Will the world ever step in to stop the Syrian slaughter?

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

As the West's rhetoric has escalated, so has the death toll from Assad's killers. Kim Sengupta asks whether a military response is anywhere on the horizon

Syria is not Libya – that was the oft-repeated mantra of senior military officers as they gathered last week in Whitehall for talks. They had come together to discuss the future of land warfare and how the British Army would cope with its numbers being slashed by a fifth. After the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prevalent feeling was that this was a time for retrenchment and reflection, rather than sending expeditionary forces into battle in far-off lands.

The senior officers at Rusi (the Royal United Services Institute) debated what can be achieved in Afghanistan in the two-and-a-half years left before international forces withdraw, the lessons learned from the Libya missions and the threats of the future, such as cyber warfare.

No one thought that British forces should get sucked into the Syrian civil war and the Americans present could not foresee their involvement either. Thus it was something of a surprise for the commanders to hear the Foreign Secretary William Hague declare on television two days later – as 4,100 more service personnel were about to receive their redundancy notices – that he could not rule out British troops being sent to Syria.

"It is looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s, being on the edge of a sectarian conflict in which neighbouring villages are killing each other," Mr Hague said.

More than 12,000 British troops ended up serving in Bosnia. With a UK force of 9,500 still engaged in combat in Helmand and the overall size of the forces shrinking after the Strategic Defence and Security Review, this sort of commitment simply would not be possible now.

But the arithmetic is not the only reason why senior military officers are opposed to getting involved in the battle between Bashar al-Assad's regime and the armed opposition.

A serving British General with combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan said: "Leaving aside the matter that there was a [UN] Security Council resolution on Libya and there isn't one on Syria, we have to ask ourselves would there be the political will to carry this through if we do go in? We have seen in Afghanistan the political will wilting while ours remained strong. We have still got unfinished business in Afghanistan, We are not sure how Libya will ultimately play out. Is this really the time to start another operation? Our view is no, it's not."

For Admiral Sir Alan West, a former head of the Royal Navy, sending in British troops "would be the worst scenario possible. It is indeed a civil war in Syria and increasingly a sectarian one and the last thing you want to do is to introduce Western troops on to the ground in such a volatile situation. All you'll be doing would be further inflaming regional tensions.

"Of course, everything that can be done must be done to stop the killings, but this is not the answer. In any event the Europeans would not be able to do it by themselves, the Americans will have to be involved, but I wouldn't have thought the Americans would want to put their hands into the mangle in this one."

General Sir Mike Jackson, who led Nato forces into Kosovo and was the head of the Army during the Iraq war, said: "We can certainly hear the noises for intervention rising and these things have a political momentum of their own; with each atrocity there would be more pressure.

"But we must exercise caution. Syria is not Libya, any intervention there carries huge risks. The UK cannot, of course, carry out anything like that alone; it'll have to be done multinationally and I can't see the enthusiasm to do this. It may be possible to set up a humanitarian corridor and this could well be worthwhile. But that is very different from a Balkans-type intervention."

Brigadier Ben Barry, who has extensive experience of serving in Bosnia and is now the senior fellow for land warfare at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said: "There are similarities with what is happening in Syria, but also significant differences. In the Balkans all three sides formed armies fairly quickly from the old Yugoslav army and formed their own enclaves, so borders of sorts could be established; that is certainly not the case here. We also need to bear in mind that there is a possibility the Israelis may carry out their threat of carrying out strikes on Iran. This is probably not the time to internationalise another conflict in the region."

Despite facing virtually no anti-aircraft defences, it took seven months of Nato bombing to facilitate victory for the Libyan rebels over Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Syria has an estimated 90 fighters and 240 ground attack aircraft, most of them Russian-made MiG 23s and MiG 21s, Mi-24 Hind helicopter-gunships and 4,700 surface-to-air missiles in an air-defence system augmented recently, it is believed, by the Russians and the the Chinese. The army is 300,000-strong with an equal number of reservists and, unlike Libya, there have not been many defections, especially from senior ranks.

Admiral West said: "We know the type of air defences they have, double-digit SAMs [surface to air missiles] and the like and if we send in the Tornados, for example, we can expect to lose a few, that is unless the Americans put in a fair amount of suppression with things like their Growlers (electronic warfare aircraft). "These are the types of risks one faces in conflicts, but the important thing is that the public should know about these risks."

Armed intervention: the case against

Limited international support

Unlike Libya, there is no UN resolution authorising military action.

Provocative act

Putting Western troops on the ground in such a volatile region would be an incendiary move.

Lack of political will

The UK is in no position to carry out such a mission by itself and neither is Nato without US help. Barack Obama has shown no desire to get involved militarily.

Strength of Syrian forces

It took Nato months of bombing against virtually no air defence to help Libya's rebels to victory. The Syrian defences are far stronger.

Regional volatility

With the possibility of Israel launching strikes against Iranian nuclear plants it is not the time to internationalise a second conflict in the region.

UK defence cuts

With the savage cuts of the SDSR and the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it is time for Britain's armed forces to retrench rather than embark on another mission.

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA powerful collection of reportage on Egypt’s cycle of awakening and relapse
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Up my street: The residents of the elegant Moray Place in Edinburgh's Georgian New Town
tvBBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past
Extras
indybest
News
Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry has been the teaching profession's favourite teacher
education
Sport
Luis Suarez looks towards the crowd during the 2-1 victory over England
sport
Life and Style
Cheesecake frozen yoghurt by Constance and Mathilde Lorenzi
food + drinkThink outside the cool box for this summer’s frozen treats
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Sport
Sir Bradley Wiggins removes his silver medal after the podium ceremony for the men’s 4,000m team pursuit in Glasgow yesterday
Commonwealth games Disappointment for Sir Bradley in team pursuit final as England are forced to settle for silver
Sport
Alistair Brownlee (right) celebrates with his gold medal after winning the men’s triathlon alongside brother Jonny (left), who got silver
England's Jodie Stimpson won the women’s triathlon in the morning
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform