As the world edges towards a peace conference on Syria, three ideas about the West’s role in the conflict are widely accepted. First, that the longer the conflict goes on, the greater the chances of direct or indirect western military intervention. Second, that there is a deep and bitter division between the US and Russia that is making progress much harder. Third, that the Syrian civil war is dominating western thinking on the Middle East.
Few people publicly dispute these propositions. And yet they are all distinctly questionable. To start with, there actually is no single “western” view on Syria. As the bitter debate on whether to lift the European Union (EU) arms embargo reveals, European countries are deeply divided. France and Britain want to be able to supply weapons to the rebels. Germany remains very sceptical. There are also divisions within countries. In the US, John Kerry, the Secretary of State, is an activist who wants to arm the rebels. President Barack Obama remains opposed. On both sides of the Atlantic, the intelligence and security establishments tend to take a more cautious line than the politicians and diplomats.
In recent months, and despite the mounting death toll, the debate has swung in the direction of the non-interventionists. That is partly because the view of the nature of the conflict has subtly changed. As one EU minister puts it: “We thought we were dealing with democratic protests that would topple Bashar Al Assad very quickly. In fact, it’s a civil war and Al Assad has substantial internal support.” What is more, while there is genuine horror at the actions of the Syrian regime, there is also deep wariness of the strength of jihadists in the opposition. “The longer this thing goes on,” says one senior British official, “the harder it is to pick sides.”
Such a view, of course, is not official UK policy. On the contrary, David Cameron’s government continues to push to arm the more moderate rebels. The interventionists argue that, unless the West supports the “right” people, jihadists are even more likely to take control of the Syrian opposition.
Yet, faith in the West’s ability to pick democratic winners among rebel forces has been weakened by the continuing deterioration of the situation in Libya. Although Libya has been chalked up as a successful western intervention, the aftermath has not been pretty. Large parts of the country are lawless. And in the cities, says one western official, “the jihadists are holding a gun to the head of the democrats”. The pro-interventionists counter that a failure to mount a humanitarian intervention in Syria will stoke the anti-western sentiment that fuels terrorism. But counter-terrorism officials are more cynical, arguing that any western intervention in Syria, whatever the motive, is liable to encourage terrorist “blowback” into the West’s own societies.
This growing fear of the rise of violent Islamism across the Middle East means the divisions between the Russian and US positions are now less stark. The high point of western indignation probably came in February 2012, when Hillary Clinton, the then US secretary of state, called Russia’s position on Syria “despicable”. Even now, US and EU officials find plenty to dislike about Moscow’s support for the Al Assad regime, ascribing it to paranoia about western intentions or to the Kremlin’s desire to keep a naval base in the region. Yet, behind the scenes, there is also recognition that Russian warnings about jihadism have merit. “The Russians kept telling us we were naive,” says one western minister, “and maybe we were.”
It was Russia’s failure to veto a UN resolution on Libya that opened the door to western military intervention against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. The Russians have now made it clear that they will block any similar resolutions over Syria. However, given growing western doubts about intervention, Russian roadblock at the UN may actually suit the US and the EU.
There is a third reason for western inaction on Syria: Iran. Anxiety about its progress towards a nuclear bomb is rising once again. Some of those who argue that the US and its allies may ultimately have to attack Iranian nuclear facilities are warning against military involvement in Syria — which, they argue, will be the wrong conflict. “Syria would be a war of choice, but Iran would be a war of necessity,” says one western official.
Again, the arguments are hardly straightforward. There is a counter-argument that civil war in Syria is a more significant threat to regional stability than an Iranian bomb that does not yet exist. And even some of those who take the Iranian threat very seriously argue that the best way to deal a blow to the regime in Tehran is to topple its regional ally — the Al Assad regime in Damascus.
Amid all these cold calculations, the growing death toll in Syria can slide out of view. Why start a war with Iran rather than try to stop one in Syria? That partly depends on what you think is most important. For those western officials who ultimately take a classical “realist” view of foreign policy — and Obama may be among them — the first duty of foreign policy is to protect your own state and citizens against threats to their security. That means worries about jihadists in Syria or about the Iranian bomb continue to rank higher than the desire to topple the Al Assad regime.