels are in fact al Qaeda Islamists. These have already been enforcing strict sharia law and have been conducting ethnic cleansing against the Kurds who have remained neutral. If the regime is toppled, do we then intervene to prevent unrestrained communal warfare? Do we remember what happened in 2006-2007 in Iraq? That took place with our forces trying to stop it (eventually successfully). We cannot engage in warfare and expect a reasonably secular, multicultural regime to magically appear in Syria given what we know is happening and what we know of the actors.
Russia and China, especially the former, have been actively backing the Assad regime. Iran has been doing likewise, but we’re not really scared of Iran. Russia is the real support for Assad. Furthermore, Russia has banked heavily on sustaining the regime. If the West moves for war, will the Russians up the ante? Will we see Russian troops intervene? Russian aircraft operating over Syria? Or Russian SAM crews appear around Latikia and Damascus? Are we willing to risk open war with Russia? What about China? Prestige is at stake here and we are operating in the realm of empires.
Finally, we have a major obstacle in Syria to an Iraq-style solution. There is no political grouping which is either acceptable to Western interests or strong enough in Syria to provide a stable regime.
We need to be engaged in a rational, hard-headed discussion of strategy, options and outcomes. We should not be engaged in an emotive discourse dominated by pictures of dead children. That is not conducive to good statesmanship.