The ‘price of non-intervention’ is becoming one of those awful Westminster clichés. It is a phrase which, we can be sure, will be used to justify another half-cocked and disastrous military intervention in the not-too-distant future. There is growing consensus among the political class that, had wicked Ed Miliband not scuppered brave David Cameron and George Osborne’s plans to throw some bombs at the Syrian problem in 2013, the horrors of Aleppo would have been averted. Some nice, clean surgical air strikes would have sorted out that whole President Assad problem. But Parliament got cold feet, and as a result the people of Aleppo are dying, horribly. So, shame on you non-interventionists — you have blood on your hands.
George Osborne used his first major Commons speech since leaving the cabinet to make this point. ‘There were multiple opportunities to intervene,’ he said, calling our non-intervention a ‘failure of western leadership; of British leadership.’ ‘I take responsibility,’ he added, as he, essentially, blamed the House of Commons. But he took comfort that there might now be ‘some hope for what might come out from this terrible tragedy in Syria, which is that we are beginning to learn the price of not intervening.’
Other MPs, from different parties, stood up to say the same in other words. John Woodcock, the Labour MP, said he felt ‘sick’ at the role Ed Miliband had played in stopping Britain’s involvement in the conflict: ‘Look what is happening today and what has happened over the past three years — the slaughter shames us all, no matter on what side we sit and no matter what our actions were at the time. We are shamed as a nation by this.’
You can’t directly refute this argument, of course, because you can’t prove or disprove the consequences of something that didn’t happen. But there are good reasons to think that Osborne and co are talking gibberish. For one, even from a pro-interventionist standpoint, 2013 was probably too late to help Syria. Most foreign policy analysts agree that by then the civil war had already developed to the point where nobody was quite sure which of the many sides we should be opposing — the tyrant Assad or the various Islamist factions he was fighting. The ‘moderate’ rebels we wanted to help had been sidelined.
Moreover, it was obvious that Cameron and Osborne had no plan, or clue, as to what a Syrian intervention might achieve in the end. Bomb first, think later seemed to be the strategy, just as it was in Libya — and look how well that turned out. Look also at what we have achieved since we eventually decided to conduct air strikes in Syria at the end of 2015, albeit this time against Isis not Assad. The answer is nothing, or at least nothing good.
‘Britain has got its mojo back,’ Osborne bragged at the time, a phrase he appeared to have forgotten yesterday, probably because it was meaningless. The Royal Air Force is so depleted these days that our contribution to the American-led bombing efforts has been feeble. Our politicians like to brag about the ‘qualitative edge’ that the Royal Air Force brings to a fight, such as the clever RAPTOR pod on our Tornado fighter jets. They have to say ‘qualitative’ because everybody knows they couldn’t talk about quantity with a straight face. America has been conducting more than the lion’s share of all western operations in Syria. US-UK joint efforts have achieved little, apart from enabling the odd massacre of women and children, while Russia has been brutally — but more effectively — bombing Assad’s opponents and others to smithereens. Even if the West had a coherent strategy in the Middle East, the Royal Air Force would have little to offer, because of cuts to the British armed forces over the last five years. Who can we thank for that? Take a bow, George Osborne.
Again, yesterday, nobody seemed able to say exactly what purpose an earlier bombing campaign might have served — other than, perhaps, to make our politicians feel better. That, increasingly, is what British foreign policy is all about.