Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Time for intervention in Syria

There’s more than a whiff of the League of Nations about the UN this week after China and Russia’s veto of a resolution which would have demanded President Assad’s abdication. The resolution was backed by the other 13 members of the security council, and drawn up by the Arab League.

The world is rightly angry that Russia and China have Syrian blood on their hands. Worse, it bolsters the Syrian regime’s attempts to hang on to power, and makes the international community seem impotent. Today, the people of Syria are on their streets condemning not Assad, but Russia.

Hillary Clinton has called the veto a ‘travesty’. Ban Ki-moon called it a ‘disaster for the people of Syria’, and says the current shelling of Homs is a ‘grim harbinger of worse to come’. William Hague called the decision ‘a betrayal of the people of Syria.’ The rhetoric has been at a volume and timbre familiar to any student of events from the Abyssinian crisis in 1935, through to the Srebrenica massacre 60 years later. The louder the hand-wringing, the more shameful the failure to act.

William Hague’s statement today, running on the wires, has ruled out British military intervention. Instead, he said ‘we are intensifying our contacts with opposition groups, opposition groups mainly outside Syria.’ Given that one of the main opposition groups outside Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is based in London, Hague’s statement is less than impressive. You or I could probably ‘intensify our contacts’ over a bowl of fattet hommos at the Abu Zaad restaurant on the Edgware Road.

Hague’s equivocation is pathetic. What’s needed now is tangible support for the Free Syrian Army in its fight to the death with Assad’s forces. Every hour counts. I have no doubt that there are British covert operatives on the ground, as happened during the Libyan uprising. This logistical support is important, but no substitute for strategic air support and British boots on the ground. The British military bases on Cyprus are 250 miles from the children dying in Homs, less than the distance between London and Newcastle.

In Chicago in 1999, a Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, set out a new doctrine for international intervention. This was before the attacks on the twin towers, before Iraq and Afghanistan. It was coloured more by the conflict in Kosovo. The Chicago doctrine had a simple premise: intervention to bring down a despotic, dictatorial regime could be justified on grounds of the nature of the regime, not merely its immediate threat to our interests. There were five tests for invention:

  • Are we sure of our case?
  • Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?
  • Are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?
  • Are we prepared for the long-term?
  • Do we have national interests involved?

On the first and third, there is no doubt. Assad’s regime is murderous and despotic. Our intervention in Libya shows that military action works in a near-identical situation. What of the second? The sanctions are in place, and the various diplomatic missions are stepping up their activities. I hope that the Russians can persuade their friend Assad to stand down. I’d like to see him come to justice, but if a flat in Moscow is the price of his departure, then so be it. On the fourth and fifth, the answers are broadly no and definitely yes. We are plainly underprepared for the long-term future of the Middle East, post-Arab Spring. Our government needs to take a lead on this without delay. That means support for nation-building, citizenship training, support for women’s groups, the police, and other practical aid. It also means protection for cultural, religious and political minorities.

On the last, I would argue loudly that British national interests are served by the spread of pluralist democracy to the nation states of the Middle East, and the world. The days when we accepted barbaric regimes in places because somehow the local population was culturally unsuited, or unprepared for democracy, are mercifully over. Our understanding of the link between dictatorships, say Iran, and international terrorism, has developed profoundly since Blair gave his Chicago speech.

Liberal intervention worked in Libya. Now it must be allowed to work in Syria, for the peace and security of the whole region.


Paul Richards writes a weekly column for Progress, Paul’s week in politics


Photo: Freedom House

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Paul Richards


  • This is an interesting piece, but I fundamentally disagree about Syria being a near-identical situation to Libya.

    Syria is fractured along sectarian lines, mainly between Alawite and Sunni but at the moment with Christian and kurds siding with the Alawite minority (for how long? who knows), whereas Libya was separated by tribal rather than religious differences.

    Syria has two big international backers, with Russia providing arms and diplomatic support and Iran provide logistical and military help, wheras the Libyans lacked similar strong international support and it was much easier for the international community to move against the Gadaffi-regime.

    The biggest difference though is the strength of the military. Gadaffi was terrified about making his own military machine too strong in case a cunning general took steps to remove him from power, whereas al-Assad has a better trained, more disciplined, far more ruthless and powerful military. The Syrian intelligence infrastructure is far more brutal and capable of inflicting horrific damage to its enemies than Gadaffi’s forces were able (or willing) to do.

    Intervention in Syria has the potential to bring in regional actors in a way that Libya did not. Hezbollah and Iran would nearly certainly involve their own forces if there was an external threat to the current Syrian regime, a threat unlike that seen with Libya.

    There is also the bigger issue of what comes next- if we were to intervene in Syria, rather than facing a Libyan problem, we would likely face an Iraqi problem: sectarian fault lines, and replacing one nasty regime with another nasty regime. Some of the groups affiliated with the Syrian resistance are no friends of the West, are certainly no friends of Israel, and we could become involved in an absolutely disastrous situation with no solution to resolve the problem.

    I hope we find a peaceful resolution to the current crisis in Syria, and it is disgraceful that Russia and China have helped push us further from the path of a peaceful resolution. But the idea that such a complex geopolitical crisis can be easily resolved with a simple intervention is, I fear, extremely naïve.

  • Far from being pathetic, Hague’s position is realistic.

    If you want regime change brought about by “British boots on the ground” why not hop on a flight to Turkey volunteer for service yourself?

  • “UAE delay launch of crucial pipeline to bypass Straits of Hormuz to mid 2012” “Iran’s announcement that it will carry out another round of military exercises in the Straits of Hormuz in February kept crude oil prices near two months high last week” oh,really ( Reuters 9.1.2012)

  • yup unlike Haig’s erm,position ! and what is current American stance , huh ? (fingers crossed)

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