High morals v low pragmatism: what on earth to do about Syria?

Do we let British forces join their US and French allies and intervene in Syria against the forces of Islamic State (IS)?This is now the biggest issue in British politics.  it is not an easy question.

So often we are urged to take such important decisions based on high moral principle. In this case, do we attack those who have, in effect, declared war on us on principle? This seems to be the French view. Or do we rule out the use of violence, outside strict self-defence, on principle? If such moral principles are your guide, then deciding about foreign interventions becomes much easier. Take your moral stand, and if it doesn’t go well, then it is somebody else’s fault. And if the place of the intervention is remote it is somebody else’s problem too. Such reasoning is commonplace amongst the politically engaged – but it is a cop out. Actions (and non actions for that matter) have consequences, and we can’t escape responsibility for them as far as they are foreseeable.

And, of course, the closer we get to the place of intervention, the muddier it all seems. For us the big issue in Syria is the progress of IS. And yet, with the exception of the government of Iraq, this is not top of anybody else’s agenda. This can be seen from last week’s episode with the shooting down by Turkish forces of a Russian bomber aircraft. The story presented by neither side is convincing. The Russian bomber looks as if it was attacking a Turkomen force that is nothing to do with IS, but which is resisting the official Syrian government of President Assad. The Turkomens seem to have the covert support of the Turkish government. Russian actions have been high-handed and directed at supporting the Assad regime, under the cover of fighting “terrorism”. The Turks seem to be telling them to keep away from their protégés in the only language the current Russian regime seems to respond to.

To my mind it is the conflicting agendas of the local middle-ranking powers that is the most frustrating aspect of the Syrian situation: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia in particular. To them IS seems to be of rather tangential importance, whose main use is as a hook to draw in Western powers on their side, taking the pressure off them to resolve the conflict. The West still suffers from a post imperialist idea that it is the world’s policeman, and that the local powers should be treated as unruly children rather than accept responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in their neighbourhood.

It doesn’t get much better when you look at IS itself. For some reason this organisation likes to project an image of undiluted evil. It seems to help it draw in foreign recruits to its cause – who see moral clarity where we see evil. But its support base is clearly much wider than that. The local Sunni populations, in both Syria and Iraq, have lost faith in their official governments, and with good reason. Rule by IS seems preferable, and nobody is offering a credible alternative. Remember that the standard Western answer that you set up a democratic government has been tried in Iraq – only for it to be abused by unscrupulous power brokers intent on their own enrichment. Why should it work better next time?

All this fog points against the high moral case for Western intervention, and so against further British involvement. How can it be effective? And arguments of this type are seized on by opponents of intervention. But they too strike a high moral tone. They organise protest rallies; Jeremy Corbyn justifies his stance on the basis of the opinion of political activists, and urges these activists to lobby their MPs. Such tactics can only be driven by high moral purpose, not by a pragmatic weighing of the options.

This high moral purpose seems to be driven by a loathing of two things. The loathing of the use of military force in pretty much any capacity. And the loathing of Western capitalist governments, and especially that of the US, and all their foreign interventions. How these two loathings balance varies widely between individuals. But such moral arguments are clearly suspect. In Syria we have had years of non-intervention, or limited intervention, by Western powers. That has left the country in an appalling stalemate, which has now created a refugee crisis that is placing huge strains on European civic society. Surely this threatens Western interests sufficiently for some kind of intervention? Are we being too dismissive of intervention, and using the clear practical difficulties as cover irresponsible inaction?

Building a pragmatic case for intervention runs something like this. The US and France are already heavily engaged. By joining them as a full member of that alliance (Britain already provides  support in Iraq) may not make a huge difference to that joint effort immediately, but a three country alliance would have considerably more diplomatic weight than the current incomplete one. Britain’s current half-hearted contribution is almost useless on that basis. This alliance of Western nations, which joins up with local Kurdish forces, would then be able to bring pressure on other actors to work towards a new settlement of the Greater Syria region (i.e. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan) than can form the basis of future peaceful development.

But any such settlement must face up to the central challenge of what can replace the current IS regime? Neither the Assad regime, nor the Iraqi one looks up to the job, though changes in leadership might help. Trying to create new government institutions from nothing is what went wrong in Iraq. Everybody says that it would be impossible or immoral to negotiate with the IS regime, and looks a fair judgement based on its current leadership. But might a successor emerge from within, amongst its clearly highly competent military leadership, with whom negotiation might be possible?

So there you. The pragmatic arguments against intervention have real weight. There is no clear game plan to bring matters to resolution. But the Syrian war is causing damage at continental level. Can we really just walk away and hope for the best?