There is a sense of déjà vu in the momentum towards military action in Syria. The evangelistic cry that the world has a moral duty to act against a brutal dictator, the allegations that Assad is responsible for atrocities against his own people, and the claim that his regime poses a threat to the wider world through possession of weapons of mass destruction should all be familiar to those who remember past interventions in Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
Most people will rightly be horrified at the pictures coming out of Damascus which purport to show civilian victims of an apparent chemical weapons attack. There can also be no doubt that by the standards of the West, Assad’s regime has been appallingly brutal, locking up dissidents, keeping a tight grip on the press and supporting terrorist outrages in Israel and Lebanon.
Yet when it comes to confronting dictators the West has an inconsistent track record. It is a particular irony that one of the biggest Arab cheerleaders for intervention against Syria is Saudi Arabia, the West’s staunch ally and a hereditary autocracy where women are prevented from driving, Jews are banned from entering the country, homosexuality and religious conversion are punishable by death, and any criticism of the royal family can lead to a lengthy prison sentence. Reports of a recent meeting in which Prince Bandar bin Sultan appeared to threaten Russian president Vladimir Putin with terror attacks against the Sochi Winter Olympics if Moscow did not change its position on intervention, coupled with steadfast refusal on the part of the West to condemn or act against brutal crackdowns on pro-democracy activists in Bahrain, suggests that concerns about freedom are only a minor factor in the push to oust Assad.
Moreover, at this stage it is far from clear that a chemical weapons attack actually occurred, much less that it was committed by the Syrian regime. It is curious that Assad would seek to use chemical weapons in his own capital city, a part of Syria where he already held conventional military supremacy, just a few days before the arrival of international weapons inspectors. Previous alleged atrocities by the regime have also been shown to be suspect or questionable.
In modern warfare, the propaganda battle matters almost as much as boots on the ground. The main theatres of conflict are YouTube and Twitter, and the weapons of choice are a PR message that simplifies ethnic and religious divisions into a simple tale of good versus evil, and lurid claims against the other side which are impossible to prove one way or the other but are designed to spur an international response. Observers of the Balkan conflicts will remember that accusations and counter-accusations of war crimes were often timed to coincide with international peacekeeping summits, while tales of mass graves and the systematic extermination of hundreds of thousands of civilians in Kosovo turned out to be highly exaggerated.
Even if a consensus is reached that Syria has no future without Assad – and this must be a matter for the Syrian people to decide – and that his dictatorship is so uniquely evil amongst the other tin-pot regimes of the Middle East that it justifies military intervention, the likelihood is that Western air strikes will simply bring equally unpalatable forces to power. Far from replacing Assad’s regime with a secular liberal democracy that protects minority rights, the dominant image of the Syrian rebels is that of jihadists and extremists who butcher and eat the hearts of their opponents, behead Catholic priests, and gun down fourteen year old children for invoking the name of the Prophet Mohammed in an argument.
Should Britain get involved in Syria it will be our eighth military intervention since 1990, yet our capacity for overseas adventures is fast becoming diminished. The military chiefs of staff have already warned that our defence capabilities will struggle to meet more overseas commitments, while the wisdom of entering into another open-ended Middle East conflict at a time when our outstanding debt is increasing by £100bn a year must surely be questioned. Intervention in Syria is likely to commit us for the long haul and require our involvement in any post-war political settlement. No wonder that the prospect of entanglement in Syria is deeply unpopular. A poll for The Daily Telegraph suggests that just 9% of respondents support action against Assad, while 77% wish to remain neutral.
The shift in global power away from the heavily indebted and over-borrowed West and towards the developing economies of Asia is likely to act as a restraining influence on advocates of preemption and unilateral military interventionism in the years to come. We should be careful about what sort of example we wish to set for how territorial conflicts and disagreements between states will be resolved in the new world order. By flouting the UN, trampling on the principles of state sovereignty and self-determination and selectively ousting out of favour dictators we not only undermine our own moral authority in dealing with rogue states, but may well come to regret a precedent that will be used against us in the future.
It is ironic that many conservatives who preach small government and freedom but are the first to call for preemptive strikes against dictators often fail to see that military action is the surest way of expanding the role of the state at the expense of accountability and personal liberty. The tactics that are used to justify protection from external and internal enemies such as evidence gained from torture, indefinite detention without trial, trial without jury, mass surveillance and extraordinary rendition, not only fail to make us safer but diminish our ability to lead by example and promote freedom around the world. The Prime Minister needs to make absolutely certain that should he decide to go into Syria, his reasons for doing so are the right ones.