I am a big fan of military intervention. In general, I believe that military solutions to difficult situations are greatly under-rated and somewhat under-used. I was a fan of all Blair's interventions – from Sierra Leone through Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq. I would happily have supported interventions in other places as well, such as Zimbabwe or Iran.
But now, for the first time I can remember, there is a military conflict regarding which there is an apparent appetite for British involvement from significant parts of the Establishment and the media, but which I want to steer clear: namely Syria.
Why do I want to steer clear in this case when I didn't in others? For two basic reasons.
Here's reason (a): There are no Good Guys and not even any clear Worse Guys. I'm all for invading places to stop the innocent being oppressed, to prevent women being enslaved, to prevent incompetent leaders starving and impoverishing their populations so as to maintain their own vested positions. But if we were involved in Syria, whose side would we be on? Would it be that of the order-maintaining, Christian and Jew-defending secularist Alawites, despite their leader Bashar al-Assad having been responsible for the massacre of thousands of his own citizens? I'm guessing not – I assume we'll be against him, insisting he goes.
But then, who? Is it the Islamic fundamentalist group of the opposition, who would no sooner be in power but women would be oppressed, Christians driven out of the country, and the West openly mocked, perhaps with terrorist bases against us funded? Or would it be the score-settling group of the opposition, who would no sooner be in power but the Alawites would be subject to little less than genocide? Or are we just with the heart-eating opposition, whose blood-lust is up and who will long for war with their neighbours? Should the Syrian Kurds be able to join up with the Iraqi Kurds or would our involvement aim to crush their hopes? But if we didn't aim to crush their hopes, would our allies the Turks be with us or against us? If we aren't with any of the above, would we be hoping some corrupt figure in the fashion of Hamid Karzai would take over, fix an election or two with our help and the blood of our soldiers, then set about extorting whatever he could?
I haven't the foggiest idea what our political leaders' answers would be and, more importantly, neither do they.
Here's reason (b): We have no will to stay, occupy and enhance. In Bosnia, once the UN took over we appointed place-men to rule the country and turn it around, much as the Americans did in Japan after World War II. In Afghanistan we got nowhere with that, but at least we tried for a while before giving up and turning things over to Karzai. In Iraq, we did rather better with our occupation period, but we still took down the flag as soon as we arrived. If you are going to take somewhere over, you need to have the will to fix it before you leave. In the case of Syria, civil strife and blood feud will mean staying could be a matter of generations, not just decades a la Afghanistan.
A third, less important reason is that we have no clear self-interest. I don't think we always need a self-interest – usually we probably don't. But a self-interest could be enough to overcome the lack of good guys or the lack of will to stay.
Since we don't know whose side we are on, I would presume that any intervention would be aimed at some kind of peace-keeping – a futile attempt to keep the sides apart. But sadly, sometimes, war is the answer. It is only by testing our strength in battle that we can become persuaded of the value of later political engagement. If we just kept the sides apart, what of the fate of the Alawites and Christians and women in the rebel-controlled parts of the country? What of the fate of political dissidents in the Assad-controlled part? We have seen many parts of the world in which conflicts become frozen. It tends not to go well for the ordinary folk trapped on the wrong side of the border at the moment the West goes in – and not go well for decades.
What we should do in Syria is this: positively nothing. By that, I don't mean simply that we should send no arms ourselves and not invade or air strike ourselves. I mean we should declare, loudly and publicly, that we have no interest in involvement in Syria and will not stand in the way of any that do have an interest. If the Turks or Russians or Israelis or Lebanese or Cypriots want to supply arms or invade or do this or that, then good luck to them. We're going to watch.
In Syria, just for once – and I do not say this lightly or unaware of the awful consequences such a policy would have – we should mind our own business and let others mind theirs.