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The myth of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Syria

10 September 2018

1:50 PM

10 September 2018

1:50 PM

To be honest, it’s hard to think of a report by a select committee that is so well-meaning as the one issued today by the Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Tom Tugendhat, or one that’s more misguided.

The gist is that Britain’s non-intervention in Syria has been disastrous for Syria itself and for its neighbours, from Lebanon to Turkey. And the moral is that if humanitarian intervention has a price, so too has non-intervention. As the report says:

‘There has been a manifest failure to protect civilians and to prevent mass atrocity crimes in Syria. This failure has gone beyond the heavy toll paid by the Syrian people to the surrounding region, and had repercussions in Europe and the UK. It is the committee’s view that this failure derives principally not from the actions taken by the international community but inaction.’

‘The international community’s inaction created an opportunity for others, particularly Russia and Iran, to intervene, changing the politics of the conflict in Syria. We believe the government needs to understand the role the UK’s inaction has had and learn the lessons from it for the future.’

Really? What lessons would they be, precisely? And, more to the point, what bearing would they have on the fall of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold, to Syrian government forces, which will happen sooner rather than later?

First off, whose side would we be, or have been, intervening on in this many-sided war in which international players call the shots? The opponent the Committee plainly has in mind is President Assad and his regime and his Russian/Iranian backers, but there is no clue in the report about what would happen if Britain had intervened militarily and successfully against him. Cui bono? Who would we be backing?

In the last episode of decisive British intervention in the region, in Libya, Britain was perfectly clear about who it wanted out of power, viz, Muammar Gaddafi, but was very much less coherent about who it wanted to fill the vacuum he left. The effects in Libya, which is not just a failed state but one in which IS remains able to operate, are an object lesson in what happens when you fail to ask, let alone answer, that fundamental question.

So, if the committee had its way, would we be intervening now (presumably in the face of Russian air power) to prevent the fall of Idlib, a fall which would itself be a means for this interminable conflict to be brought to something like a close? And if we did, would we be scrutinising the exact character of the forces we’d be assisting in our intervention? Any sane humanitarian should be hoping for that last rebel stronghold to fall – with the minimum civilian casualties and without recourse to chemical weapons – simply to bring the fighting to an end and to bring about a situation in which refugees could potentially return to their homes. The regime forces, assisted by Russian air power, have won the war and that’s good – better than the alternative. The humanitarian response now is not to prolong the loss of life and prevent the fall of Idlib, but to think about what will follow.

The chief episode of non-intervention was of course, the Commons vote back in 2013 not to approve military intervention against Assad’s forces. I’d say the decision was entirely sensible, and a credit to Ed Miliband who opposed the move. Because the argument for intervention was premised on a falsehood: that there was a cohesive, disciplined rebel coalition that could replace the regime and whose forces were not stuffed to the rafters with Islamist extremists, from IS to al-Nusra. Anyone seeking to understand this conflict, in Syria and Iraq, should first read Patrick Cockburn’s magisterial analysis of the situation in The Age of Jihad, that leaves little doubt about the real issues at stake back then, notably the sectarian dimensions of the conflict.


That Syrian liberal-democrat coalition did not exist; it was a figment of wishful thinking on the part of David Cameron and his advisers. Back in 2012, American intelligence reported on the nature of the rebel forces signed up against the Assad regime and they gave no grounds whatsoever for illusions that these were peaceful social democrats, as opposed to a coalition in which Islamists were the most potent element. Of course, there were delightful and articulate Syrian opposition leaders whom Western politicians met periodically in expensive hotels for conferences to discuss the Syrian situation; but their influence back home was precisely zero; their chances of leading any post Assad regime rather less than zero. Had Britain and the US intervened decisively – with the best of intentions mind you – against Syrian government forces in 2013, we could have helped replace a brutal and repressive regime with something rather worse.

And how, exactly, would the Committee have dealt with Islamic State (which is still by no means extinct) while simultaneously destroying the only forces capable of engaging with it other than the Kurds? And what about the Kurds, who joined the offensives against IS in Raqqa and elsewhere – would the Committee now be backing them against attacks from Turkish forces – a conflict which is very pertinent at present? Just asking.

When it comes to the rise of IS, which was the worst catastrophe to have befallen the wretched population in its huge caliphate, the truth appears to be that it was precisely Western intervention – yep, in Iraq – that caused the problem. The decisive victory for IS was its conquest of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, having previously captured Fallujah, in 2014. And the main reason for the fall of Mosul was the incompetence and cowardice of the Iraqi army, which was substantially dismantled after the fall of Saddam Hussein; indeed, Mosul was the home of many of the army’s former members and their families. Without that illegal invasion of Iraq, without the fall of Saddam and the destruction of the Iraqi army that followed, the rise of IS would simply not have happened in the way it did.

Finally, the Committee quite properly reminds the Government of its duty to prevent and punish genocide. Yes, yes, yes. And the most tragic and preventable incidence of genocide in the region was that of the wretched and innocent Yazidis by Islamic State, not long after the fall of Mosul. The men and old women were killed; the boys were taken as child recruits of IS; the young women, thousands of them, taken into sexual slavery. And what did the British government do to prevent this happening? Nothing. What would have been done differently if Mr Tugendhat and the committee had their way? It’s by no means clear.

I’m not against liberal interventionism in itself; au contraire. During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia I was all in favour of lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian government and supporting it with air strikes. But that was a relatively coherent conflict, with foreseeable consequences from intervention. In the Syrian war that’s not true, and the consequences that are foreseeable seem disastrous. And the fact that this confused, well-meaning report is being subjected to so little critical scrutiny is symptomatic of our muddle-headed and irrational approach to the entire conflict in Syria.

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