In 2003, Prime Minister Tony Blair defied the UN and joined George W. Bush on a doomed expedition to Iraq. It was believed that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, yet these were never found. It was also believed that Iraq would be a freer, more prosperous land once the Coalition had ‘liberated’ it. This belief has since been proven to be completely unfounded. The decision on whether to go to war was an issue that divided Britain. The more gullible among us swallowed Blair’s lies hook, line and sinker, or at least supported the war out of a misplaced sense of patriotic duty. I foresaw where the Blair/Bush moral crusade would lead us. I joined the million-man march. I wrote to my MP. I knew that the Iraq conflict would be a drawn-out and expensive affair, that it would cost many lives, make us Public Enemy Number Two in the Middle East, lead to an increase in terrorist attacks on home soil and cost us a great deal of respect in Europe. I also predicted that the government would respond to said terrorist attacks in a most ham-fisted way, passing knee-jerk laws that erode our liberties. I do not claim to be a soothsayer, but all of my predictions came true.
Ten years on, the Iraq conflict remains fresh on the minds of the people. Blair’s reputation will forever be tarnished by his Mesopotamian misadventures and any prime minister henceforth, we reasoned, would surely not risk political suicide by waging a similar campaign in the Middle East. Imagine my surprise, then, when David Cameron recalled parliament and proposed launching punitive strikes against Syria. On the 27th of August, he said that the Government was considering ‘legal and proportionate’ measures to ‘deter and degrade’ President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons capability. The recent chemical attacks on Syrian people have not been proven to be linked to the government and Assad has denied any culpability. However, foreign secretary William Hague has hinted that the UK may well go ahead with military action whether or not UN inspectors can prove a link, in a startling echo of the Coalition’s unilateral decision to go ahead with an invasion of Iraq in 2003. MPs from all parties have demanded the opportunity to debate any potential military operation against the Assad regime. The question is: would the Prime Minister risk a Commons defeat by putting the question to the vote?
If the politicians in Westminster truly represent the people who voted them in, I imagine the government would be trounced in a Commons vote: in a recent YouGov poll, 74 per cent of respondents oppose sending troops to fight alongside anti-Assad forces. What alarms me the most is all this talk of a ‘moral imperative’. That sort of rhetoric, when uttered by a statesman, is dangerous. A leader who believes he is doing the right thing, who views the situation in black and white terms, is a man who will willingly send others to their deaths and pat himself on the back after having done so. Beware the idealists and their seductive claims of simple solutions! Blair was one such man and it looks like Cameron is following in his footsteps. He believes in surgical air strikes against Syrian military targets, that an intervention by the US, UK and France would be a kind of short, sharp shock treatment that would cause the Assad government to capitulate within days. This is a naive assumption. I believe that a campaign against Syria is destined to end in failure, for a number of reasons.
- Syria is not Libya. The former nation has a stronger defensive capability, as was proven in 1983, when Syrian Strela missiles downed two US warplanes. It is doubtful that they have been resting on their laurels since. What if the Allies fail to make any headway with a long-range assault? What will they do if their air forces are repulsed? In such a scenario, Cameron will have to consider the politically-explosive option of sending in thousands of British troops. Syria, moreover, has the support of Hezbollah.
- How would Russia act if Western powers embroil themselves in the Syrian civil war? Vladimir Putin, who bears no love for President Obama, is already supplying the Assad regime with weapons. What if this assistance by proxy were to become full-on support? Do not blithely assume that World War Three could not come to your doorstep. In 1913, many people believed that global conflict was an impossibility, that a war spanning continents was in nobody’s economic interests. They were to be proven tragically wrong the following year. Do not think, therefore, that a relatively localised war in the 21st century could not escalate into something far worse.
- The prospect of ‘mission creep’ is a very strong possibility if the air strikes do not live up to Cameron’s rhetoric. The inevitable result of a prolonged engagement in Syria will be television footage of our soldiers returning home in body bags. The political fallout would be immense. I find it very difficult to believe that declaring war on Syria will mean anything other than a long, drawn-out conflict that will waste money and lives. It happened in Iraq and it happened in Afghanistan.
- War is cheap to declare but expensive in the undertaking – where will the government find the funds to finance it? The UK has emerged from recession but growth is still sluggish. We have suffered eye-watering cutbacks to our public services, none more so than the Armed Forces. Following the Strategic Defence and Security Review (2010), thousands of servicemen have been laid off, the number of Harrier aircraft has been pared down, the Nimrod project has been scrapped, the navy no longer has a long-range maritime patrol fleet or a fixed-wing carrier strike force and the number of Challenger 2 tanks has been reduced by 40%. Britain has barely enough military strength to protect the homeland and overseas territories; how on earth can we fight any foreign wars with such a skeleton force? We have an Argentine whore menacing the Falkland Islands and a whole host of other enemies besides, yet Cameron is determined to go gallivanting off on some new crusade. And for what? So he can play soldiers? Does he want to parade around in a tank like his heroine, the late and unlamented Baroness Thatcher? Where will the money come from?
- If Assad is indeed toppled, who – or what – will replace him? The forces arrayed against him include al-Qaida operatives who, you may recall, have an unfortunate tendency to murder Westerners. I consider it baffling that Obama and Cameron seem to have overlooked this rather salient fact. Are they really prepared to sign a Faustian pact and get into bed with the very people who want to destroy them? Assad’s fall would create a power vacuum which could well be filled by someone even worse. With no brutal dictator to suppress them, the hard-line Islamist factions in that region are organised and uncompromising enough to muscle their way to the top, much as the Muslim Brotherhood would do if the Egyptian military were disempowered.
It is completely understandable that people should demand something be done when they see images of dead and wounded children in their newspapers and on their television screens. It would be a great thing if the oppressors of the earth could be laid low and every man, woman and child live under benevolent rulers. This is not an ideal world, however. David Cameron needs to be reminded that Britain is not the world’s policeman, that to interfere in the affairs of others, far from creating a better future, will only serve to create new problems and will certainly not make us friends. I foresee no good coming of any Western military intervention in Syria. It would be wise to stay clear of the conflicts that boil in the Middle East. The Prime Minister is in dire need of a history lesson, or else we shall all suffer on account of his ignorance.