If Britain sends weapons to the
Syrian opposition, we will take on risks that far outweigh whatever interest we
have in seeing them triumph. The conflict is horrific, but it simply isn’t
important enough to us for us to take on these risks. Britain should help
topple brutal regimes only where it is in our interests to help and our help
ought to be proportionate to those interests. We must do all we can to soften
the humanitarian crisis, but otherwise, Syria should be kept at arm’s length.
This ‘realist’ prescription will
seem coldblooded to many readers, even inhumane. How can someone be so
selfishly detached in the face of such appalling crimes committed by the Assad
regime; when tens-of-thousands of people are already dead? Something must be
done and arming the rebels is something, therefore we must do it. And according
to the Prime Minister,
spreading our values is the same thing as pursuing our interests, thus it would
be a perfectly proportional policy.
Whenever great tragedies occur in
places like Libya or Syria, there are calls for Western intervention, and the
debate over whether or not we should intervene is typically reduced to a matter
of interests vs. values. Some, like Mr. Cameron, try to end the argument by
claiming the two are synonymous. It is much more complicated,
of course. We don’t have a mutually reinforcing set of values. ‘Spreading’ one
can undermine others and governments must often make trade-offs between them. If
Britain arms the Syrian opposition in order to ‘stop atrocities’ or ‘advance
freedom’, then we will be forced to make trade-offs elsewhere – trade-offs that
could undermine our moral credibility just as surely as Bosnia-esque inaction.
For example, as our involvement
with the opposition deepens, so the more implicit responsibility we shall incur
for their actions. The atrocities that they’ve committed are not on the same
scale as those of the regime, but they occur nonetheless.
If Britain furnishes the rebels with weapons, we would be held partially
responsible for whatever crimes they perpetrated, yet we wouldn’t possess the
power to change their behaviour. We would effectively take on all the burdens
of an alliance with the anti-Assad coalition without enjoying any of the
benefits. (And if it’s true that the rebels have used sarin gas,
the West’s rhetoric about chemical weapons will look a little ridiculous).
We would also be seen as
accomplices to the unscrupulous policies of our regional allies, just as the
United States is seen as responsible for assisting Pakistan’s malign
interference in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistanis acted as middlemen
between Washington and the mujahideen,
channelling American arms and cash to the extremist factions they themselves
favoured. As Britain would have to channel its support to the opposition via
the Qataris, Saudis, and Turks, we would incur implicit responsibility for
their more cynical approach.
Such moral trade-offs are only
acceptable if there are crucial interests at stake, yet arming the Syrian
opposition would involve us in a proxy war with Moscow, jeopardising things considerably
more important to us. There are only two routes out of Afghanistan and one of
them depends on the Russians’ goodwill.
Accepting this fact and all that it implies for our foreign policy is not
Appeasement – it’s logistics. Western efforts to isolate Iran and stop its
nuclear programme would also be jeopardised by a proxy war with the Kremlin. Many
would surely agree that an Iranian atom bomb is a lot more dangerous to the
world than an Iranian puppet in Damascus…?
If I toured a Syrian refugee
camp, as the Prime Minister has done, I would feel as angry as he did and
demand that we do something – anything – to end the civil war. Yet its complexity
demands the ‘hardheaded’ approach that he often promises.
We must do all we can to soften the humanitarian crisis, but the simple fact is
that Syria isn’t important enough to Britain for us to take on the risks of