Our panellists battle it outby Richard Perle, John McTernan / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
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Should we intervene in Syria and Beyond?
In March 2011 the first protestors demanding political and economic reform from the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad were violently repulsed. Given what has happened since, it is reasonable to ask whether the worst might have been mitigated, or even avoided altogether, had we intervened in Syria three years ago.
Readers of Prospect will know what has happened since: thousands of mostly innocent civilians dead; millions driven into refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere; the use of chemical weapons; the end of any near-term prospect that Syria will be stable or humanely governed; intensification of the toxic Sunni-Shia conflict; the growth of Hezbollah and strengthening of its Iranian sponsor; and—not finally, because the list is endless—a recruitment bonanza for jihadists.
It might have been different. The west could have supported moderate Syrians who rose up against Assad. We did not need to intervene with armies on the ground—no western leader argued that we should. The Syrian opposition needed weapons, intelligence and political, diplomatic and moral support. Our failure to provide these created a vacuum that was certain to be filled by radical jihadists and their supporters. Al-Nusra, Isis and al-Qaeda filled a space that could, and should, have been occupied by moderates of our choosing. Did we know then who to support? I believe we knew enough to empower Syrians who shared our values and who would have worked with us. What our passivity and myopia got us instead is a lethal cadre drawn from a global jihadist movement that despises our values and is determined to destroy our civilisation. The worst is yet to come. Among the thousands fighting in Syria are jihadists from many countries, including the US and the UK. When it is over in Syria, they will return home. And when they do, we will wish we had intervened when we had the chance.
There are many things one might wish for. For Russia to be less inclined to use its veto on the United Nations Security Council. For the Assad regime to have committed to democracy of its own accord. For the Middle East to be a lot simpler. We exercise choice in foreign policy, but not in the context of our choosing. That is where we are in Syria.
I fail to see how your solution would have worked. You say that in 2011 we could have provided the Syrian opposition with weapons and intelligence plus political, diplomatic and military support. But backing one side in an internal uprising is a de facto military intervention. Just because our troops aren’t at risk, it doesn’t mean we haven’t intervened. The same objections arise as with direct intervention—there is a real risk of escalation, and no exit strategy.
You raise one problem that is a straw man: jihadists bringing the war home. There is a simple solution. Criminalise their actions, monitor their movements and arrest, charge and imprison them on return.
Your response suggests that an early intervention in support of Syrian moderates was an impossible dream. Surely you could give some evidence for your view. This is not some subsidiary point—like the pedantic observation that “backing one side… is a de facto military intervention.” Call it what you like, but not all interventions are the same, not all carry the same risks, and sometimes the failure to intervene can lead to catastrophe—as the slaughter in Iraq shows.
You dismiss the danger that jihadists in Syria and Iraq will fight elsewhere, possibly in the countries from which they hail. Yet recently, a French jihadist just returned from fighting in Syria with Isis murdered four people at a museum in Brussels. The Wall Street Journal reports that more than 2,000 Europeans are fighting alongside radicals in Syria. Your “simple solution” of relying on law enforcement (“imprison them on return”) is, as I am certain the metropolitan police would agree, unconvincing.
The always difficult question of whether to intervene in foreign quarrels turns, for responsible decision makers and politicians, on how best to manage risk: intervention carries risks. But so does non-intervention. Getting it right is bedeviled by imperfect, sometimes wrong, intelligence. Tony Blair and George W Bush are unfairly excoriated because the intelligence consensus concerning weapons of mass destruction turned out to be wrong. Suppose it had been right?
In Syria, where the case for assistance to Assad’s moderate opponents did not turn on uncertain intelligence, and where there were low-risk ways to influence events, serious risk management strategy would have recognised that our failure to take sides meant not the end, but only the beginning, of a humanitarian and geo-political disaster.
It is possible that an early intervention in support of Syrian moderates could have led us to a better outcome. It is a cliché to say “we are where we are,” but like most clichés it contains a kernel of truth. We have to decide how to act now.
I am not opposed to intervention and supported the Iraq War. I thought it wrong to excoriate Bush and Blair for relying on intelligence that proved to be flawed: every other major power believed it but chose not to act. Support for democratic institutions in Iraq, demonstrated by voters who queue to vote at the risk of their own lives, should shame those in the UK and the US who never exercise their vote. Worse is the cowardice of the politicians who would abandon Iraq to terrorism. They blithely dismiss the Isis occupation as de facto partition and even more casually ignoring the lesson of the Kurdish Autonomous Region: that a commitment to democracy and well-organised armed forces and security services can create safety, stability and economic growth.
The priority now must be to defeat Isis. There are, of course, real threats to the UK and other European countries from jihadists. However, I do have faith in the British police and security services—and in the Muslim community who provide them with so much essential information. Since the 7/7 attacks in London, a large number of terrorist conspiracies have been disrupted and the terrorists imprisoned. Without any sense of complacency, I do believe that we can interdict the actions of returning jihadists.
The question we started with remains. Should we intervene in Syria? You have argued that we should have done so earlier on. But we cannot and should not go in anywhere without a plan for entry and exit. I remain as unclear as before what actions you would advise for today and tomorrow. Perhaps we could move on to discuss this.
Jihadists in Syria and in Iraq remind us that borders mean little in that region. After fighting for nearly three years against Assad’s army, which is supported by Russia and Hezbollah—controlled by Iran—Isis has gathered momentum, weapons and cash through terrorist proficiency, assisted by Sunni alienation from Nouri al-Maliki’s government. Never mind that Isis’s ambition—a global caliphate—is preposterous. It will continue to ignite terror and mayhem.
Despite its murderous rampage, Isis will fail. It may linger as a terrorist rabble, but it will not become the government of Syria or Iraq. Its militias and bombers will kill innocents—perhaps in appalling numbers—but it is a millenarian mafia, not a nascent state.
Western governments-—the US especially—attach great importance to national identity and cohesion, even where centrifugal forces, precarious historical legacies and mounting violence flow, like downhill water, toward fragmentation and dissolution. We tried to hold Yugoslavia together after Josip Tito and made a bad situation worse. The Balkan wars were bloodier than they would have been if we had understood the futility of forcing disparate people with disparate interests, values and ambitions to pretend to unite under a single partisan flag.
We should abandon the idea of preserving Iraq as a single state within its present borders. Maliki has dealt with the Sunni and Kurds much as Saddam Hussein dealt with the Shia and Kurds: near total disregard of their interests and abuse of the powers of government to achieve their subjugation. We in the west have been complicit in the abuses of the Maliki government. And while there has been none of the unspeakable brutality of the Saddam regime, the Sunni and Kurds are demanding changes far beyond the replacement of the Maliki government. And so they should. So should we.
I was in Kurdistan in June and learned that US officials had been pleading with Kurdish leaders to join the fight against Isis and get behind the centralised Iraqi state. They would be fools to do the latter. As for fighting Isis, the Kurdish Peshmerga needed no prodding: they secured Kirkuk when the Iraqi army fled from a small number of Isis forces and have every intention of remaining there and joining it, and perhaps other predominately Kurdish areas, to the regional government of Kurdistan. The Kurds have said they will respect the rights of all who live within their jurisdiction.
Whether they declare an independent state or demand greater autonomy within an Iraqi federation remains to be decided. They will certainly insist on a new government in Baghdad shorn of the powers to abuse and intimidate that were so readily deployed by Maliki. Whatever we choose to throw into the battle against Isis, we should back them in this.
There is undoubtedly a strong Kurdish identity that motivates their forces. I am also convinced that the values of the Kurdish parliament matter too. Its strong democratic character has proved a cause worth fighting for.
As for Iraq itself, like you, I believe that Isis will not achieve a caliphate. But there is still the need for support to ensure that progress is made and sustained against Isis. In the end, the question of support cannot be disentangled from the question of Maliki. For the sake of Iraq he has to go. A successful fight-back starts with national unity around a government all the people can trust.
I am not sure what the future shape of Iraq will be. The Kurds have won the right to more autonomy but the difficulty of uniting the Kurdish people remains. The substantial numbers—and territory—in both Turkey and Iran make unification unlikely. Strengthening economic and transport links seems the most likely way forward. And the question of Syrian Kurds, like that of all Syrians, remains painfully unresolved. I still see no easy path—no path at all, if I am honest—to an intervention there that achieves a fair and sustainable solution.
Stopping Isis in Iraq is now more urgent than in Syria. Recent territorial gains, and attacks on Shia mosques and communities to ignite sectarian violence, threaten a vastly wider war that could envelope the whole region.
So we come back to the question of western intervention about which I have three points. First, non-intervention by western governments, as we saw in the case of Syria, can become an invitation for others to intervene. The Saudis, Qataris, Russians, Iranians, al-Qaeda and affiliates rushed to fill the vacuum created by western dalliance, with horrific results. The challenge now is greater than it was then, the costs far higher and the prospect of success greatly diminished. This is true of Syria and is doubly true now that the terror has crossed the border with Iraq. The conventional wisdom that intervention, and especially armed intervention, must be only a “last resort” fails the crucial test of timeliness and effectiveness. This can only be judged case-by-case and dicta about waiting while trying every other course, no matter how inauspicious, are worse than useless.
Second, our interventions, when they do happen, have often failed—or become much more costly than expected—because we did not understand the situation we were hoping to influence. We blundered into an ill-conceived and unnecessary occupation in Iraq after dispatching Saddam’s regime in 21 days. The Iraqis could have stood up a post-Saddam interim government pending elections but we chose instead to try and govern a country we did not understand. Then we intervened to influence Iraqi elections, first supporting Ibrahim al-Jafari, and then Nouri al-Maliki. We stood by while they abused the Kurds and Sunnis and created fertile ground for Isis fanatics. Maliki must go and this time we should let the Iraqis, who understand their situation far better than we, choose their next government without advice from Washington or London.
President Barack Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 was carried out for domestic political purposes and despite warnings that have since been validated by the Isis incursion. A modest residual force might well have enabled us to influence the Maliki government and provide some leadership to the Iraqi army. Now we have begun to send troops to Baghdad but we are dispatching more advice than muscle.
Third, our intervention to defeat Isis must be part of a larger strategy for the region. Any successful strategy will recognise that strong central authority may not be appropriate for either Iraq or Syria. Effective intervention, as always, means working with allies. In this case our most important allies are the Kurds and a necessary first step must be to reverse the current policy of denying them the weapons and economic opportunities they need out of a mistaken belief that a weak Kurdistan can help create a strong Iraq. We should also help friendly Sunni tribes, even if it means they will achieve a much greater say in how Iraq is governed.
I am not an opponent of western intervention in principle. The genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia shamed the west when we stood by and did nothing. It is the wrong response to our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan to resolve that we will never intervene again. We should instead take a lesson from the Cold War—it was Nato’s strategic patience that liberated millions from communist tyranny. Staying the course is as important as embarking on it.
Our problem is the current generation of politicians who are unwilling to level with the public. There are no easy answers to sticky foreign policy problems. Libya shows you can’t have a “no boots on the ground” intervention. Syria shows that non-intervention at a key inflection point has a disastrous long run effect. The evasion, indeed cowardice, derives from a political view that the public won’t tolerate long-term interventions abroad. If that’s true, it’s due to the failure of the political class to involve the electorate in a conversation about actions and consequences. Any proper conversation would allow full discussion of necessary trade-offs. We are already involved in the Middle East, not least because it is part of our region. There are daily consequences—from migrants drowning in the Mediterranean to the threat of Isis-trained jihadists returning home. It is in our interest to make North Africa and the Middle East stable, secure and an economic success.
At the centre of this is the demand for democracy. The Arab Spring and the civil war in Syria spring from this source. We need to support the forces fighting for human rights and democracy—and that starts in Iraq. A failure to defend Iraq now would compound previous errors. As Barham Saleh, former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister and former Kurdish Prime Minister, said to British journalists in 2005: “We never asked why did the west intervene; we asked why did you wait so long.”