Allan Massie: The cast-iron case for doing absolutely nothing

FOREIGN Secretary William Hague calls on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to "stop this assault on his own people". It is unlikely that the Syrian government will pay any attention to his words.

Syria is in turmoil, only a bit short of civil war. President Assad has offered to make reforms, but the offer has failed to satisfy the protesters, because they regard his offer as too belated and too inadequate, and in any case don't trust him to keep his word.

Meanwhile, he remains determined to subdue the uprising which, he claims, is "intended to fragment the country as a prelude for fragmenting the entire region". There is no evidence that this is the case. Equally, there is no reason to suppose that if the Assad regime falls, any replacement will be an improvement. Syria is a police state, but it is also a secular state, not an Islamist one. As for the "assault on its own people", the truth is that any government faced with civil unrest, on a scale tantamount to a rebellion, will seek to crush it and restore order.

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Our government, and other ones, may utter condemnation, but to little effect. Sanctions may be imposed against the Syrian leadership. Assets lodged abroad may be seized. There is precious little else than we - or the US or the EU - can do. It would be an act of "unpardonable folly" - to quote Alex Salmond on the Kosovo war - to engage in any military action.

Already, our involvement in Libya looks like just such an act of folly. There is stalemate, and there is evidence that the rebels whom we have now recognised as the legal government of the country are, first, unlikely to be able to oust Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and, second, don't look a much more savoury bunch than the "mad dog" colonel himself. General Abdel Farrah Younes, one of the first prominent men to abandon Gaddafi, became the rebels' military commander. Now he has been assassinated, reportedly by an Islamist group within the rebel command. Do we really know much about the people we are supporting? Evidently we don't. Even more to the point, how can we extricate ourselves from the mess that is Libya today?.

Hopes raised by the Arab Spring have faded even before summer turns to autumn and then winter. Neither Tunisia nor Egypt is on the way to a democratic future and the promise of a regime that respects individual freedoms and human rights. Before Tunisia's "Jasmine Revolution", it was the most socially liberal state in the Muslim world. Recently, an Islamist mob attacked a cinema where a film of which they disapproved was being shown. When a member of the audience asked a policeman for help, he is said to have replied: "Ben Ali was protecting you and you kicked him out." Quite so.If elections are held, the Islamist party will probably be in a coalition government, and Tunisia's secular state will be a victim of the Jasmine Revolution the West hailed with approval.

Egypt is going the same way. That is to say, the hopes of the liberal, idealistic young who thronged Tahrir Square and forced president Hosni Mubarak to abdicate are going to be disappointed. The Supreme Military Council remains in charge and has come to terms - for the time being anyway - with the Muslim Brotherhood, which successive secular presidents, Nasser, Sadat (whom the Brotherhood murdered) and Mubarak suppressed. A member of the military council, Major-General Mohammed al-Assar, assures western diplomats and journalists that "day by day, the Brotherhood are changing and getting on a more moderate track". You bet they are: the other day they filled Tahrir Square with a crowd demanding that Egypt be governed by Sharia law - not exactly what the young revolutionaries hoped for. So the generals, who all served Mubarak loyally till their loyalty became embarrassing, and the Muslim Brotherhood, whom Mubarak persecuted, are locked in an unholy embrace.

It's like the limerick about the young lady of Riga who went for a ride on a tiger. They returned, as you will remember, from the ride, with the lady inside and a smile on the face of the tiger. But which is the young lady and which the tiger - the military or the Brotherhood? Who can tell? The one sure thing is that the young idealists who set the revolution in motion are going to be the losers.

So, back to Syria. It is quite clear what we should do; and that is nothing. It's pointless even to utter pious condemnation of Assad and the thugs of his army. He may prevail, and the uprising peter out, only to revive in a few years. If this happens, Syria will remain a nasty police state, with its prisons full of so-called dissidents and their torturers. If Assad is dislodged, we can't tell what will replace him, but it is unlikely to be a liberal, secular democracy. More probably, Syria will remain a police state, and some at least of the dissidents and some at least of the torturers will have changed places.

One should never intervene in a foreign country unless one has a clear idea of what one intends to achieve, and an equally clear understanding of how this can be done. In the case of Syria, we can have neither. Even if we had, it would still be wiser to do nothing. If we have learned anything from our involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya, it should surely be this: that we are not the world's policeman and should not attempt to be.

Some 40 or 50 years ago, the historian A J P Taylor wrote a book entitled The Dissenters, a study of those who, over a century and a half since the French Revolution, had opposed an activist British foreign policy. Some of them even thought that we should have no foreign policy at all. That might be going a bit far.Nevertheless, most interventions in the affairs of other countries turn out badly, whether we intervene to uphold an existing regime or to replace it. Very few end happily. There is a power struggle in Syria, and it should be left to resolve itself.

Such resolution will be nasty, even brutal. But there is nothing we can do to prevent this.