Many Western people and politicians, particularly in Britain, were reluctant to get involved in another Middle Eastern entanglement when the Syrian uprising broke out five years ago. Those who led us into the war in Iraq bear some responsibility for creating that mood. But that disaster does not mean global security (including our own) is best served by us never intervening anywhere again. These crucial foreign policy decisions need to be taken on the specific merits of each case. In Syria, the mainstream resistance needed only limited backing early in its uprising to topple Assad’s regime. Britain and its allies will ultimately regret not providing it, as much as they regret intervening in Iraq.
The West’s failure to support the Syrian people sufficiently opened the way for much more malign forces such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia to do their worst. Putin will now be seeing his bombing of schools and hospitals on behalf of Assad as a success. This will embolden him to conduct further military aggression in pursuit of his objectives – the main one of which is to stay in power by distracting attention at home from the collapsing economy over which he presides.
No-one in the UK should be under any illusions that Putin’s next targets will be “far away countries of which we know little”, as Prime Minister Chamberlain notoriously put it when appeasing Hitler in 1938. The nations most at risk from Putin’s attentions are fellow NATO members, whom we are treaty bound to defend militarily if they are attacked. This “Article 5” mutual defence commitment is the central pillar of NATO; the organisation that has done most to preserve Britain’s security since the end of World War II. Putin has long wanted to destroy NATO because it prevents Russia from bullying those of its neighbours who are members. Now that he has been emboldened by his perceived success in Syria, he will be tempted to pursue this aim by interfering further in, for example, one of the Baltic States, Turkey or Poland.
Putin’s plan would be to meddle just enough in one of those countries to create disagreement within NATO about whether it warranted a full military response. This would in turn undermine the Article 5 mutual defence commitment and wreck NATO’s credibility as a deterrent force. There is also every chance the unsubtle thugs running the Kremlin will miscalculate and spark a full-scale war in Europe.
Any doubts that a pumped-up Putin is reckless enough to do such a thing can be dismissed by examining his record. To name just a few atrocities, Russia’s actions under his leadership include routinely murdering opponents (including, in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, by scattering lethal radioactive material around London), shooting down a passenger airliner killing all 298 innocent, mostly Dutch, men, women and children on board, and changing Europe’s borders by military force for the first time since 1945 with his invasion of Ukraine.
Although Putin will be buoyed by his dubious achievements in Syria, Assad will quickly discover that any “victory” his Russian and Iranian allies deliver to him is illusory. At best, Assad will be left in nominal control of a depopulated wreckage of a country. Nor does he have any chance of re-establishing legitimate authority over Syria. Most of the Syrian people wanted rid of him before he started the war. Given that he has since killed 250,000 of them and chased 10 million or more from their homes, they are unlikely to come around to his point of view now.
Rather than the conflict coming to an end, the near-certain next phase is that the surviving opposition groups will go underground and use guerrilla tactics to continue their resistance against Assad’s forces. They will be amply supplied with the means to do this by the numerous countries in the region who fear the consequences for them of allowing Assad and his foreign backers to succeed in Syria.
This turn of events is another dangerous development for the West. If we had acted more decisively when the opportunity arose earlier in the conflict, we would have been seen as the saviours of Syria. But many opposition supporters and fighters will now resent us for abandoning them to be annihilated. This will make some of them, particularly the younger generations growing up in desperate circumstances, easy prey for recruitment by the more radical Islamist groups in Syria and ultimately a threat to us too.
As the crises spinning out of Syria and Russia’s repeated aggression show, isolationism is not a viable option in this globalised world. Ignoring difficult problems does not make them disappear. Rather, failing to tackle them early and decisively just means they grow bigger and come back later to bite you. It is now the eleventh hour in Syria. But even at this late stage, acting to establish safe zones for refugees and the resistance would be better than allowing Assad, Russia and Iran to achieve their brutal aims unimpeded.