Thinking again about Syrian intervention

News of another dreadful massacre in Syria – and Kofi Annan’s grim report to the UN today – will inevitably prompt fresh calls for military intervention in Syria.

In a column a couple of weeks ago, I came out against intervention. That was not a piece I particularly enjoyed writing – and a few people I respect have upbraided me for (in effect) a callous indifference to the massacre of children. So I have promised to keep thinking about it.

I would recommend anybody who wants to get a sense of the debate to read these two columns – one by my colleague, Roula Khalaf, and one by Henry Kissinger. Roula is in favour of intervention. Kissinger – “realist” that he is – is opposed.

Roula’s powerful piece combines a humanitarian and a strategic perspective. Her column, unlike Kissinger’s, articulates a genuine and passionate revulsion at the events in Syria. But she also makes the strategic point that a failure to intervene risks “a prolonged, bloodier, and more sectarian conflict that threatens stability across the region”. Nonetheless, she is frank enough to accept that intervening would “involve enormous risks”.

Kissinger, characteristically, takes the argument all the way back to the Treaty of Westphalia. I did not like his implication that outside interventions on moral grounds are to be opposed on principle, given the dangers they pose to the international system. But I think he does make some other very powerful points. He writes: “While the United States accelerates withdrawal from military interventions in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, how can a new military commitment in the same region be justified, particularly one likely to face similar challenges?”

From a western perspective, this strikes me as a key point. We are coming to the end of a decade in which so many lives and so much money, goodwill and prestige have been squandered in ill-fated western interventions in the Muslim world. All the major western powers are deeply in debt and are facing an incredibly fragile international economic situation. Under such circumstances, it would be reckless to jump into another military intervention in the Middle East. In Libya, we got away with a pretty minimal intervention. But we are unlikely to be so lucky in Syria given the country’s advanced weaponry, regional importance, sectarian divisions and links to Iran.

If there is to be an intervention then regional powers should take the lead. Let the Turks set up the safe haven along the border. Let the Saudis, who have spent fortunes on advanced weaponry, help out.  If Nato plays a role it can provide logistical support – and perhaps air cover. This is no longer a world in which the west can put everything to rights.