Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008. Follow Garvan on Twitter.
Small countries get to win favour by making statements of principle. Permanent members of the Security Council are judged by how they act.
Had the Iraq invasion been effective: had a reasonably well-functioning Iraqi state been built, and its people notably freer and more prosperous than they had under Saddam, questions about its legitimacy would have evaporated.
But had the Kosovo air war been unable to dislodge Milosevic from the province and been followed by a ground invasion caught out by a Russian-backed Serbian insurgency, that mission would have been discredited.
The scale of intervention in Syria has yet to be known, but some rumours suggest a worryingly limited strike using cruise missiles, enough to show that “something” is being done. Let’s hope those rumours aren’t true: a symbolic strike would kill people but achieve nothing of substance.
In the United States, Syrian policy has long been a battle between White House advisers close to Obama and the formal heads the large US government departments. In favour, Samantha Power, who made her name reporting on how America has responded to crimes against humanity, and Susan Rice, a junior official in the Clinton Administration at the time of the Rwanda genocide, who swore to herself,
“that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required”
Against, it would appear, have been John Kerry, who has been showing us how bad a president he would have been, and the vastly overrated Chuck Hagel. Though the Conservative Party sustained its wounds over Bosnia, not Rwanda, they still haven’t healed and a symbolic attack might appear to be a compromise that could at least bind them.
The Cameron government is notorious for making symbolic gestures that unravel in moments. Though they’re the stuff of opposition (think of the now PM’s flight to a Tblisi under Russian attack), or even domestic affairs, the consequences, in war and peace are much more severe. Ransacking New Labour’s Terrorism act to detain a journalist’s partner at Heathrow airport is embarrassing, but embarking on a badly planned war for political gain can be disastrous. Just ask Ehud Olmert, General Galtieri, or indeed Tony Blair.
A symbolic strike would give Assad the clearest of messages: kill as many of your people as you like with guns and bombs and knives, just don’t gas them, it isn’t seemly.
What can be done to deter him? Full-scale action to protect Syrian civilians from the demonic dictator in Damascus, would, as Rob Halfon has argued, be morally and legally justified, though I wonder whether Britain, France and the United States would have the will to see it through; it may even be beyond their political fortitude to establish a no-fly zone, and too late to equip sufficiently non-sectarian KLA-style rebels to repeat a Kosovo-style mission. Nevertheless reducing Assad’s heavy weapons capability and doing damage, if not destroying, his air force and helicopters could still make some difference to the rebels’ ground campaign. Such an operation would be eminently feasible, would not exhaust the West’s rather limited appetite to intervene in Syria, and stands a chance of rebuilding the credibility needed to deter his future use of chemical weapons.
Thursday’s vote in Parliament is also a decisive moment for Ed Miliband. He could win favour with those elements of the Left, who like Jeane Kirkpatrick, have never met a dictator they didn’t like, and sow division on the Tory benches by opposing war. Labour’s current holding line that it will only support “legal” military action, but whip its MPs to vote against it if it doesn’t find the Government’s case convincing, suggests Ed is keeping his trusty opportunism at the ready. So far, Barack Obama insists that intervention will be lawful, while Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov insists it won’t. The Leader of the Opposition must ask himself: on whose side does he want people to see him on?
For MPs, matters are more serious. Their votes on war, though not formally binding, have joined the efficient part of the British Constitution. This time, the humanitarian duty and national interest coincide. Assad has long since through his barbarity forfeited any claim to immunity from attacks aimed at protecting his people from him. The West has been in danger of losing all the respect and credibility it had gained by protecting Libyans from Gaddaffi’s wrath through dithering and pusillanimity over Syria. Does Parliament have the determination to see this through?