It would seem that things in Syria are coming closer to the boil. There are several different conflicts taking place in that benighted country, and it would be worth teasing out the different levels in order to try and seek more understanding (and even so, in a short article like this, I’m going to have to oversimplify).
On one level this is a civil war between the Assad government and insurgents seeking to overthrow him. We think of the insurgents as being ISIS, the extremist Islamists well known for their horrific torture videos shared on YouTube. Anyone who is opposed to them must be on the side of right, right? Complicating this Syrian civil war, however, are the other elements that are also seeking to gain freedom from the Assad government, such as the Kurdish groups that seek to be affiliated with the autonomous region in Northern Iraq. Some of the principal supporters for the Assad regime in this conflict are the Christian groups fleeing ISIS persecution.
On the next level there is a great-power conflict being conducted through the Syrian civil war by proxy. This has mostly been the responsibility of the United States, that has interfered in Syrian territory, normally from bases in Iraq, in order to contend against ISIS – although the US has also been seeking to overthrow the Assad government in addition to this. In order to maintain this seemingly incoherent position, the US and its allies talk a lot about ‘moderate rebels’ who are the ones who are resisting Assad but are not ISIS. It is debatable whether such moderate rebels do in fact exist. However, what has changed the dynamic of this situation out of all recognition – and what has rendered the US mostly impotent as well as incompetent in Syria – has been the significant intervention by Russia, which has installed its own military forces on behalf of Assad. There is now no possibility of the Assad government being overthrown without a military defeat of Russian forces on the ground. The prospect of that even being attempted – let alone the desirability of aiming for that in the first place – is remote.
The third level of this conflict is about the regional struggle for supremacy between Iran (Shia Muslim) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni Muslim). Assad is allied to Iran and is largely a proxy for it. Saudi Arabia, by far the most powerful ideological and financial supporter of Islamist terrorism, is sponsoring the anti-Assad factions on the ground as a means to oppose the spreading influence of Iran. It is worth saying that Iran was one of the major strategic winners from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as southern Iraq is Shia dominated, and sympathetic to Iranian leadership. The conflict in Yemen, similarly, is a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – a war which Britain is helping to support. Iran, in addition, has been hugely helped by the lifting of sanctions as a result of the Obama-led agreement
There are two very significant neighbouring powers in this conflict. The first is Israel, which is alarmed by the indications of Iranian hegemony, not least as expressed through the sponsorship of Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation that is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel, and which is now the effectively dominant authority in southern Lebanon. Israel will not sit idly by if implacable enemies are enabled to strengthen themselves on her border. The other neighbouring power is Turkey which, despite nominal NATO membership, would appear to be another nation which is falling for the charms of President Putin. Turkey’s own principal concern would seem to be ensuring that the Kurds of their south-eastern corner are not enabled to gain their own independence.
So the situation in Syria is complex. Into this complexity strides the delicate statesmanship that we associate with the current US president, indulging in some headline-friendly air strikes that seem to have no discernible impact upon any actor in this conflict, forming something much closer to a puppet theatre than a coherent military strategy.
I would simply want to ask: why are we involved?
The nominal reason advanced for supporting the US strikes was that President Assad had been using chemical weapons upon his own population. Clearly reprehensible, if that was indeed the truth. It would seem rather odd, however, for Assad to be doing this, raising the risk of an attack, at just the point when he is on the point of winning the civil war. Dictators are not known for being scrupulously rational, it is true, but they are generally known for acting in their own self-interest.
In any case, let us assume that he did indeed order a chemical attack on his own population. It is still legitimate to ask: why are we involved? There are, after all, many awful things happening in the world. China is oppressing Tibet. North Korea is oppressing its own population terribly. The ongoing wars in and around the Congo have been a bleeding wound for decades. Why do we want to be involved in this particular conflict at this particular time?
Even if we decide that there are very good reasons for wanting to be involved in Syria right now – what prospect is there that our intervention will make the eventual outcome better rather than worse? There is little that is more obnoxious in this world than a vain and self-righteous posturing that preens itself whilst causing greater distress.
We need to have a much more hard-headed assessment of what is genuinely in the national interest – for ourselves first and foremost. Once that has been done we might be able to weigh in the balance how far it makes sense for us to support other nations in their endeavours.
For my part, can I respectfully suggest that supporting air strikes or more against the Assad regime achieves nothing except escalating the temperature of a volatile mixture of ingredients, directly contributing to the immiseration of more and more innocent civilians, and aligning ourselves against the bad guys by choosing to support the even worse guys.
Put simply, please can we stay out of this unholy mess?