Conventional wisdom suggests that Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime will crumble from within if given enough time. That’s the reasoning which has, in part at least, prevented Western governments from intervening in the conflict so far.
Tony Blair challenged proponents of that view yesterday. ‘People say inevitably he will go. I don’t think it is inevitable, actually, unless we are prepared to make clear our support and solidarity for those people who are struggling against what is a very, very brutal repression now,’ he told Radio 4’s Today programme.
Although Blair isn’t necessarily advocating military intervention, he does think we should be exploring military options more thoroughly. This is the conundrum facing Western governments. As the crisis in Syria intensifies and the country falls into increasing lawlessness, only the jihadists benefit.
The Free Syrian Army simply doesn’t have the experience of waging effective guerrilla warfare. By contrast, incoming jihadists from Iraq have years of experience which gives them an edge over the more secular anti-Assad fighters.
Walking away from that situation is profoundly dangerous, empowering jihadist elements in one of the region’s most strategically important countries. ‘What I’m certainly very alarmed at the prospect of is the notion that we just leave that now. The consequences of that will be very brutal and very bloody for all the people there,’ Blair counselled.
Despite serving as envoy for the Quartet to the Middle East, Blair has resisted saying much about the Syrian conflict. His silence is influenced by critics of the war in Iraq, but his experiences there qualify him more than most to help Western governments explore the options available to them in Syria.
Following the invasion of Iraq things got much worse before getting better. Last year, Iraq had one of the fastest growing economies in the world and, according to Citibank, will be the third fasting growing economy from now until 2050 with an annual increase of 7.7 per cent in GDP year on year. That places it just one spot behind India.
Living standards are also improving. According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, just under 20 million people now have mobile phones whereas there was no cellular coverage in the country prior to the conflict. The number of landline subscriptions has risen from 833,000 to 1.3 million, while private internet subscriptions have also rise from a paltry 4,600 before the war to 1.6 million.
The challenges of intervening in Syria echo many of those already faced in Iraq. The current dilemma forces us to choose between a difficult confrontation or abandoning the country to jihadists. Of course, Iraq is no utopia today but it is foolhardy to suggest the country is not better off than it was a decade ago.
Blair’s approach towards Syria has hardened. In April he was still arguing that a negotiated settlement to the conflict was possible but was notably more bullish on the Today programme. ‘I would be advocating ramping up where we are. How you do that, whether it is along the lines of what the Turks have suggested, creating zones of immunity, these are questions that we should debate,’ he said. That debate is urgently needed – and Blair’s experiences in Iraq mean we need to hear more from him about what an intervention in Syria might look like.