[Note: I wrote this piece in 2013 as the British Government sought Parliamentary approval to intervene militarily in Syria. The subsequent years of stalemate in the gruesome civil war have been catastrophic for Syrian people and society].
Some people have asked for my opinion about whether Britain should ‘intervene’ in the Syrian Civil War, and it’s a question I’ve been interested in for the past 2 years. So, after the events of the past week, I’ve decided to pen some thoughts.
Throughout my 5 years in Iraq, I was able in some small ways to help try and ‘unscramble the eggs’ smashed by a rapid invasion and initially incompetent occupation of Iraq. Yet as Syria and its people have been systematically and deliberately destroyed I’ve been merely an aghast by-stander. I attended an impassioned Spectator debate on 24th June  which debated the motion ‘Assad is a war criminal and the West must intervene in Syria’. The first part was accepted with near unanimity. The second part, though well-argued, was lost. That matches my own opinion.
No war can end without a political solution and, in Syria, that means being brutally honest about the political or, more particularly, the religious motivations of the participants. It also means positioning the Syrian civil war as ‘merely’ one front in a much wider, longer and more serious georeligious war that we, and our press and politicians, just do not seem to understand. Syria and its people are being ruthlessly sacrificed within the latest manifestation of the region’s intractable wider georeligious conflict.
This is the real ‘big picture’, but not one you’ll hear in the media very much. I listen in vain for one of the BBC’s many old sweats to say something to position the conflict, but they are much more interested in the Western big picture of the ‘West’ versus Putin’s aggrandising Russia. They might occasionally mention Iran, or Turkey or even, of course, Israel, but little opprobrium has ever been heaped upon the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar for their malevolent role during 2011, when talks were still possible and little blood had yet been spilled. Nor was the capture by Saudi Arabia and Qatar of the Arab League ever really analysed in the British media. Both actors seized the opportunity presented by the Mubarak regime’s fall to get a favourable resolution and create a Sunni front. I think this final subverting of the Arab League to the Sunni cause might have marked the official death of pan-Arab secularism.
British Foreign Minister Hague and the others, seduced by the initially liberal nature of the anti-Assad opposition, don’t even realise they are already parti-prise in this larger war, and positioned staunchly in the Sunni camp. Unfortunately secular Western politicians have little experience of religion and do not take it seriously as a motivating factor. This means they understand the superficial political alliances of, for example, the Assad government with Iran and Russia, but don’t understand the religious underpinning of this, and the accompanying opposition of Saudi Arabia and others.
The brutal truth is that there can be no settlement without Assad’s regime. On the other side, when everyone claims to speak for the opposition, effectively nobody does. Therefore any ‘intervention’ by Britain must take the Assad regime seriously as a matter of realpolitik and talk to it, no matter how vile it seems to be. At the same time Britain can ‘intervene’ to bang some heads together among the opposition figures. Finally, Britain can ‘intervene’ to breathe some life into the derelict international institutions that we, among others, have circumvented in all but name in recent years.
The Syrian Civil War has in fact become a zero-sum game for the parties on both sides, one that neither side can afford to lose without massive loss of face and influence. For the ‘West’ to ‘intervene’ by lobbing in a few missiles from somewhere in the Mediterranean is actually risible in the context of this deeply entrenched and much wider georeligious conflict.
I think the public understand this on a deeper level than do the politicians. The politicians want to be seen to ‘do something’, especially if it makes them appear strong. The media want a war because it sells. My view, having witnessed the lack of strategic planning for Iraq in 2003, is not to ‘do something’ but to ‘do something strategic’ this time. Sadly, as David Cameron and Barack Obama showed last week, a strategy in Syria is one of the last things our politicians seem to be proposing. The people of Syria deserve better than their current role as pawns.
This article opinion article was originally prompted by British Prime Minister David Cameron seeking the backing of Parliament to attack Syrian targets in September 2013.