Sooner or later, we'll have to go into Syria

David Cameron makes comparisons with Iraq, but more apt is Bosnia, where Western self-interest put a stop to its inertia in the face of bloodshed

Share
Related Topics

On Friday, the Prime Minister warned that fear of being sucked into another Iraq was distorting the discussion over Syria, where Bashar al-Assad's regime continues to massacre civilians, and is close to crossing western "red lines" on the use of chemical weapons. It is not hard to follow his reasoning. Tony Blair's triumph in Kosovo in 1999 paved the way four years later for the furiously controversial British participation in the removal of Saddam Hussein. Today, Mr Cameron must be asking himself whether the largely successful intervention in Libya will be followed by nemesis in Syria. He will also be conscious of the paradox of pre-emption: you will never be thanked for the evil you have prevented, but you will be made responsible for everything that follows an intervention. Given the stakes and the background, therefore, Mr Cameron's caution is understandable.

The better comparison, however, is not Iraq or Libya but Bosnia, where Serb "ethnic cleansing" raged uncheckedfrom 1992 to 1995. There, Western powers at first refused to intervene for fear of becoming embroiled in an ethnic morass of marginal strategic relevance. The result was to weaken the strong multi-ethnic consensus within the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, as loyal Croats, Serbs and moderate Muslims despaired of outside help, and either emigrated or retreated into passivity. Their places were often taken by more extreme elements, including jihadists from abroad. The radicalisation of the Bosnian side then became a staple of the argument against intervention. Even if Bosnia might once have been saved, it was too late. Eventually, Nato was forced to step in, and the killing came to an end, but the unique multi-ethnic Bosnia, which might have been rescued, was shattered beyond repair.

We see a similar pattern in Syria. It should not be forgotten that the rebellion against Assad began in March 2011 as a non-violent protest against the brutality of his intelligence services in the southern town of Deraa. The unarmed demonstrators were shot down by regime forces, but it was some time before armed resistance began, and many months before the first substantial Islamist presence was reported. The lack of effective Western intervention, however, narrowed the middle ground, as secular moderates fled the fighting or went to ground. Radical Islamists moved more to the forefront, many financially and logistically supported by politically conservative and religiously radical Gulf Arab monarchies. These are effective fighters, but a terrible scourge to any Christians, Alawites and Shias who cross their paths. As in Bosnia, the retreat of the moderates has become an argument against intervention. We now regularly hear that it is "too late" to save Syria.

Aagain, as in Bosnia, the failure to deal with an enormous crime on our doorstep is a serious threat to Europe's security. Sooner or later the regime, which has already tested the waters with small-scale use of chemical weapons – will move to their full-scale deployment with terrible consequences. We are turning the dictator's line that there is no alternative between him and the Islamists, anarchy and destruction, into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The implications of this for the rest of the Middle East are not only profoundly depressing, but dangerous, because it will reinforce our association with anti-democratic forces in the region, be they conservative monarchies or hereditary "republics". Moreover, the regime in Damascus is the principal conduit for Iranian support to Hezbollah, which it plans to unleash on Israel and the west if Tehran's nuclear programme is attacked. Bringing down Assad will reduce the Iranian appetite for adventurism. The conflict is on the verge of reigniting the civil wars in Lebanon, and perhaps Iraq too, where Sunnis and Shias are watching the fates of their co-religionists with alarm. In the end, we are going to have to intervene.

Military action will be much harder than it was in the former Yugoslavia, where we supported the legitimate, government in Sarajevo. Today, the Syrian government has lost all legitimacy, but the opposition lacks coherence. That does not mean, however, that nothing can be done. The support of the United Nations is desirable but not essential. As in Kosovo, the threat of a Sino-Russian veto should not stand in the way of decisive action to prevent further massacres, and stabilise the south-eastern approaches to the EU and North Atlantic Treaty area.

Britain should begin by asking Nato to impose a no-fly zone over the country, and threaten air attacks on all of the regime's heavy weaponry. This should be accompanied by a political initiative to support the opposition under the Syrian National Council to setting up free zones along the Turkish border, in which a provisional government should be established with representation from all major population groups. This approach needs to be embedded in a broader Western strategy to protect Middle East minorities, especially the Shias of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia whom we have neglected for too long. The west should insist (as in Bosnia) that foreign fighters be sent home, and local Islamists disarmed. Nato should then train and equip the remaining opposition forces until the regime has fallen. There is no guarantee that Christians, Alawites and Shias will not suffer reprisals, but there seems to be little support for this among ordinary Syrians, and in any case the biggest long-term threat to minorities' survival is the Sunni anger the regime is stoking.

Mr Cameron's timely intervention in Libya averted a massacre, and enabled its Western and Eastern halves to continue to live together, however uneasily. In Syria, by contrast, the prospects for coexistence become grimmer every day. Understandably, the Prime Minister has hesitated before taking action in Syria, but the longer he leaves it, the harder it will be.

Brendan Simms, professor of the history of international relations at Cambridge University, is author of 'Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Read Next
'Our media are suffering a new experience: not fear of being called anti-Semitic'  

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk
David Cameron (pictured) can't steal back my party's vote that easily, says Nigel Farage  

Cameron’s benefits pledge is designed to lure back Ukip voters. He’ll have to try harder

Nigel Farage
Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices