A disturbing momentum is building for intervention in Syria. It is hard to interpret yesterday’s decision to call Parliament back early in any other way.
Since the start of the weekend, political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have been dropping heavy hints about their readiness to use force, following the apparent gas attack on rebel-held territory last week. The tone was set by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who described the attack as a “moral obscenity”. David Cameron cut short his holiday, Nick Clegg cancelled a visit to Afghanistan, and the National Security Council will be convened today. The requisite military hardware for air strikes – we are told – is already in place.
Along with the appearance of fevered preparations, however, there is an equally worrying sense of déjà vu. Have we not been here, or somewhere very like here, before? And to what effect? We hardly needed Tony Blair’s appeal for the handwringing to stop and the action to start to remind us of the parallels with Iraq. After President Obama opened his second term, promising an end to a decade of wars, can it really be that Western leaders are succumbing to the lure of a new adventure so soon? Without waiting for the UN inspectors? Without seriously trying to get the Russians and Chinese on board?
It is just about possible to divine some other explanations. One is that Mr Obama has to talk tough to compensate for inaction on his “red lines”, and a British prime minister, as so often, is game to play along. Another, slim, possibility is that the threats are a bluff. The US and Britain tried something similar in June, in an attempt to force President Assad to negotiate, but talks were delayed. The idea this time would be to make the threat of intervention that much more credible. But bluff is the most dangerous of games.
We would like to believe that Mr Cameron has learnt the lessons of Iraq, and acts accordingly. One of those lessons is to wait for the actual findings of the UN inspectors, who have been – belatedly – granted access to the attack site. Another is to work harder for an international consensus. Russia has not ruled out any action; it demands proof of responsibility. A third is to consider the regional fallout: unrest in and around Iraq continues more than 10 years on, while Syria’s civil war is already destabilising its neighbours. And a fourth is to heed the concerns of the top brass and the public mood.
The US and Britain may have left Iraq to reap the whirlwind we sowed, but the far from glorious withdrawal from Afghanistan is still a year away, and our economies are only just recovering from the financial crisis. For all the horrendous pictures of the suffering in Syria, there is no popular appetite to become embroiled once again in someone else’s war. This is the message that MPs, mindful of their complicity in the Iraq debacle, must send when they debate Syria this week.