By Mark Wallace
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Today's Telegraph carries an excellent strategic overview of the civil war in Syria. As the battles drag on, and the civilian casualties mount, it seems Assad is once more on the front foot, retaking some key towns and halting rebel advances in Damascus and Aleppo.
Part of the Free Syrian Army has been seduced by Islamist extremists. The famous video of a rebel commander eating the heart of a government soldier demonstrates vividly that we have now gone beyond the point where it was only Assad's troops who were committing war crimes.
This mess is only going to get worse. The Telegraph's correspondents ponder the very real possibility that the country may settle into an uncomfortable, permanent patchwork of rebel areas, practically independent Kurdish zones and Assad loyalist areas – with fighting flaring up at the rough borders, and likely insurgencies run by each group in each others' sectors. In short, Syria is on the road to becoming a failed state, with Al Qaeda allies given free rein in parts of its territory.
This was not inevitable.
If we think back to the Libyan civil war, for a while it seemed possible that country could follow exactly the path I have just described. The east, focused on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, could well have become in effect a re-established (and Al Qaeda-riven) Cyrenaica, with the west still held by Gaddafi, bar a few rebel enclaves.
Of course, it didn't work out that way. Judicious intervention led by NATO prevented Government troops assaulting Benghazi and carrying out a possible massacre, put a stop to airstrikes on civilians and ultimately allowed the rebels to topple Gaddafi. The resultant country is far from perfect, but it is a) still a viable nation, not a fractured and failed state and b) battling to rid itself of a relatively small taint of extremism, not a helpless host to Al Qaeda-run badlands.
For British interests, today's Libya is far preferable to the grim likelihood of tomorrow's Syria. The major difference between the two stories is clear: in the former, we and other powers helped to unseat the tyrant in question, while in the latter we have stayed well clear as the Ba'athist regime has pursued mass slaughter.
The uncomfortable truth is that the Syrian disaster has unfolded this way because we allowed it to.
Many who opposed any assistance for the Free Syrian Army from the start of the uprising centred their case on the claim that we would be handing a country to Al Qaeda. When the FSA was founded, it was not infected by international Islamist terrorists – our policy of non-intervention has helped to ensure that is no longer the case.
It is a sickening irony that our fear of extremism left the rebels to fight tanks and jets with light weaponry, and in so doing pushed many of them into the arms of precisely such extremists. We had an opportunity to show that democratic countries will stand with those who want to be free of dictatorship. Instead, in their hour of need they found that violent Islamists were the only people offering them support.
The experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan have understandably made the British people wary of boots-on-the-ground invasions. But those wars are no justification for total isolationism – and no-one is proposing the British Army invades Damascus. The idea that if we ignore what goes on beyond our borders then we will never be troubled by any foreign power or extremist movement is a fantasy.
The prospect of violent jihadis taking permanent control of whole tracts of Syria, and using them as a safe base for training and indoctrination, is terrifying. The risk of such an outcome to the free, Western democracies which these people hate and wish to destroy is clear. If that happens, it will be at least in part due to the false prophets of isolationism.