Britain may have lost an empire without finding a role, as an American politician sneered, but history was made in the House of Commons on Thursday evening. Not because members defeated the official motion to go to war but because David Cameron solemnly promised that despite his own convictions, his government would respect the voice of democracy. Bereft of British support, Barack Obama can still rely on the French, whose foreign policy does not need parliamentary sanction. Or the United States of America can live up to its lone cowboy image and go it alone.
In truth, Britain was never of more than marginal consequence in the escalating crisis. It just seemed more central because Britain was historically responsible for some of the problems that bedevil West Asia today and because the deafening beat of war drums in London — with Tony Blair adding his tinny notes to the resonance — proclaimed Cameron’s hankering for another global drama in which, like Blair in the past, he and William Hague could have bit parts. That does not mean that there was ever any public support in Britain for invading or bombing Syria to destroy Bashar al-Assad, as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were destroyed. The American public is equally sceptical about government propaganda.
Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have not generated confidence in the West’s ability to march into a country, tear down the existing state structure and realize Obama’s stated vision of a “peaceful, non-sectarian, democratic, legitimate and tolerant” regime. Gaunt television images have succeeded in creating a wave of revulsion against poison gas, but it still is not certain that it was used in Syria, or, if used, was used by government forces or the rebels. Even if it was the government, the US, United Kingdom and France are not authorized “global policemen”, as Hans Blix, the former United Nations chief weapons inspector, tartly pointed out. And even if they were, international law does not explicitly sanction military action against the use of chemical weapons. If it did, the US would have to be brought to book for poisoning Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with 20 million gallons of defoliant and herbicides (including the notorious Agent Orange) that killed 400,000 Vietnamese and resulted in 500,000 children being born with defects.
It is also asked why options for a peaceful resolution have been ignored. The Arab League, the Organization of Islamic States and the non-aligned nations movement would all more directly feel the consequences of the conflict. Yet, they do not appear to have been involved. Until the UN inspectors flew to Syria a few days ago, there were no multilateral approaches at all, nor any feelers for negotiations. The strategy seems to be somehow to get round Russian and Chinese resistance and weaken Assad with air strikes so that his territorial and other gains are nullified and he is on the same level as the rebels. Victors’ terms can then be forced down his throat.
No one pretends that Assad’s minority sect Alawite regime is the epitome of liberal democratic values. His Ba’ath Socialist Party has been in power since 1963. His family has ruled Syria since 1971. Discontent is inevitable. It erupted into civil war in 2011 when Assad bombed protesters during the so-called Arab Spring instead of trying to talk them out of revolting. But it is his friendly ties with Iran and the Hezbollah, both of which supply him with weapons, that really condemns Assad in American and Israeli eyes. That he is not a fundamentalist like some regional rulers matters as little as Saddam’s secularism. Assad is also a thorn in the side of the Sunni absolutist monarchies in Qatar and Saudi Arabia who fund and arm the rebels.
By all accounts, the Free Syrian Army which is said to stand for all those liberal democratic values Obama cites is something of a myth. There are an estimated 1,200 different rebel units in Syria ranging from family bands of fighters to small armies with tanks and artillery. The most powerful among them are the al-Nusra Front, which makes no bones of its al-Qaida connection, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which lives up to its name. It is active in Iraq and responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northeast Syria, about 40,000 of whom have fled to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Together with other jihadist groups, both organizations are reportedly trying to impose Shariat law in the areas they control. Saddled with its own Kurdish minority, and with a 560-mile border with Syria, Turkey, whose ruling Justice and Development Party is suspected of receiving a $10-billion handout from the Saudi monarchy, has been demanding a no-fly zone over Syria ever since the Syrians shot down a Turkish jet and the Turks forced down a Syrian passenger aircraft flying from Moscow to Damascus. The reason given was that the plane was carrying arms and ammunition — which both Russia and Syria vehemently denied — in violation of the Convention on International Civil Aviation, but it transpired that all that the aircraft carried was dual-use radar equipment.
No one has suggested as yet that the US might also look on Syria’s natural gas fields as a prize, even more attractive than Iraq’s oil fields. Natural gas means clean energy, which is something that is becoming mandatory for members of the European Union, which has imposed an arms embargo on Syria. Russia’s Gazprom, which is now the biggest natural gas supplier to the EU and controls 25 per cent of the European market, is planning to increase its output by 12 per cent to 155 billion cubic metres. Turkey also depends on Gazprom for 40 per cent of its gas. No Western power or its regional supporter wants to see the planned $10-billion Syria-Iran-Iraq pipeline — agreed to in July 2011 — realized. It may be no accident that just as the Turks were carving out a 10-km-wide “no man’s land” out of Syrian territory, Israel mobilized its forces on the Golan Heights, which it seized from Syria in the 1967 war. The effect could be to present Assad’s beleaguered government with the “multi-front war” that a Brookings Institute strategic paper — titled “Saving Syria: Assessing Options for Regime Change” — spoke of.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, or of parties that are well disposed to it, introduces another factor in regional politics. Those who are outraged by Assad’s conduct see no cause for concern in events in Egypt where the military arbitrarily removed the country’s first democratically elected president and massacred hundreds of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Continued US aid to the tune of an annual $1.3 billion for Egypt’s military encourages speculation regarding the need for Egyptian air space and facilities in the event of strikes against Syria. Apart from the advantages of a pro-Western ruler in Damascus, a change of regime there might also help to exorcize Obama’s fear that Iran would interpret inaction as weakness and go ahead with its suspected nuclear plans.
None of this betrays either any wisdom gleaned from the folly of intervention in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Somalia or any serious stock-taking of future possibilities. Lee Kuan Yew’s warning to the Americans that if they toppled the Burmese junta, which had suppressed democracy and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, they should be around to pick up the pieces afterwards is apposite. If Western intervention rescues Syria from the frying pan of Assad’s rule, it may be only to throw the country into the fire of Islamist rebels squabbling among themselves and fomenting strife in neighbouring countries. The British decision should give Obama reason for pause.