In 1914, as a continent marched to war, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey made this mournful statement: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
Nearly a century later, we might comparably observe that fires have been started all across the Middle East — and we shall not see them put out in our time. From Tehran to Tunis, from Aleppo to Benghazi to Cairo and now, of course and yet again, the streets of Gaza and Tel Aviv, the region is ablaze. No statesman, be he ever so powerful, can predict where the fire may spread. Far less can he control the burning.
The war between Israel and Hamas gripped the world’s attention, but Syria’s drama continues to run and run. One could forgive the Syrian opposition for wondering why the outside world is less interested in their tragedy than in those now unfolding elsewhere in the region.
The public may retain a lofty disinterest in Syria’s agonies, but British and French politicians are not so shy. The French have already recognised the Syrian opposition as Syria’s legitimate government-in-waiting-if-they-can-win-their-civil-war and it seems probable that the British will follow suit sooner rather than later.
If this seems familiar it is because it is familiar. Last year’s Libyan playbook is being dusted off for a repeat performance, this time in Syria. Yet despite inching towards war, British and French agitation still resembles nothing so much as an unorthodox variation on the classic governmental mantra: Something Must Be Done.
In this instance, the novelty is this: no Something has actually been identified. There is talk of lifting the arms embargo that currently hampers the Syrian opposition’s attempts to topple Bashar Al Assad’s regime. There is talk too of establishing a no-fly zone in Syrian skies and yet more talk of creating — and, presumably, defending — ‘safe havens’ within Syria.
Call it Operation Raising False Hope, if you like. We must presume all this enthusiasm for fresh foreign adventures stems from the presumed success of the Libyan intervention. The generous desire to solve other people’s problems is a bug that, once caught, rarely dies.
Standing still and leaving Syria well alone is, of course, not just an option but also the most realistic approach to a problem that is neither of the West’s making nor its solving. Evidently, however, there exists some kind of intervention algorithm that determines the tipping point at which western powers must become involved in an affair they had not previously considered any of their business.
We can live with — or, more accurately, ignore — 20,000 deaths. But 30,000 corpses suddenly renders the situation intolerable. In February, the British position at least had the virtue of clarity. According to Hague, Britain saw no need for a military response, not least because a “military intervention would have to be on a vastly greater scale than in Libya”.
By June, the looming failure of Kofi Annan’s attempts to broker a solution to the conflict meant Britain, like other countries, “would have to consider other options for resolving the crisis.” The fundamentals of the conflict have not changed but Britain’s position has, as they say, evolved. The instinct to do something - anything - is understandable. But it amounts, in this case, to gambling upon opposition forces of unproven class and form whose future actions, preferences, and ambitions are essentially unknowable. If governments are not good at picking winners in domestic matters, their record of doing so in foreign entanglements is even worse; if you thought this lesson had at last been learned you are, I’m afraid, very much mistaken. The current search for something to do with regard to Syria represents mission-creep without an actual mission. According to Sir David Richards, chief of the defense staff and Britain’s most senior general, “The humanitarian situation this winter I think will deteriorate and that may well provoke calls to intervene in a limited way.” As if this was not enough of a hostage to events that lie outside Britain’s control or even, necessarily, interest, he added: “There’s no ultimately military reason why one shouldn’t [intervene] and I know that all these options are, quite rightly, being examined.” No wonder military intervention - albeit intervention of an as yet undetermined type — is not considered “impossible.” If you sense a whiff of “In the Loop” - Armando Iannucci’s satire of the politics of the Iraq war - you may not be wholly mistaken.
When a politician says “war is unforeseeable” it means war is probably waiting round the corner. Yet absent American support for intervention, what can Britain or France realistically achieve? They retain some diplomatic clout at the United Nations but unless the US moves, neither China nor Russia seem likely to be persuaded to lift their objections to foreign intervention in Syria. Even if Moscow and Beijing were to change their minds (an unlikely scenario), the British and French are likely to need American logistical and military support if they’re to achieve anything.
In this respect, they are not so much writing checks they cannot cash as forging American cheques and trusting that Washington will not mind honouring them. This seems a mildly reckless course of action. Syria’s plight is terrible; that much is clear. Yet intervention is not something the faint of heart should risk contemplating. Nevertheless, there are limits to what the Europeans can realistically achieve.
Prime Minister David Cameron may be correct to observe that “Frankly, what we’ve done so far is not working” — but at least what has been done so far has not made the Syrian situation appreciably worse. Syria is broken but it’s not the West’s responsibility. At least not yet. War without aims is almost as bad an idea as war without end. But if western politicians cannot even agree on their aims how can they be trusted to navigate these treacherous waters?
Alex Massie writes for the Spectator.