The more things change, the more they stay the same. I’ve said little about the situation in Syria as I’ve already outlined my thoughts on the matter two years ago, and nothing has changed to modify them since. The core problem in rethinking western involvement was demonstrated in the 2013 rejection of military intervention by the British House of Commons. This featured an unlikely alliance between hard-left anti-Americanists in Labour, right-wing so-called realists in the Conservatives, and sanctimonious opportunism on the part of the Lib Dems and secessional nationalists like the SNP. The glue in this alliance was the post-Iraq orthodoxy that western military intervention is always futile and counter-productive, and buyer’s remorse that the Iraq intervention was unjustified, illegal and based on a prospectus of lies.
I’ve derived some amusement from the second factor over the past few weeks, as the centrist rump of the Labour party have finally realised the costs of conceding the verdict on Blairism (and, by extension, the Iraq intervention) to a hard left which is now triumphantly in command of the party’s leadership and popular membership. Still, the Paris attacks have represented a catalyst for a degree of change as public opinion apparently changes as a result of exposure to stark reality of islamic fundamentalist terrorism. Although any sense of post-Paris consensus on the necessity for using force in defence of western lives will soon evaporate under the predictable resurgence of revisionism which will follow the exercise of western military force (see the errosion of support for post-9/11 military action for a relevant example), it is clear that the old certainties are no longer widely accepted to be so certain.
This brings me back to a baseline appraisal of the utility of western military intervention to secure neoliberal and even realist aims. So let’s check those examples in the post-Cold War era.
Bosnia in 1993-95 demonstrated the futility of attempting to negotiate a diplomatic settlement (such as the Vance Owen peace plan) when the local Bosnian Serb forces felt free to benefit from continuing aggression, which, let us recall, included the mass-murder of civilians and the forced expulsion of refugees on all sides of the conflict. Western air strikes were necessary to allow diplomacy in the form of the Dayton accords to succeed, while peacekeeping intervention without the willingness to use lethal force lead to the Srebrenica catastrophe.
Kosovo in 1998-99 represented another case study of the same dynamics, with even bigger refugee problem. While air strikes were one component of western military intervention, it was clear to the British leadership (i.e. Blair) that the deployment of sufficient western ground forces with a mandate to use force directly were also necessary. The culmination of Blair’s diplomacy was the utilisation of British willingness and capacity to deploy ground forces to draw the Clinton administration along and thereby achieve a settlement; one which would not have been possible without the deployment of force.
Neither of these cases represents a perfect solution. To this day the settlements involved in the former Yugoslavia simply preserve the divisons and, in some cases, the bitterness involved in those conflicts. None of these conflicts have been resolved in any final sense. But they have been halted. This means that the most immediate humanitarian crimes (mass-murder and ethnic cleansing) have been stopped, but also that the absence of armed conflict has been achieved. Such imperfect ceasefires are the necessary precondition for any lasting peace. And they were only achieveable after the deployment of armed force in pursuit of humanitarian aims.
The Sierra Leone example seems successful enough; is there anybody who really believes that the limb-maiming, child-soldier exploiting, mass-murdering and mass-raping RUF should have been left to devastate Sierra Leone unchallenged, or that Blair did the wrong thing by intervening to end their terrorism and bring their leader to justice?
But if Sierra Leone was a success, then how about Afghanistan and Iraq? Let’s be clear about this. By any reasonable standard used by realists, both of these interventions were successful. In both cases governments hostile to the west, major factors in regional instability, and hosts and backers of proxy attacks on the west have been deposed. While there are plenty of real shortcomings involved in their replacement governments in terms of corruption, inefficiency and sectarianism, they are no longer direct threats to the west. In terms of national interest, that’s a genuinely acceptable outcome for realists. And also for liberals, as both the Iraq and Afghan governments are, however ineptly and incompetantly, our allies in terms of fighting islamic terrorists such as ISIS or the Taliban, and both remain a clear improvement over their predecessors in terms of delivering some semblance of human rights to their population.
This does not mean that either intervention has been handled well. In Iraq, for example, the outcome has been marred by a catastrophic level of civilian casualties and this was (and remains) a clear problem in Afghanistan as well. But, as I argue elsewhere in relation to the British military experience in Iraq, most of the civilian casualty toll cannot be attributed to western military forces and in fact is attributable to the forces fighting against them.
In conclusion, western military intervention has a relatively successful record in terms of securing national interest in a way realists (concerned with self national interests and power) and neoliberals (concerned with values and international collaboration) should be able to recognise. All of these interventions have been constrained by relative factors negatively affecting their outcomes; none have been perfect. But no military operation will ever be perfect. Nor will any diplomatic compromise be perfect. What matters is an objective judgement determining national interest, whether in realist or neoliberal terms.
Which brings us to Syria. There are a long list of reasons, many of them completely valid, why any western intervention in Syria will fail to achieve the objectives sought. Some are less valid. Two of the latter that realists tend to invoke are the apparently-interconnected necessities of accomodating Russian interests and accepting the continuance of the Assad regime as a component of an anti-ISIS coalition.
There’s no question that the Russian intervention, basing Russian aircraft in Syria to attack anti-Assad rebels, has complicated matters. The shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkish fighters was a predictable consequence which, even now, risks further escalation. But in realist terms, it may well be useful that after Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by coercion, Putin receives a demonstration that his escalations risk responses, and that other actors have the will and capability to respond in unmistakably hard power terms which may exceed his appetite for brinksmanship. In this case, the Turks can be seen to be responding to Russian airstrikes on Syrian rebel groups such as the Turkomans (supported by Turkey). There is a Russian interest in ensuring that the conflict between Turkey and Russian over what are on both sides their backing for proxies, does not escalate uncontrollably.
Nor should the Russian deployment be seen as imposing a veto on western action. The reality has been that the Russian deployment is limited to the north-west of Syria and, as their recent agreement with the French indicates, agreements over ‘deconfliction’ (avoiding a repeat of the Turkish shoot-down) are possible. They are even more likely if the evident conviction behind western action is apparent, which, after Paris, seems to be the case. Putin’s room for manoevre has been limited not only by this, but also the fact that airstrikes alone are unlikely to be decisive. Absent a massive escalation in the Russian commitment in terms of air and, most of all, military power on the ground, the Assad regime remains unable to defeat the disparate but extensive rebel groups confronting it.
While Putin’s intervention might buy some more time for Assad, it is now clear since the loss of the SU-24 and the Paris attacks, that it can only constrain and not eliminate a more significant western response. If true, this leaves Putin with problems unresolved by his intervention.
The limited capacity of airstikes alone to defeat insurgents is a factor which also destroys the ‘Assad is necessary to fight ISIS’ argument. If Assad was able to defeat ISIS, he would have done so by now. His regime is either unable or unwilling to do so. If it lacks the capacity, we have no need to consider it as a necessary partner in that task. If it lacks the will, this merits some consideration. Indeed, if the claimed necessity of keeping him on hand to fight ISIS is a major card in his hand when attempting to preserve his regime in the face of western demands to depose him, then it is in Assad’s interest not to fight ISIS at all. At least until his continuation in power has been accepted.
A reluctance to intervene in Syria is understandable; but as the modification of previous realist objections to intervention after the Paris attacks indicate, the essense of the problem has always been political will.
In this situation, any realist worth their salt will reconsider what British national interests are without cloaking their reluctance in fradulent assertions of the capability and interests of the Assad regime. I suggest the continuation of the Syrian civil war is against British interest, as is the continuation of the Assad regime. The reality is that his regime is going to go, either now, or later; it lacks the capacity to defeat internal armed opposition by itself. What matters is the post-Assad order, and on that basis, and for all their manifest shortcomings, the Iraq and Afghanistan examples offer some basis for proceding with a reasonable expectation of some (albeit limited) success. But as the Yugoslav experience demonstrates, the necessary diplomacy to achieve this will require military intervention; and not just air strikes, but intervention on the ground in sufficient force to a) defeat the pretence of ISIS to run a state in eastern Syria, and b) shape the consequent political settlement in western interest. Restricting ourselves to exploiting the Kurds to provide the necessary forces to fight in our interest has limitations on both counts.
Neither of these objectives will be easily achieved. But nor are they impossible. Even the attempt would stand a better chance of shaping the outcomes to be better for western interests than the continuing and unchallenged acceptance of a dangerously misguided received wisdom on the (f)utility of western intervention. Note how well that has served us in Syria thus far; while the deconstruction of it in the post-Paris conext at Jeremy Corbyn’s expense provides some amusement, it has also come at the cost of tolerating the civil war and everything it has produced so far – catastophic levels of refugee movement to Europe, mass-murder, barrel-bombings, chemical attacks on civilians, mass-rape, ethnic cleansing, the invasion and extension of ISIS to northern Iraq, the inspiration of terrorist attacks in Europe and overseas, and another episode of Russian adventurism.
None of which are in British national interest, and all of which should have been addressed by all necessary means in British national policy long before now.