Allan Massie: Syria strikes are a bad idea

Smoke rise after heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus, Syria. Picture: AP
Smoke rise after heavy shelling in the Jobar neighborhood in Damascus, Syria. Picture: AP
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A BELLIGERENT response to the conflict in Syria risks perpetuating the bloodshed and aligning West with al-Qaeda, warns Allan Massie

Here we go again. The appetite of western politicians for military intervention in other countries seems unlimited. Tony Blair has written an article in the Times demanding that we now go to war against the Assad regime in Syria. Has the man learned nothing from his mistakes? Admittedly, he does not put it quite as bluntly as I have done. But that is what he means. We are, at the very least, to start firing missiles at Damascus because president Bashar al-Assad has apparently “crossed the red line” by employing poison gas “against his own people”. It is not actually certain that he was responsible, only probable; and the United Nations inspectors have not yet reported. No matter: US president George W Bush and prime minister Blair ignored them in Iraq; so why not again? We all know how great a success the Iraq war was.

Syria is a horrible mess and both sides in the civil war have been guilty of atrocities. No-one denies that. In the past few weeks, the rebel forces have been engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in the north of the country. At least 40,000 of them have crossed the Tigris seeking refuge in northern Iraq. The panic has been so great that the pontoon bridge over the river has collapsed, leaving thousands of frightened Kurds stranded on the wrong side. But Blair thinks we should intervene on the side of the rebels, and it seems that our Foreign Secretary, William Hague, agrees. So does the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, while US president Barack Obama is inching towards their position. “Cry ‘Havoc’ and unleash the dogs of war!”

Who, then, are we backing? There are more than 1,000 rebel units in Syria, many at odds with each other. The strongest and most effective is the al-Nusra Front, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda. It is better armed, and has more troops engaged in fighting, than the Free Syrian Army, the military wing of the exiled Syrian democrats. There are other jihadist groupings as extreme as al-Nusra.

Suppose – for the moment – that Kosovo-war style bombing breaks Assad: who would fill the power vacuum? The so-called democrats or the jihadists? Most have no doubt the jihadists would come out on top. As Owen Jones wrote in the Independent on Monday, “it would be perverse if the West ended up de facto allies of al-Qaeda”. But why should a bit of perversity worry us? “Something must be done”, is the cry of outrage in London, Paris and Washington.

Something must indeed be done, but escalation of the appalling war is the wrong answer. Neither side is admirable. Neither deserves our backing. Instead our aim should be a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement. This is possible, because it is clear that neither Assad’s forces nor the rebels are capable of securing victory. This is the point at which a civil war can be brought to an end.

A peace conference has been mooted for months. It hasn’t been held, partly at least because of the West’s insistence that Assad can’t be party to it. This is nonsensical. His government and troops still control much of Syria and most of the provincial capitals. They have made gains in recent months, notably by capturing the strategic town of Qusayr. Moreover, Assad retains the support of his foreign allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon, all of whom will also have to be represented at any conference. To accept this is merely to accept reality.

Of course, missile strikes would probably weaken Assad and might persuade him that a negotiated settlement, probably involving partition, is desirable. But they might not have this effect and, unless they met with quick success, would surely make things worse. The alternative, long-discussed, is to arm the rebels. This would encourage them to believe they may still win, which at the moment they can’t. Moreover, apart from the impossibility of ensuring that any arms we provide don’t find their way into the hands of the jihadists, western military aid to the rebels would be countered by greater military aid to Assad from Russia and Iran. Deepening the war will make things worse, not better.

Moreover, as to missile strikes, such military intervention by the US, Britain and France would be almost certainly illegal, or at best of dubious legality. There is no chance that it would be approved by the United Nations Security Council: Russia and China will see to that by exercising their vetoes. Nor can we claim that the Syrian war poses any kind of threat to our security – the (ridiculous?) assertion that was made to justify Blair’s Iraq war. No matter how we might seek to justify it on “humanitarian” grounds, it would simply be an act of aggression against a sovereign state. One hopes that the House of Commons would refuse to approve it.

A ceasefire and negotiated settlement are possible, even if the terms of such a settlement will be very difficult to thrash out. There are three criteria for a peace conference.

One: it must be recognised that the civil war won’t end in a clear victory for either Assad or the rebels. This implies that a settlement must be based on a recognition that all parties will hold what they now have.

Two: both the West and the rebel groups must accept that Assad or his representatives will take part in the conference and that Assad is not going to be dislodged. To refuse this is to require unconditional surrender, and this is not on the cards.

Three: the West must accept that Russia and Iran have a legitimate interest in the outcome and, therefore, are entitled to participate in the conference. This is necessary to bring Assad to the table. Conversely, Russia and Iran must take the same line with the US, Britain and France, who will have to exert the same influence on the rebels and their supporters, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Everyone involved will have to give some ground and be prepared to lose face. This is tough, but also imperative, otherwise the civil war will continue with dire consequences for Syria and all neighbouring states, indeed for the whole region.

Finally, a period of silence from Tony Blair would be welcome. His own record gives us no reason to respect, let alone trust, his judgment.