Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Syrian test of intervention

As a fragile ceasefire begins in Syria, the UN is beginning its task of monitoring the violence and reporting back what we already know: that Assad is convinced his way to hang on to power is to kill his own people in their thousands.

The international community has condemned his actions, and this week further Syrian assets have been frozen in Europe, but there is no end in sight for the conflict. Nor is there any sign that the UK government is altering its position on Syria, and I believe it should.

Diplomacy is like a combination of chess and a Mexican wave. Governments on the whole approach diplomacy like a game of chess and think strategically about their nation’s best interests over time. However, there can also be a tendency in high-pressure diplomatic situations that take place under the glare of the global media, for leaders to get carried away and join in with everyone else rather than be left out. Often this Mexican wave reaction ensures that a small and simple shove in the right direction from one leader who boldly argues for a new approach to a developing crisis, can force the consensus to shift and encourage other leaders to follow suit.

In humanitarian interventions, the UK has often played this role of starting the Mexican wave and preparing the ground diplomatically for a shift in rhetoric from our Nato or EU partners, or most commonly the United States. In the build-up to KFOR mission in Kosovo, Britain took a lead diplomatically in securing UN resolution 1244, and ended up sending the largest contingent of forces into Kosovo to enforce the resolution: 13,500, alongside 7000 apiece from France and the US.

Syria is as complicated, if not more complicated than Kosovo. Partly because of the material and financial strength of the Assad regime, and also due to the regional power-play of which it is part. The regional dimension was recently highlighted by David Miliband when he warned that future military interventions must take into account the regional implications of a British troop deployment. In the case of Syria, the consequences of an international military intervention to try and halt the state-led violence are hard to comprehend, but the impact on the region’s politics are not hard to imagine. Relationships with Iran would be further strained at a time when it already sees threats all around itself, and the future of Israel’s role in the region would be put centre stage, possibly leading to a more aggressive stance from some of its neighbours.

So whilst the unfolding crisis in Syria is deeply complex, why has the UK not tried to begin the Mexican wave, or supported other nations in doing so?

The international community hasn’t entertained a debate about military intervention in Syria to try and stop the violence. The threat of military force shouldn’t be used loosely, but I think the fact that it hasn’t been mentioned by the US shows how uncomfortable American feels in the post-Iraq context.

For Britain however, the reality is starker than just feeling discomfort. We cannot continue to have it both ways. Our seat on the UN Security Council means that we have an obligation to lead the debate about humanitarian intervention and what that means for our role in the world. Tony Blair rightly declared in 1999 that we could no longer exist in isolation, or even risk thinking of isolation as a safe retreat from the challenges our interdependent world faces. We live in a global community, where interdependence destroys the notion of hermetically sealing ourselves off from danger or threats abroad.

Yet recently Labour seems to have lost the rigour of Blair’s approach to globalisation. We don’t hear enough about why Britain has a moral obligation to act and prevent violence abroad. We don’t hear enough about the importance of supporting democracy across the world, nor about how and when force can be used to protect democracy, or even create it.  

Any Labour leader who wants to one day be British prime minister has to lead a debate about our national interest and global stability, and the challenges posed by the Syrian crisis show the importance of that debate happening sooner rather than later. The next Labour prime minister needs to be bold enough to start a Mexican wave.


David Chaplin writes the Progressive Internationalism column for Progress


Photo: Freedom House

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David Chaplin

writes the Progressive Internationalism column for Progress


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