Alex Younger used the description of the cynicism and savagery of war by the Roman historian Tacitus to describe the campaign of Russia and the Assad regime in Syria – “they make a desert, then call it peace”. He wanted to stress the appalling suffering of civilians from relentless bombing. “The human tragedy is heartbreaking,” he said.
There is also a security price to pay for this, Mr Younger said in his first public speech since becoming head of MI6. The anger sparked by such punitive military action would create a recruiting pool of jihadis to target the international community, including Britain. Russia, which has experienced its own share of terrorism, would not be immune.
What Mr Younger said makes sense. But he is, to an extent, swimming against the prevailing tide. There is nothing to indicate that Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad will change their minds about what they are doing, and indeed their recent gains in Aleppo, with regime troops moving in after pounding air strikes have cleared the way, can be used to prove that gains are being made through draconian methods, at least in the short term.
There is little or no chance of the West doing anything effective to stop this. Indeed America’s President-elect has himself vowed to “bomb the s*** out of Isis”. Wiser counsel, in the form of former military commanders in his cabinet, is likely to ensure that such action, with civilian casualties it is likely to produce, will not be undertaken. But Donald Trump remains an admirer of Mr Putin and sees him as a future ally against Islamist terrorists and it is unlikely that he will be persuaded by what Mr Younger had to say on Thursday.
The head of MI6 also spoke out against the use of torture to obtain information. “There is a pernicious myth that, somehow, intelligence services are moral equivalents. That the end justifies the means, whatever the cost... and it is wrong” he said. “We understand that if we undermine the values we defend, even in the name of defending them, then we have lost.”
Compare these words with those of Mr Trump who vowed during his presidential campaign to bring in methods which are “far more than waterboarding” because “torture works, OK folks”. Again, it is hoped, that the President-elect’s military and security advisors, who have publicly spoken out against torture, will manage to stop this from happening. But it is a problem which the British and other Western services allied to the Americans cannot ignore.
It is believed that senior CIA officers have assured their counterparts in MI6 that they do not expect brutal acts like waterboarding to be reinstated and new ones introduced. But the geopolitics of this year has certainly taught us to expect the unexpected. One cannot rule out the possibility that in the future Mr Younger may have to worry not just about the old adversaries, the Russians, but also old friends, the Americans.
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