Garvan Walshe was National and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
Last week some pictures, taken by a drone, emerged of the devastated city of Homs. Every building had been damaged. Consumed by internal fires, only concrete structures survived. A lone white car drove through dirt tracks between the buildings where there had once been roads. No people disturbed the silence. If the scene looks like Warsaw after the Nazis put down the uprising there, it’s because the tactics employed were the same.
To this war crime under Moscow’s protection will soon be added another. Stiffened by Russian air power and Iranian and Hezbollah ground forces, the regime, which MPs at the time were told by informed government sources was on the brink of collapse, has managed to regain ground. It now surrounds three quarters of Syria’s second city, and could soon be in a position to besiege it.
The Geneva process has failed because the regime’s opponents were not strong enough to force the regime to the table. Now that Russia has got properly involved the rebels’ regional backers haven’t been able to protect their clients. The West, which could have, has neglected its responsibility; reacting to the terrorist attacks in Paris as though it had been one of Lynton Crosby’s brilliantly effective dead cats – focusing on the distraction and losing sight of the main event. Even then it hasn’t even taken serious steps to tackle IS. The public would rather chase terrorist phantoms among refugees than have to accept that whole societies are collapsing, or, as in Syria and Libya, have already collapsed completely. Old and revived regimes hang on in Egypt and Algeria, relying on naked force and the fear of civil war to stave off disaster.
Angela Merkel has at least attempted to take action: but she has erred twice. First by overestimating her ability to bend Europe to her will – Germany is only first among equals, not the arbiter of Europe. A million refugees across a continent of 500 million can easily be accommodated; admitting the same number to Germany alone is extremely tough. Second, Germany has not put in place the new housing, training and integration programmes needed to manage the new population in an atmosphere of order and trust, absent which, the sex attacks in Cologne sparked sedulously incited panic. Now she is reduced to offering Turkey money in exchange for not letting them come to Europe.
It is not however just money that Syrians need (impressive as the sums pledged at the London conference last week were) but security as well. Diplomacy without arms, one of Merkel’s predecessors reflected, is like music without instruments.
We have long understood that the security of Europe to the east depends on both strong military capability and the extension of good government, to build genuine support for resistance to Moscow eastwards. That is why Marshall aid was offered to the Eastern Bloc, and accepted by Yugoslavia, and why Ukraine and the states of the caucasus are involved in Western security and economic institutions.
But to the south and south east we relied on local strongmen to keep the population down. Only in Turkey and arguably Morocco, have states been sufficiently competent to give them something of a future.
As for the rest, Arab nationalism has been an unqualified failure. The Iraq war just brought forward the regimes’ inevitable fall, and without it we would be agonising over the Iraqi, instead of the Syrian, civil war. Islamism, in both peaceful and violent forms, has proven equally bankrupt because “Islam is the solution” makes a good slogan but offers no guidance for public administration.
Since 2001 the West has been able to mount dramatic interventions: the Taliban were removed from power; Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi were also toppled. It has failed however to follow the initial military hit with sustained construction of institutions to provide people security and evidence to underpin hope for a better future. Syria shows that we have learned the wrong lesson from that failure, which is not that the act of military intervention can never work in narrow tactical terms, but that it will fail strategically unless accompanied by a serious commitment to stay and rebuild.
The disaster in Aleppo as well as the rise of IS in Iraq, Syria and Libya testify to the failure to secure political support for the kinds of interventions that deliver results, as they have in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and East Timor. Neither military force alone, nor what seems to have replaced it, humanitarian aid accompanied by narrowly focused military assistance are able to succeed. Understanding how to rebuild the institutions of this shattered region will, together with deterring further Russian aggression, be the main requirement for security in our part of the West for the decade to come.