Analysis: Caution and the Syria debate

Ed Miliband works in his office  the day after defeat of the Government's plans to take part in military action against Syria. Picture: PA
Ed Miliband works in his office the day after defeat of the Government's plans to take part in military action against Syria. Picture: PA
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ED MILIBAND has emerged from this week’s debate as the standard bearer for caution.

If the UN has a process in place, he argued, we should let them finish it before we decide what to do. What, he implied, is the point of the UN otherwise? David Cameron, on the other hand, was ready to give the order to send a missile or two towards Damascus now.

Well, Cameron lost the argument. Parliament opposed intervention. That does not mean Miliband won it. His motion also fell. But mood is important. Already, the reasons for Miliband’s caution have been forgotten by most. All that matters is that his caution is a better match with the public mood. And in the horse race, if Cameron is down, it means Miliband is up.

On the substance – should we strike Syria – the public is right to be cautious. Striking Syria now would have achieved nothing and may even have been counter-productive. After all, there are a few points on which all involved agree. Nobody was talking about striking to kill Assad, nobody was talking about hitting the chemical weapons facilities.

To do so would have risked spreading dangerous chemicals over civilian areas. Nobody wanted to risk that, and nor should they. But that meant that the strikes would have left both Assad and his chemical weapons in place.

It is not clear what the target would have been. But we do know that the Syrian army is relatively dispersed and that personnel have been fleeing from military buildings in Damascus since strikes were mooted a few days ago. Given that, the strike would have left the Syrian army able to operate.

But worse than all this would have been the psychological effect of a strike which left Assad, his chemical weapons and his army in place. With the logic of a dictator who knows only force, he would conclude that the limited nature of the strikes showed how little outside forces were prepared to do against him.

In short, a limited strike would not prevent him from launching another chemical attack at all. It probably would not deter him. It could even embolden him.

But the unspoken reality is that nobody ever actually thought that striking Assad was a good tactic from a military point of view. It was only ever suggested as a smack on the wrist for having crossed Barack Obama’s red line. But how could it have ever been a good tactic? It serves no strategy.

Having a tactic without a strategy is like wanting to do something but not knowing why. If the allies are to do anything in Syria that is worth doing, they must first decide what they are trying to achieve.

As things stand, there is no good strategy on the table, and for good reason. The rebels fighting the Assad regime are divided between the moderates and the Islamists, and as things stand the Islamists have the momentum. Fighters are leaving the moderate groups and joining them. Some are affiliated to al-Qaeda. If Assad were to fall today, Syria would be a greater danger to our interests than it is now. That means that any allied strategy must begin with working to change the balance of power in Syria.

That means, first, working to marginalise the extremists and strengthen the moderates. We can do that by training, arming, and funding the moderates, and encouraging the US to put pressure on countries whose citizens are funding the extremists, many of which are US allies such as Kuwait and Qatar. This will begin to tip the balance of power inside Syria by encouraging fighters to join the moderate groups such as the Free Syrian Army and Etilaf.

Many fighters have only joined the extremist militias because they are better equipped and funded, not out of religious or ideological affinity.

This will begin to create a credible and palatable alternative power source within the country to Assad. And if the balance of power on the ground in Syria tips and the moderates are ready to form an alternative government to Assad, then allied military assistance could be useful in weakening and eventually finishing off the Assad regime. The allies could start by bombing the runways used by his air force, for example. That is the point at which the kind of tactics the allies are talking about could bear fruit.

Parliament was right not to endorse action now, and Miliband was right to be cautious. Tactics must follow strategy. We should only strike if and when we have that strategy in place.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the executive chairman of the Scotland Institute and an adjunct research professor at the US Army War College.