Once again, Britain seems about to intervene militarily in a faraway country.
The many glaring lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq have clearly not been learned by the likes of David Cameron and William Hague.
To be fair, there are in Mr Cameron's Coalition cabinet some ministers, such as Theresa May and Philip Hammond (who is after all the Defence Secretary) who are openly sceptical about the need for intervention in Syria, and there are also many articulate and decent Tory backbenchers who are warning, eloquently, against the dangerous folly of British military involvement. But the Prime Minister seems set on direct attacks on Syrian forces and Syrian airfields, and is apparently egging on the hypercautious President Obama for good measure.
At least David Cameron is (for now, at any rate) insistent that there will be "no British boots on the ground" in Syria. That is to be welcomed, yet at the same time it makes me even more uneasy. If the cause is really so just and so necessary, surely we should be prepared to commit our own ground troops, instead of fighting this war at long distance? The reality is that while the cause may be just it is certainly not necessary. The sad implication is that David Cameron would be scared to commit British troops where it might really hurt, and he is equally scared of becoming embroiled in a prolonged ground war. But embroiled he - and the British state - will be, even if he limits our proposed intervention to so-called "strategic attacks". As to where our own British interests lie, that may not be a moral issue, but it is certainly a valid political one. It makes me cringe even to think of it, but there is supposed to be some kind of practical "British interest" because many of the rebels fighting the Assad regime are backed by the House of Saud, and a lot of British jobs depend on weapons and military equipment that we sell to Saudi Arabia.
No decent human being could possibly defend the war President Assad of Syria is waging against his own people. It is despicable, and the use of chemical weapons is especially despicable. But we are taking moral officiousness to ludicrous heights if every time something barbaric is going on our planet, we feel we need to intervene. Who do we think we are?
There is an international agency which is supposed to deal with bellicose dictators who attack their own citizens: the United Nations. Thus far, the UN, mainly because of the positions of Russia and China, has been very reluctant to sanction any international military action against Assad. What Mr Cameron, Monsieur Hollande of France and President Obama (none of them particularly strong leaders, incidentally) are contemplating is direct action without UN endorsement. This is both arrogant and foolhardy.
People are understandably moved by the bravery and resilience of the various rebel groups who are opposing Mr Assad. They are equally appalled, and distressed, by the terrible suffering of so many Syrian citizens, and they are further impressed by the courage and tenacity of the correspondents who report on what is happening on the ground. So those who advocate direct military intervention by Britain have various reasons for claiming the moral high ground.
But the high moral ground can be a false and problematic place. Let me return to our own interests. No-one could possibly claim that it is in Britain's interest to give succour and support, even if only indirectly, to al Qaeda. Yet ll Qaeda is very much involved with some of the rebel forces who are fighting Mr Assad with such valour and determination. The rebels are a motley, confused alliance, representing many (sometimes conflicting) causes, and some of these causes are directly inimical to our own interests.
While their courage is to be admired, there is no coherence about them, and there is very real danger to us in some of their aims. They are united in their hatred of the Assad regime, but that is all. Some of them are militant Jihadists. People who are fighting with very different motives and ends in mind make chancy allies.
Do we really wish to support them, to side directly with them? Also, although I'm no military expert, it appears that Mr Assad is a wily and cunning tactician. It seems pretty obvious that he is prepared to allow the rebels so much slack because he seems reluctant to send all his elite forces into action. They are no doubt being held back to protect key targets in Damascus, and possibly elsewhere. Beating Mr Assad is not going to be easy, as is surely apparent by now.
Further, if we do wish to side directly with the rebels, then we are obviously going to be opposing the likes of Iran, Russia and China. It might be seen as commendable to take on these states for a supposedly noble cause - the high moral ground again - but would it be wise? Surely we should be using all the diplomatic means at our disposal - these are considerable, and British taxpayers pay a great deal for them - to seek international agreement, instead of directly antagonising superpowers like Russia and China. After all, Britain and France are hardly superpowers.
And whether we like it or not, and I don't, it is nonetheless an indisputable fact that Iran has a direct strategic interest in what goes on in Syria. For Iran, Syria is not a faraway place, but a neighbour.
Meanwhile, and most crucially of all, if we do intervene, what outcome are we seeking? Mr Cameron must explain this, with precision and clarity, to both the UK Parliament and the British people. It is not enough just to want the Assad regime to be defeated. Surely our military aim extends beyond that. What exactly do we want to take the regime's place? Mr Assad has been in power for a long time. Creating a new, model state out of a desert called peace, a new Syria that would be acceptable to us, would be very difficult, if not downright impossible.
There is plenty that we can do without resorting to military force. Many hundreds of thousands of innocent victims have fled from Syria to Lebanon and Jordan, and in lesser numbers, to Turkey. In humanitarian terms, the immediate imperative is not to fight Mr Assad but to help to provide succour and support for these displaced people, and the many more who will no doubt be joining them very soon. For the price of a few attacks on a few airfields, an enormous amount of basic human good could be done to assist these desperate people, and the countries that are so stretched in giving them shelter and sustenance.
But Mr Cameron and Mr Hague just don't seem to think that way.
Colette Douglas Home is away.
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