George Osborne understands the centrality of power to politics as well as any practitioner alive, and his grasp of it was on display yesterday during his Commons speech on Aleppo. He recognises that the decision of the West in general, and Parliament in particular, to confront Assad in 2013 had two important consequences. The first was a rise in the prestige of Russia in the Middle East and a consequent fall of that of the United States. The second was the loss of standing of the Government of which he was a central player. The refusal of the Commons to back its proposal for missile strikes wounded David Cameron’s reputation abroad and shrunk his foreign policy.
The former Chancellor was a committed interventionist before the Prime Minister he served, backing the Iraq War with in 2003 and defending it a year later. He neither repeated nor repudiated that view yesterday, but instead suggested that the pendulum has swung too far – from a presumption in favour of military action abroad to a rejection of it in almost any circumstances. “I believe…that we have come to a point where it is impossible to intervene anywhere – we lack the political will, as the West, to intervene.” Given the election of Donald Trump and his ambiguity about NATO, this looks prescient.
None the less, it is one thing to argue that action abroad is sometimes necessary, and quite another to claim that it would have been in Syria three years ago. Admittedly, Cameron and Osborne may have been correct. Missile strikes against Assad in response to its use of chemical weapons might have made a big humanitarian difference. He might have backed off; he might then have fought within the rules of war, along with his Iranian and Russian backers. It could be that an earlier American plan to equip and back the Free Syrian Army would have worked, in the sense of delivering a negotiated peace.
But it is very doubtful that all this would have come to pass. Assad might have responded to strikes by escalating attacks that cause mass casualties. What would Obama and Cameron have done then? Would they have retaliated with more strikes, thus risking an open conflict with Russia? Or would they have backed off – in which case the Government would have ended up where it did in any event? What if Russia upped the ante in Ukraine, or probed the Baltic States? Thirty Conservative backbenchers concluded that these questions had no clear answer, including the present Chairmen of the Foreign Affairs and Defence select committees, and voted against the Government.
As Osborne has since admitted, many other Tory MPs voted with the Government out of loyalty, not conviction – just as Ed Miliband voted against it not out of conviction, but calculation: Labour was too scarred by Iraq to back action in Syria, and its leader was forced off his original intention of not opposing Cameron. But the long and short of it is that each individual MP had to make a decision: was Syria of such supreme strategic to the West that these risks were worth taking? The Commons concluded that it was not. ConservativeHome believed at the time that its take was correct, and has seen nothing since to change its mind.
Osborne argued yesterday that the tragedy of Aleppo and the emergence of ISIS were created by “a vaccum of western leadership”. This presumes that the Free Syrian army could, if backed earlier, have dragged Assad to the negotiating table, and that a more democratic Syria, or at least a more peaceful one, would have been created. But the so-called Arab Spring suggested that support for liberal democracy in the Middle East is less rooted than an enthusiasm for political Islam. Earlier this year, David Cameron had to back off a claim that there were 70,000 moderate Syrian fighters capable of taking the war to Assad.
This is no more likely to have been true three years ago than now. Indeed, the most likely alternative to the present regime, when the civil war was in the balance, was a hardline Islamist government backed by Saudi Arabia – amidst the final collapse of Syria in its present form. It is not obvious that this would represent a strategic or humanitarian improvement. Nor is it convincing to claim that the West has caused the tragedy of Aleppo, rather than a legacy of political, economic and cultural failure within Syria itself and across much of the Middle East. Our best response is to help shore up neighbouring states, take a share of refugees and, elsewhere, bolster NATO.