The Egregious Folly of Western Intervention

A Kurdish march to raise awareness of the situation in Kobane in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 2 October 2014A Kurdish march to raise awareness of the situation in Kobane in Lausanne, Switzerland, on 2 October 2014. (Source: Gustave Deghilage)

Only fools rush in: this maxim – beautifully lyricized by Elvis Presley among others – is as relevant to the field of foreign policy as it is to love, of which there is, unfortunately, no better proof than Ingram Davidson’s piece ‘Why We Should Intervene in the Middle East’. Davidson argues that Britain should become rapidly and substantively more engaged in the Syrian civil war: from aerially bombarding Assad’s military infrastructure, to squeezing the despot’s revenues, to providing arms and logistical support to the “moderate” part of the opposition. However, his argument is hampered by a failure to recognise the complicated causal nexus created by the Syrian civil war’s three-way nature, with Assad’s forces, ISIS and the rebel opposition fighting each other.

Essentially the dilemma for the international community, and especially the United States and her allies, is this: any weakening of ISIS aides Assad and vice-versa. As such, the construably cynical, but in the real world prudent, view has been taken that weakening ISIS is the priority, because it poses a far greater threat to international peace – due to the Islamicist terrorism it sponsors and encourages – than Assad (a brutal tyrant, for sure, but not one who wants to see Western civilisation annihilated).

Thus, Assad’s forces are being left relatively unscathed to prevent the loss of any further territory to the would-be caliphate. An unfortunate but inevitable secondary consequence is that the “moderate” opposition to Assad also suffers, since allowing the despot’s forces breathing space to attack ISIS equally allows them time to attack the opposition. Were it possible to keep Assad’s sufficiently strong enough to repel ISIS, yet weak enough for the opposition to gain ground, we would have an ideal compromise. But this is not an option. Bombing campaigns are a crude tactic: either Assad’s forces are weakened against both sets of opponents or against neither. The international community has chosen the latter, since the former is too risky. This is not to say the United States and her allies have now joined forces with the Syrian despot or want him to remain in power and defeat his internal rebels, but there are signs of indirect cooperation between the two sides in the fight against ISIS. In an interview with the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, Assad claimed that, while no direct channels of communication between the US and the Syrian government existed, third parties – among them Iraq – were conveying information between the sides. Assad is saying this partly to irk and embarrass the West, by suggesting he is still a necessary part of their regional security. But he also has a point, given, as Bowen states, that there have been no “incidents” of any sort between the Syrian air force and the coalition in Syria bombing ISIS, it seems likely some sort of communication and understanding prevails between the two sides.

It is this practically complicated, morally grey causal nexus that Davidson’s piece fails to convey. Instead, he crudely morphs a three-way conflict into a two-way one so that it coheres with his interventionist and naively Manichean world-views (“a world that clicks for Charlie, yet won’t raise a finger for those massacred in Nigeria, Syria or Iraq. We can’t stand to let this reality take hold”). Such blurring is apparent from the start: in paragraph one, Davidson laments Parliament’s veto of airstrikes against Assad’s forces and proffers several reasons (in paras two and three) why the converse approach should have been adopted. Then, in paragraph four, he suddenly jumps from discussing the merits of airstrikes against Assad’s forces to discussing the merits of airstrikes against ISIS (“airstrikes have been crucial in turning back the tide of Daesh”) with no discussion of the coextensive relationship between the two entities and how that might complicate any intervention against either. For example, did Parliament’s decision not to strike the Syrian military make the latter better able to fend off ISIS, which Britain now views as a far greater threat than a recalcitrant Assad? Moreover, by structurally juxtaposing Britain’s non-intervention against Assad with her direct intervention against ISIS, Davidson seems to suggest that what is applicable to the latter should have applied to the former.

This fallacy is reiterated in paragraph ten, where Davidson states that if the coalition attacked Assad’s revenue sources with the same vigour as they attacked those of ISIS, Assad would be unable to fund not only his fight against the rebels but also human services, without which “loyalty to the regime would collapse”. Again, Davidson seems convinced the Syrian conflict is two- rather than three-way, since his clear implication is that weakening Assad is beneficial because its sole consequence would be that the moderate opposition would gain ground militarily and in popular support. In reality, however, ISIS would gain on both such counts too (perhaps more so than the moderate opposition), hence why the United States and her allies are proceeding with caution.

It is in paragraph seven, however, where the confusion between Assad’s regime and ISIS reaches almost dizzying heights:

No political settlement is in sight; no vision of how extremism, chaos, and violence will be contained and prevented. Chemical weapons have been used on civilians. 3 million refugees have been forced from their homes and the infrastructure of neighbouring nations is in crisis. Non-intervention has allowed Daesh to spread like a villainous cancer.

These four sentences alone hurl the reader back-and-forth between the problems of Assad’s Syria and the would-be Caliphate. In the first sentence, Davidson mentions the need to find a “political settlement” – presumably a reference to a settlement between Assad and the moderate opposition – and also a way to contain and prevent the “extremism, chaos and violence” caused by the nascent Islamic State. Yet they are treated as parallel problems which have no relationship with each other: Davidson does not pause to consider whether the need to “contain” the “extremism, chaos and violence” means finding a “political settlement” becomes less pressing for the major regional and international powers, since the man preventing any political settlement – Bashir Al Assad – is, unfortunately, currently necessary to contain the “extremism, chaos and violence”. The next two sentences annunciate Assad’s crimes before Davidson drops the piece’s largest non-sequitor: that “non-intervention” against Assad “has allowed Daesh to spread”. Davidson could reasonably have said “non-intervention has allowed Assad’s use of chemical weapons to flourish” or “non-intervention has stemmed the rise of ISIS at the expense of maintaining a despot in power with a now appalling humanitarian record” (both of which would cohere with the previous two sentences). But the idea that leaving Assad’s forces relatively unscathed has directly led to the rise of ISIS is deeply illogical. Yes, Davidson could argue that the displacement caused by the on-going civil war has pushed angry and desperate people into ISIS’s arms, but such displacement would be going on even if Assad’s military positions were being bombed (it would simply be hoped the bombing would allow the rebels to triumph so that they can establish a democratic, unity government that would then begin to deal with the humanitarian crisis – but that would be several steps down the road).

Interestingly, in paragraph eight Davidson states:

Daesh is not aimed solely at the West, but also at regional despotic leaders: the crueller their methods become, the more likely people are to turn to extremism. Paradoxically, misjudged western intervention, and western non-intervention are both key factors in the rise of extremism.

The first clause feels like a hurried caveat, as if half-way through his work Davidson suddenly realised that ISIS and Assad’s Syria might well be at loggerheads with each other, not just the West and the moderate opposition; he even concedes that “misjudged western intervention” might also assist ISIS. He does not, however, elaborate on either point, perhaps because were he to do so he would have to concede things are not quite as simple as he originally argued. Instead, by an admirable feat of verbal acrobatics, he suggests that because the cruelty of dictators leads people to turn to extremism, the West must defeat Assad if it is to defeat against ISIS. Clever, certainly – if that was indeed what he was trying to say – since he avoided shooting himself in the foot. But also wrong.

While logical coherence is the piece’s primary fault, Davidson also makes some rather glaring over-simplifications on which he should be called up. Firstly, his implication that Labour parliamentarians were solely responsible for preventing Britain joining the United States in launching airstrikes against Syria (“The Labour MPs marched out of the division chamber to see the footage of civilians massacred, with one sentence echoing throughout the corridor. ‘What have we done?’”) is a silly piece of party politicking. Yes, Miliband likely reneged on his pledge to support Cameron in the Commons, but, ultimately, the Coalition were divided over the issue, with Liberal Democrats either abstaining or voting against along with a sizeable number of Conservative backbenchers.

Secondly, his assertion that the clearest parallel for any aerial campaign against Assad’s regime is Operation Provide Comfort is spurious; most would argue a far clearer parallel is the 2011 NATO campaign against Gaddafi’s military infrastructure (a cynic might suspect Davidson deigned not to mention this parallel because the campaign has, four years on, produced decidedly mixed results that many in the UK would rather not repeat, especially in a country with even greater ethnic tensions than Libya). His claim, incidentally, that the only similarity between an aerial bombardment of Syria and the Iraq War is that “they are both in the Middle East” is also dim for several obvious reasons.

Additionally, the piece at times becomes deafeningly and unnecessarily melodramatic. He opens with the assertion that, “Britain became a nation of apathy, isolationism and cowardice… the cries of Arabic suffering unintelligible to English ears”. However, he consciously or unconsciously reveals three paragraphs later that such rhetoric was mere hyperbole, mentioning Mount Sinjar’s liberation from ISIS forces, which assisted “the besieged Yazidi community”, an operation British forces were an integral part of, suggesting Britain is neither isolationist nor deaf to others’ welfare. Moreover, phrases such as “the guilty sinner convinces himself to do evil in the name of some artificial good” and “where we ride to the North Sea, and wash these sins off our hands” add nothing to a discussion which should be centred on serious analysis and factual detail: yes, they are flourishes, but they are self-indulgent, painfully moralistic flourishes.

There are some paragraphs in the piece which are individually interesting and coherent, such as paragraph nine which mentions how humanitarian assistance to Syria is an imperative on which all nations – including all those on the Security Council – can agree and the discussion in paragraphs eleven and twelve about how a multi-faceted, multi-national response is necessary to combat ISIS. But, overall, the piece disappoints because it is not really one essay but two which have been rammed together – one about Assad and the moderate opposition, one about ISIS and the West – with the reader constantly being bounced between the two. This is essentially due to Davidson not placing the situation in the context of the causal nexus I outlined at the start. Without a discussion of the three-way nature of the Syrian civil war, ISIS and Assad come to feel like entities that have nothing to do with each other and are simply being compared for academic purposes. Ultimately, the reader is left feeling that Davidson’s yearning to articulate nuanced solutions is undermined by his failure to show any nuance at all.