Tony Blair: Intervention is bloody, standing aside is worseSunday, Sep 01, 2013 in Office of Tony Blair
The vote is shocking. Chemical weapons are used against innocent civilians, including children, and our response is apparently: best do nothing. So, America, with the support of France and the Arab League, will act. We will stay on the side-lines.
However the vote is also understandable. It is right that the experience of Iraq gives people pause for thought. But we should be honest about what that experience really teaches us. This is not about trust. There is no serious debate about whether chemical weapons have been used in Syria or by whom. The physical evidence of their use, in the bodies of their victims, is before us. It is disingenuous therefore to claim that the hesitation is born of uncertainty over whether the atrocity has occurred, and were it not for the errors in intelligence about Saddam and WMD, Parliament would have voted differently on Syria. (And just for the record, the political leaders of both main Opposition Parties in 2003, were given full access, over and above the dossier, to the same WMD intelligence that I had prior to the vote of Parliament to authorise military action and that intelligence is now freely available for anyone to see).
No. The hesitation is born of the experience of intervention. The truth is that intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan has been far more perilous and difficult than we expected. Public opinion – both sides of the Atlantic – is weary of long campaigns that are dangerous and expensive. It is correct that the British casualties in Iraq were fewer than the Falklands. But the campaign of 1982 was short, in defence of British territory and, most of all, ended in definable victory.
If we had got rid of Saddam – someone who on any basis was a monster, responsible for killing many hundreds of thousands of people, often by chemical weapons – and then the country had settled down we wouldn't be having this discussion. Likewise if we had thrown out the Taliban, whose reign had brought misery to the Afghan people, and after had come peace, the mood today would be quite different.
That is what people really fear about Syria – not whether chemical weapons have been used, and if so, whether the use is appalling, but whether we will end up in a ‘quagmire’. This is the true governing principle of policy now. So, we topple Gaddafi – who gave up his chemical and nuclear weapons programme in 2003 – when he threatened to kill thousands of his people. The actual death toll under Assad is now well over 100,000 and he has used chemical weapons. But our worry is that Syria looks more difficult. So we stay out. This is a bad way to conduct policy.
At some point we will realise this is one battle, it is crucial to our security and we have to take sides.
The menace to our security is obscured by the complexity. But it is real. The conflict in Syria is not only about Syria. That is the absolutely essential point to grasp. Like Iraq, the reason it is bloody and seemingly intractable, is because it has become a battleground for forces trying to shape the region and the future of Islam. That is why intervention is tough. It is why Kosovo was different. Here, those opposed to us, are prepared to fight, to kill without mercy and to die without regret. But that is a poor strategic reason for not confronting them.
When I see the ‘Stop the War’ people out with placards in protest at America, saying ‘Hands off Syria’, I want to put my head in my hands. There are multiple hands already all over Syria. Without Russian arms, the regime could not mount the devastating air attacks on towns and villages which support the Opposition. What turned the tide back towards Assad recently, have not been the activities of the Syrian army, but the street-fighting capability of Hezbollah brought in from over the border, by Iran. Support for the more extreme Opposition groups, comes from other outside players.
All over the Middle East, three elements are in contention: regimes that have been in power a long time, some of whom are governing well and evolving, some of whom are clinging to the status quo, but all of whom are under pressure; radical and well organised Islamist movements; and disorganised but gradually emerging liberal and modern-minded parties.
The last two groups can often combine to overthrow the first. But of course there is a profound disagreement as to the type of society that comes after. The Islamist movement then also divides. The Sunni / Shia split is reflected in the extremist Shia factions, sponsored by Iran; and Al Qaida, which is Sunni and the Muslim Brotherhood which is Sunni.
All of this makes the issues complex and intervention hazardous. But it is also what makes it so important.
A Sunni / Shia conflagration would be horrific. It would not leave us untouched. A further strengthening of Radical Islam would have repercussions across the world.
So the outcome of this battle, of which Syria is a part, will affect dramatically how our world develops. It will affect the stability and peace of the Middle East for sure. It will impact whether Islam overcomes or is dominated by the attempt to radicalise politics around a view of Islam utterly at odds with the modern world. That is why this matters.
The extremists are not, unfortunately, as is now conventional wisdom, a few isolated crazy people. This extremism runs the ancient civilisation of Iran. It took over, for a time, the Government of Egypt, the most important country in the region. But more than that, it is having an impact across the globe, from Sub-Saharan Africa, to Central Asia and even to many of the countries of the Far East. And it is growing. It can have an impact in our own nations as 9/11 showed.
If Syria goes into the abyss, the consequences will not stop in Syria. Everyone, except us, is taking sides in Syria because they know what is at stake. Russia is taking the side of the status quo. The Shia and Sunni sectarians are supporting their respective proxies. But the side we should be taking, those who know the only future for the region and for Islam is one of an open-minded and inclusive approach to the world, are left without our support. The irony is that these people – whether in Egypt, Syria or Iraq – are probably the majority. But we, who have such a colossal interest in their eventual triumph, are not at their side when they need us.
Intervention can be uncertain, expensive and bloody. But history has taught us that inaction can merely postpone the reckoning. We haven't paid the bill for Syria yet. But we will.