SAMANTHA Power, US ambassador to the UK, asked as Aleppo fell to Syrian government forces: “Is there no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that creeps you out just a little bit. Is there literally nothing that shames you?”
The Russians replied in terms of was there no flight of hypocrisy that the US was not capable of after destroying Iraq and seeking to pursue the cold war by other means in Syria? In this contest of deplorables it was hard to tell who was the creepiest.
The Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria has behaved abominably in the past four-and-a-half years, barrel-bombing civilians, using chemical weapons, restricting access to humanitarian organisations and apparently targeting hospitals. The UN has accused it, effectively, of war crimes in one of the bloodiest civil wars to scar the Middle East.
But it is hard to locate the goodies in this conflict. The American-backed Free Syrian Army, if it still exists, had, according to the BBC’s Middle East expert, Jeremy Bowen, been taken over by an array of jihadist groups led by al Nusra, affiliates of al Qaeda. One of the more bizarre facts about this multi-layered conflict is that the US has been providing military aid to followers of the late Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile Bashir Assad has been fighting America’s number one enemy, Islamic State (IS), which has occupied large areas of Eastern Syria. IS blew up the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel in Palmyra and flooded the internet with videos of captives being beheaded. The Free Syrian Army and al Nusra don’t support IS and have been fighting them. But they are jointly engaged with IS, along with with America, Israel and Saudi Arabia, in the broader project of overthrowing President Assad.
To replace him with whom, exactly? The experience of Iraq, Libya and Egypt tells us that the most likely outcome would be disintegration of the state and the advance of Islamic fundamentalism. It is surely naive to believe, as David Cameron suggested, that there is a vast multi-ethnic army of pro-Western democrats waiting to take over in Damascus, release political prisoners and sign up to the Human Rights Convention.
Looking at the kaleidoscopic of improbable alliances in this demented civil war, it seems clear that Bashir Assad’s government is the only force capable of keeping Syria intact and maintaining some sort of secular state. The president is many things but he is no Islamist. Ending wars often involves identifying the lesser of two evils.
If your enemy’s enemy is your friend, you’d think that countries like America and Britain would also be backing him just as they are supporting and arming the princely dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. One suspects that, had Syria been an historic oil-and-gas client of the US and not Russia, we’d be doing exactly that. Just as Britain supports the Kurdish/Iraqi operation to remove terrorists from the Iraqi city of Mosul.
However, President Assad lacked the forces to comprehensively defeat the jihadists, many of whom were dug in behind civilian human shields in city strong-holds like Aleppo. He has relied therefore on indiscriminate bombing of rebel areas using Russian air power. This has caused immense civilian suffering. But this is a terrible war and it’s not at all clear who is winning. While the Western media focussed on Aleppo in the past few days, IS retook parts of Palmyra, confirming that it is still a going concern.
Of course, the idea of backing President Assad in the interest of defeating Islamic extremism is appalling. It would mean sacrificing the democratic forces that tried to overthrow his repressive regime in 2011. If and when he restores control, the remnants of the pro-democracy rebellion might well be jailed, tortured and mostly killed. So what should we do?
Well it would help if people stopped trying to frame the Aleppo crisis as a pro-democracy protest or an extension of the Cold War. The Syrian civil war may have initially taken the form of an “Arab Spring” revolt against dictatorship. But as we have learned from bitter experience, these rebellions often turn into their opposite as Islamist groups seize the initiative.
As for Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader is pursuing conventional national interests in the Middle East by supporting his Syrian client. He is also consolidating his domestic popularity by bigging up Russian military influence. This is deeply unpleasant, but it is what we and the Americans are doing elsewhere in the Middle East. Through though incompetence and moral ambivalence, the Western powers have handed Putin a huge propaganda victory which has immensely added to his prestige in the region. .
The Russians are rightly condemned by the UN and humanitarian groups for supporting and even perpetrating the atrocities conducted by the Syrian regime. Bombing civilians must always be condemned. But it turns the stomach when you hear US ambassadors talking as if American forces have not caused the suffering of children, used drone warfare against civilians or bombed cities into the stone age.
As for Britain, it is said that we are complicit in Russian war crimes by not having become militarily involved at an earlier stage in the Syrian civil war. “We have paid the price of not intervening” said former chancellor George Osborne in the Commons. But we are militarily involved in the Syrian civil war and have been since 2012 when special forces first entered the country to help the rebels.
British warplanes are engaged in bombing Syrian targets right now and have been since the Commons voted for military action in December 2015. Boris Johnson wants something, as he puts it, “more kinetic”. But whom is he proposing to get kinetic with? The collection of jihadists who largely constitute the rebel forces in Aleppo? Is he suggesting we start shooting down Russian bombers?
The lesson of Iraq is surely that Western military engagement solves nothing. America and the UK claimed that they were invading Iraq to rid it of weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein. But the weapons were a figment of the CIA’s imagination and Iraq was left in a far worse condition than it had been under Saddam, bestial dictator though he was. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have been displaced, jihadists took over and the country has all but disintegrated as a state.
Instead of sabre-rattling, Britain should concentrate on humanitarian work, monitor human rights abuses, try to broker a ceasefire where possible and secure the removal of civilians. And we need to ensure that the Syrian democrats are given asylum in the West, if and when President Assad prevails, and not left bobbing about on the ocean as undesirable immigrants.
Europe should make a cold military assessment of who is likely to win the conflict and use all diplomatic and economic means to try to improve the condition of ordinary people thereafter. If, as seems likely, Syria’s dictator prevails following the fall of Aleppo,there is at least pressure Western countries can exert through conventional diplomacy to prevent reprisals.
But let us not fool ourselves. iIf Syria descends into jihadist nihilism and becomes another failed state, no force on earth will save the people there.