Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Adviser for the Conservative Party. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
You know those envelopes that come in the post. They start out plain, maybe with a company logo in the corner. You put them in the drawer, promising to get back to them later, but life gets in the way. Then another arrives, this time with a message printed on the outside:
URGENT: ACTION REQUIRED IMMEDIATELY
You know you should get around to dealing with it, but you feel there’s something you’d rather not see inside. A bill that’s a bit larger than you’d like perhaps; or may be an unpleasant medical procedure.
Every time we hear of a new atrocity that Assad’s henchmen commit in Syria we react in this kind of way, hoping it will go away, suppressing the knowledge that it will only get worse. The latest is the evidence that he’s used chemical weapons. No, cut the jargon: that he’s begun to use poison gas against his own people.
We have to admit that Syria doesn’t present the clear case for humanitarian intervention that graces international relations textbooks. Though Assad’s regime is vile, the opposition is divided into factions unpleasant and incompetent. It lacks articulate spokesmen (think Haris Silajdžić of Bosnia). Worse, the most militarily effective rebels appear to be Islamist fanatics who, if they eventually won, would turn Syria into a theocratic tyranny every bit as hostile to its own people and just as likely to harbour terrorists.
The parallels with Bosnia are obvious (Alan Mendoza wrote forcefully about them for this column last month), but Syria is now coming to resemble the Spanish Civil War. Then, a centrist democratic government found itself under attack not only from Franco’s military, but also from Stalinists nominally on their own side.
The international community of the day worried, but did nothing effective to help the Spanish republic, while the totalitarian powers backed their respective extremists. In part it feared putting its weight behind a movement that circumstances had forced into an alliance with International Bolshevism. In Syria, we’ve allowed Islamists to funnel weapons to their favoured militias, and those forces (of which the Nusra Front is the most well-known) are making most progress on the battlefield.
The younger Assad, never as wily as is father, has belatedly begun to exploit the unpleasantness of his enemies. His salami tactics test how tough he can be on the rebels without provoking outright intervention. He’s betting on a bluff, and Barack Obama’s latest prevarication — that it would need a “whole bunch” of chemical weapons to cross that “red line” will give him hope that he can push a little harder.
The truth is that he can’t win. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, less uncomfortable with an Islamist Syria than we are (or for that matter than Israel or Jordan would be) will see to it that the rebellion goes on as guerilla proxy war that will last for the decades we can expect Moscow to stick by the regime. Syria would emerge from this kind of war utterly devastated — like Afghanistan or Mozambique or Angola. Assad will pound the rebels, with his air force and rockets and artillery; he will flatten the cities and kill tens maybe hundreds of thousands of more people. And as always happens when war goes on for so long, when people have been born at war, and grown up to know nothing else, the fighters become less and less attached to civilisation, their morals long destroyed by a generation of murder and thinking only of how to survive until the next day. They will be angry and resentful too of a West that abandoned them when they began their struggle for ideals they thought it shared and using the peaceful methods it urged upon them.
Today’s false Machiavellis warn against getting entangled; they imagine jihadists and the regime exhausting themselves for years to come. Their memories are short. Before we intervened in the Balkans, young bearded men from the Middle East, North Africa and the less salubrious parts of Birmingham travelled to help the embattled Bosniaks. The Kosovo Liberation Army – though more organised than anything in Syria – are nothing close to the liberal democratic freedom fighters we chose to imagine them to be. We’ll very rarely have the luxury of supporting unblemished allies who fight gloriously in an unimpeachably just cause, but it’s the policy of half measures, of raising expectations that we’ve no intention of meeting, that will end up turning Syria into a desolate terrorist base.
Our best hope is to try and bring the war to a swift conclusion, while Syrian civil society and the memory of life at peace still survive. That needs Assad to understand he has go. It’s time to ground his air force and his attack helicopters. Time to set up a no-fly-zone over Syria.