Will the world ever step in to stop the Syrian slaughter? - Middle East - World - The Independent

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.

Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape
music
News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
filmMatt Damon in talks to return
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Life and Style
tech... and together they're worth at least £100 million
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig is believed to be donning skies as 007 for the first time
Arts and Entertainment
Fringe show: 'Cilla', with Sheridan Smith in the title role and Aneurin Barnard as her future husband Bobby Willis
tvEllen E Jones on ITV's 'Cilla'
Life and Style
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
tech(but you can't escape: Bono is always on your iPhone)
Sport
Tim Wiese
sport
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
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

Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are currently...

Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is urgently re...

General Cover Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: SECONDARY SUPPLY TEACHERS NEEDED...

Food Technology Teacher

£6720 - £38400 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Can you teach Food Te...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week