"Mission accomplished" in Afghanistan? For the Tory Party, yes.

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Aaron Ellis

On Monday, the Prime Minister declared that Britain had accomplished its mission in Afghanistan. A “basic level of security” had been achieved there meaning our troops could come home with their “heads held high”. Mr. Cameron has a weakness for hyperbolae (e.g. GCHQ searching for online paedophiles is comparable to the Enigma code-breakers…) and he was criticised for making such a sanguine statement. The conflict is far from “mission accomplished” – though as far as the Tories are concerned, it has served its purpose.

Afghanistan is more important to David Cameron than most people, he included, probably realise. It is the source of his contradictory foreign policy and it was crucial to the rehabilitation of our Party as a responsible alternative government to Labour.

In his handling of foreign policy, Mr. Cameron is torn between idealism and realism – and Afghanistan is the source of these conflicting impulses. He believes that al-Qa’ida used the country as a base because it was a failed state and it was a failed state because the West abandoned it after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. For him, it “is a great example of a country that if we walk away from and if we ignore and if we forget about, the problems will come visited back on our doorstep.” Had the West somehow ended the civil war and helped it with development assistance, then ‘just think what might have been avoided.’ This conviction lay behind the interventions in Libya and Mali. When justifying Mali, the Prime Minister argued that if Britain did not “make the world safe all over the place”, then the threat from militant Islamists would only grow and “we will face it” eventually. Yet this limitless interventionism jars with his efforts to portray himself as a prudent realist.

We are running a global race for power and influence, according to Mr. Cameron, necessitating a strategic foreign policy which focuses on our national interests. “If our influence is under challenge,” as William Hague believes it is, then we must “make the most, systematically and strategically, of our great national assets.” This is especially true when it comes to the military. Whereas Labour “made too many commitments without the resources to back them up”, the Conservatives would be more discriminating. Afghanistan is the perfect example. In 2006, Tony Blair authorised troops to go into Helmand in insufficient numbers for the goals he had set them. Just a few years later when Gordon Brown wanted to send in more, Tory support was conditional on a “tightly defined” strategy “backed up by extra equipment”. In Mr. Cameron’s view, we simply can’t afford anymore these wars to build perfect societies in inhospitable places. “Every battle we fight” must help Britain “rise” amidst the decline and fall of other Great Powers.

Underpinning this contradictory foreign policy is the way he thinks about globalisation; it justifies both his idealism and realism. For almost two decades now, many in the West have been in thrall to an idea which I call ‘the internationalisation of the national interest’. It is the belief that the world has become so interconnected that crises in developing countries threaten our own security and therefore we must resolve them pre-emptively. Mr. Blair once argued that if governments are ultimately concerned about protecting their own people, as realists argue, then “the new frontiers for our security are global”. The Tory leadership buys into this idealistic worldview, but it also believes that globalisation has created the global race, which demands a realist response. Mr. Hague once tried to square the circle: “We should never be ashamed of saying we will promote our own national interest,” for it “is no narrow agenda”.

Even though the Prime Minister thinks about international crises like Libya and Mali in Blairite terms, as Leader of the Opposition he often attacked Labour for its allegedly idealistic and astrategic foreign policy. These criticisms, especially those about Afghanistan, helped rehabilitate the Conservatives as a party of government.

By supporting the war in principle but attacking Labour’s handling of it, David Cameron could portray himself as a responsible and “hard-headed” statesman, dispelling fears that he was not up to the job of running the country. Since the mid-1990s, the Tories had been dogged by a widespread belief that they were too irresponsible to hold office. Britain is in an era of ‘valence’ politics, it is argued: voters value ‘competence and credibility over commitment to a cause or class’ according to Tim Bale. It was essential, therefore, for Mr. Cameron to portray the Party as ‘a proficient alternative administration’. When it came to Labour and Afghanistan, he used a tactic that has always worked well for us in the past: claiming our opponents were too weak or incompetent to be trusted with the serious business of war. This tactic was an important part of the long campaign to force out Gordon Brown.

It is strange to think now just how tough an adversary Mr. Brown was, especially when you examine the popular image of him as ‘substantial’ in the context of the Tories’ perception problem. Labour capitalised on this with the ‘Not flash, just Gordon’ advertisement campaign. His popularity proved short-lived, as we all know, but the financial crash could have been for him ‘what 9/11 was to Blair.’ These crises engaged their respective skills, ‘fitted into [their] worldview, and saw [them] acting in a bold and confident fashion’, writes the politics scholar Stephen Dyson. And just as the War on Terror strengthened the image of Mr. Blair as a responsible guardian of Britain’s safety, Mr. Brown’s handling of the crash had the same potential. If he was to be forced out of office, the Tory leadership would have to play on an alternative perception of him – an incompetent leader whose actions were motivated by concerns that had nothing to do with the national interest.

The Conservative critique of Afghanistan reinforced this perception. Labour had insufficiently ‘realist’ aims (“creat[ing] Switzerland in the Hindu Kush”) and they lacked the commitment needed to fight, denying the military the resources it needed to win. In July 2009, Mr. Brown was thrown off guard when the then Chief of the Defence Staff claimed that more helicopters in the country would save lives. Mr. Cameron took advantage of the subsequent uproar, arguing Labour “have got to realise we are fighting a war”. It was not simply about money, but “about commitment. About rolling up your sleeves and realising we need more of what we’ve got actually on the frontline.” By focusing on these arguments the Tory leadership maintained their overall support for the campaign, while also playing on both popular mistrust of Blairite interventionism and a belief that the worsening military situation was entirely Mr. Brown’s fault. “We always support our troops, but we have not shied from criticising the Government’s conduct of the war,” William Hague once explained, “when we have felt we must speak out.”

Of course, the critique was only partially true; some of it downright misleading. Mr. Brown framed the campaign in the same ‘realist’ terms used by Mr. Cameron: “We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain”, he once stated. Success would be achieved by “enabling the Afghans to take over from international forces; and to continue the essential work of denying [their] territory as a base for terrorists.” Yet he had lost perhaps the most important asset of any politician, the right to be heard, as the Conservatives had already managed to portray themselves as the party of the national interest.

The historian Hew Strachan has argued that the Tory leadership were ‘reluctant to join the dots’ between the public’s support for the military and ‘the lack of [it] for the missions’, but withdrawing from Afghanistan may not have led to a landslide. They had to not only win votes, but also appear to be responsible. Michael Howard revoked the Party’s support for Iraq, one of the most unpopular wars in Britain’s history, but it was seen as opportunistic and irresponsible. However, the problem that David Cameron and William Hague created for themselves when they inherited Afghanistan was maintaining their “hard-headed” rhetoric at the same time as pulling out the troops.

Mr. Cameron’s announcement, just a month after becoming Prime Minister, that we would be out by 2015 caused a disparity between his words and his actions. Those fighting were “defending our freedom and our way of life as surely and as bravely as any soldiers” in our history. Britain could not abandon the Afghans as we had to save them “from a return to the brutality of the Taliban, who handed the entire country to Al Qaeda [sic] as a base for logistics and training”. If they came back, then “the terrorist training camps [would] come back”, which would mean “more terrorists, more bombs and more slaughter on our streets.” The rhetoric suggests Afghanistan is a war of necessity, but the deadline implies it is a war of choice. As Tory backbencher John Baron once pointed out to the Foreign Secretary: If we want to “deny al-Qaeda a base from which to operate and pose a threat to [our] streets”, then “surely we should stay there until we have achieved that objective”?

When he was pressed on whether or not British combat troops would be out by 2015 regardless of the conditions on the ground, Mr. Hague emphasised: “I do not want anyone to be in any doubt about this: we will be fulfilling the Prime Minister’s commitment.” Given that ‘the war will be lost’, according to one study, if the development of the Afghan National Security Forces is rushed ‘beyond what is possible’, the deadline contradicts Mr. Cameron’s claim that we would only leave once the job was done. The situation today is far from “mission accomplished”.

As far as the Tory leadership is concerned, Afghanistan has served its purpose: the Conservatives can now demonstrate their fitness for office by actually governing. Yet its continuing influence on David Cameron’s foreign policy has the potential to undermine his hard-won image as a prudent, responsible, strategically-minded statesman.

If the clamour for intervention in Syria continues, as well as for action in any other country that descends into civil war, the Prime Minister will be increasingly torn between his limitless doctrine of preventative action and his ‘realist’ ambitions for British foreign policy. One of these will have to be sacrificed eventually or the Party will make the choice for him – as happened when MPs rejected his call for airstrikes against Syria. Like his old Labour adversaries, he may come to be seen as a weak leader frittering away Britain’s scare military resources in idealistic wars-of-choice. 

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Defence cuts must lead to a limited world role for Britain

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Louis Reynolds

George Osborne has opted to reduce the MOD’s civilian headcount as part of the latest £11.5 billion savings drive implemented across Whitehall departments. While this cutback will certainly be noticed even within the supposedly wasteful MOD, it is an excellent alternative to further cutting H.M. Armed Forces proper.

Cutting the Forces to some degree is also seemingly the only option the Chancellor can decide upon in his mission to further slim down the British state. With Education and the NHS – which will by 2014-2015 account for 43% of spending – totally ‘ring-fenced’, the other departments must inevitably undergo more substantial butchery than would otherwise be the case, especially given Liberal Democrat misgivings about further cuts to Welfare.

The Armed Forces is also an easy target. Despite occasional and brief protests from the Chief of the General Staff Peter Wall or retired senior officers, the military is often the subject of significant cuts because it is in the culture of Britain’s services to make do. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War the continuing theme underlining British defence policy has been near constant downsizing. Finally defence cuts, while unpopular and often unwise, are felt less directly by the general public than other spending reductions.

The unequivocal necessity of government spending reductions combined with the political inability of the coalition to meaningfully confront the departments with the most substantial budgets has resulted in a 20,000 soldier reduction of British Army strength, around a fifth of its personnel, over the Coalition’s period in government.

Despite this significant reduction, the Strategic Defence and Security Review failed to properly engage with the changes the government has made to the British Armed forces, merely offering a miniaturised version of Britain’s Cold War capability and a more cautious application of force than that used in the Blair government’s unpopular operations.

The British Army was chronically undermanned and under resourced in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during the early part of the Global War on Terror. The British Army’s failure in Basra and its severely limited utility in Helmand was the direct result (to a considerable extent) of a chronic lack of resources and manpower as well as a commitment which overreached its capability. Britain’s struggle to amply fulfil her supporting role in both of the major conflicts of the early twenty-first century damaged her reputation and risked significant military embarrassment.

Since the withdrawal from Iraq and the declaration of imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the British Army has undergone quickly implemented and very deep cuts. The increase to defence spending that would be required to enable the British Army to successfully enter into two such medium scale military commitments today is, in the intermediate term, unforeseeable. Minor mercies such as today’s announcement make little realistic difference to that uncomfortable and poorly addressed fact.

Where does this leave Britain? Despite Ed Miliband’s recent and uncharacteristic outbreak of pragmatism, the Conservative party is respected as a realistic and frank broker. Sensibly reviewing British defence policy in a manner that the public could understand would lay much needed foundations for British strategy, as well as helping to prevent our ‘can do’ military being overcommitted in future operations. It is in the country’s interest, and the Coalition could do so without alienating core voters; moreover, once a realistic vision of Britain’s hard power capabilities has been established, a less nebulous and myopic foreign and security policy could be shaped.

The Coalition cannot take the easy route and conform to the pattern set by the Blair and Brown governments; continual minimisation of an outmoded and unappreciated fighting force. If we cannot afford to substantially augment H.M. Armed Forces, we must think much harder about what role it must play.

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Intervention is a powerful tool, it must be used wisely

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Aaron Ellis

I opposed intervening in Libya, criticised the Mali campaign, and have repeatedly warned against too deep an involvement in Syria. Considering this track record, it would be easy to conclude that I am against interventions anywhere and everywhere – but you would be wrong.

Like diplomacy, intervention is a tool of foreign policy, and it would be absurd to be against either of them on principle. The problem has been that in Libya, Mali, and Syria, intervention has been used to further bad foreign policy. And I am certainly against bad foreign policy on principle.

Intervention can come in many different forms. As Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus point out, its Latin root roughly translates into ‘to come between’, admitting ‘to nothing more than coming into a new relationship.’ There is much ambiguity about the nature of the relationship and who it is with, how it manifests itself, and how we came into it in the first place. Attempting to offer some clarity, I argued in these pages that we should intervene where it is in our interests to do so and our involvement should be proportionate to those interests. I called this, somewhat pompously, ‘the Ellis Doctrine’.

Yet British involvement in Libya, Mali, and Syria has been disproportionate in my view. Justifying the campaign against Colonel Gaddafi, David Cameron argued that “[j]ust because you can’t do the right thing everywhere doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do the right thing somewhere.” But was it necessary for us to participate in the military intervention in order to “do the right thing”? Could we not have focused on the diplomatic side and left the fighting to others? If the Prime Minister had limited our ownership of the war, he might not have been cheered by the crowds in Benghazi, but he would have decreased Britain’s liability to the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you buy it.

Almost two years ago, I warned that Libya bears an eerie resemblance to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban.

In 2001/02, we helped a loose coalition topple a brutal regime that we disliked without knowing too much about them or about what we wanted the postwar environment to look like. As a result of our uncoordinated actions, we created the problems that gradually undermined the illusory peace that followed. The postwar environment was shaped on the ground by the many factions and militias that we had empowered long before Western policymakers met to decide the future of the country. Over a decade and billions of pounds later, we are still trying to catch-up.

The same thing has happened in Libya. We helped a loose coalition of militias overthrow the Gaddafi regime without knowing too much about them or about what we wanted to happen afterwards. Postwar planning was deliberately scant because, like with Afghanistan in 2001/02, we were terrified of the prospect of being drawn into nation-building. The postwar environment was thus shaped by those many militias fighting on the ground and they now dominate the country.

Last month, one militia besieged government buildings, demanding that any old regime officials step down. Parliamentarians were pressured to pass a law banning them from ever holding office again. In September last year, a militia attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, killing Ambassador Chris Stevens. Three months before that, the British ambassador was almost killed in an RPG attack on his convoy.

Two years ago, Mr. Cameron warned that unless Gaddafi was toppled then a “rogue state” would develop on Europe’s doorstep, but Libya now risks becoming a so-called ‘failed state’. In January, a militant Islamist group used the country as a base from which to attack the In Amenas gas complex in Algeria. “The south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like” before France intervened, says one Malian official.

Last month, NATO began looking into whether or not it should train Libya’s nascent security forces in order to rein in the militias and improve the security situation in the country. Of course, this should have been planned during the initial campaign. Thus like in Afghanistan, we are trying to catch-up, and it is in these circumstances that I can see Britain being drawn into another long and costly nation-building mission in a country of only marginal interest to us. And after a decade of fruitless endeavour there, whoever is Prime Minister at the time may boast that he will pursue a more “hard-headed” approach unlike his predecessors – as Mr. Cameron boasted about Afghanistan four months before the Libyan intervention.

In his first Guildhall speech, he told the guests at the prestigious annual dinner that his foreign policy would “focus like a laser on defending and advancing Britain’s national interest.” This “hardheaded” approach was now being applied to Afghanistan. “We are not there to build a perfect democracy,” implying that that was what Tony Blair and Gordon Brown tried to do. Yet it is easy for politicians to be dispassionately realist about a quagmire they’ve inherited from their opponents; it’s much harder for them to work out if they are creating one themselves.

Why should Britain be drawn back into Libya, some may ask. Remember, we went in to get rid of Mad Dog and we got the job done. End of story. This is where we return to the importance of the form and extent of an intervention.

The more involved we are in an intervention, the more implicit responsibility we incur. Colin Powell warned George W. Bush that if he invaded Iraq, then he would “own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.” Apart from the moral obligations this ownership imposes on us, trying to shirk the responsibilities can undermine whatever gains we made initially.

For example, some pundits argue that by arming the Syrian rebels, the West would gain their eternal gratitude after the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Would this gratitude continue, however, if they felt we had abandoned them in the much harder postwar phase? Given how quickly the Libyan rebels accused us of abandoning them even before the intervention started, why would they continue to feel gratitude for our help if we ignored their current problems? The job was only half-done two years ago and we have tried to shirk the responsibilities we incurred ever since.

In a couple of weeks, The Spectator will be hosting a debate about whether or not Britain should intervene in Syria. The question is misleading – we already have intervened in the civil war there. A more relevant debate for us to have is to what extent should we intervene, in what form, and does it actually further our foreign policy? Unfortunately, as my friend and blogeague Adam Elkus has pointed out, ‘tools’ are sexy to talk about, but ‘how they actually advance’ our interests ‘most surely isn’t.’

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Lynton Crosby is not the electoral White Knight many Tories believe him to be

Giles Marshall 12.48pm

The Tories have had a dreadful week, and on some of the thinnest stories, that the search for who to blame and, more importantly, who their white knight in shining armour might be, are on apace.

Don’t imagine that this is a search among elected representatives. They are now so poorly perceived that they are but mere stooges. The search is about rooting out those favourite villains of the political piece across the ages - the advisers!  And that just happens to be where the white knight lies too.

The history of punishing the adviser for doing the will of the master has had some prominent victims over the years.

Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s most effective minister, enforcing his master’s will and authority with talent and success. Yet he made enemies, and went to the block in 1540 while the bloated king carried on with his capricious reign.

No-one is suggesting current villainous advisers will head to the block, but they are certainly the recipients of similar invectives as dogged the late Thomas Cromwell.  The Sun has helpfully identified the masters of menace behind the Tories’ succession of disasters as communication strategists Craig Oliver and Andrew Cooper, with a particularly sinister walk-on part for Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who received more than just a mention in a recent piece for the Telegraph by James Kirkup that sported the headline, “The evil counsel of Sir Jeremy Heywood”.

And where is this White Knight? He emerges in the shape of the man many Tories are begging to run the next election campaign: feisty Australian Lynton Crosby.  The Spectator's James Forsyth is his principal cheerleader, but there are plenty who agree that in Mr Crosby lies electoral salvation.

Why? Because he was Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaign manager and used to do pretty well for the Australian Liberal Party (don’t worry - they’re the rightists Down Under).

Mr Crosby’s services apparently come at a hefty price - would he really be worth it? Almost certainly not. He was fine marketing an amusing political buffoon against a tired, disliked old has-been. However, his record in getting Tories returned to government in the UK is rather less secure.

He was, after all, the man who famously made Michael Howard’s campaign one of the nastiest in recent memory, but signally failed to get Howard himself anywhere near Number 10. One of his pitches was: “It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”. Perhaps not for some, but when the BNP use the issue to whip up support it pretty well as good as is.  All this in an election year that was Tony Blair’s weakest, following the disaster of the Iraq war.

Many Tories like Mr Crosby because he plays as negative as you want, and he swings heftily rightwards. He’d certainly bring focus to any election campaign, but whether it is the right sort of focus, and whether it leads to any sort of national electoral success - those are two serious questions that his career leaves hanging.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilsemarshall

We cannot intervene in Syria

Giles Marshall 9.16am

I hate to say it, but Vladimir Putin has something of a point about Syria. We could do worse than simply wring our hands and leave things to the once and future Russian President.

Our problem is our outraged liberal values. Yet if we were able to take a step back from moral emotionalism, we would also have to acknowledge that not a single western intervention in the Middle East has resulted in a safer and more stable regime. Usually the reverse - utter chaos, anarchy and extremism, where innocents still die in large numbers.

Peter Oborne has a revealing account from ‘free’ Libya in this week’s Spectator (not yet online). In it he offers a vision of street fighting as a spectator sport, the kidnapping of hotel managers, and the descent of society into a murderous, corrupt abyss. There may not have been sweetness nor light under Colonel Gadaffi, no more than Iraq was a blissful democracy under Saddam Hussein, but what the West has orchestrated in its place is arguably much worse.

There are few things more damaging to a society, or more inimical to the pursuit of worldly peace, than countries without functioning governments. We might rail in our foolishness against governments and politicians here in the liberal West, but that is because we have them.

Governments are absolute prerequisites for stable, functioning and prosperous societies. That is why in 1787 the American Founding Fathers decided it was so important to have strong central government rather than merely a loose confederation of states. And that is why western nations today should err on the side of caution before conniving to overthrow yet another ghastly regime.

It could be that President Assad will fall in time as a result of internal revolt. On the other hand, it could be that we have greatly underestimated the support he still receives in much of Syria, and the fear that Syrians have of being overrun by Islamic militia of the type now ruling the roost in Iraq and Libya.

Whatever the true state of affairs, it would be madness now to propose action on the basis of emotional news reportage, regardless of how imperative and moral such an intervention might seem to us.

In this instance, it is the morally neutral President Putin who could in fact understand the value of realpolitik more than we do. We do not have to like Putin or the Syrian regime to realise that there is far more to Syria than we could ever hope to comprehend. That of course was the case in both Iraq and Libya, but this time, perhaps, we should resist the temptations of our better nature in favour of realism, however unpleasant it may seem to us. It is profoundly conservative, and reflects that clear understanding of man’s flawed nature.

It is not heroic, but international affairs rarely are.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

The West’s half-hearted efforts will not end Syria’s civil war

Dan Trombly 10.23am

The pressure has increased for more forceful intervention in Syria. Despite the presence of international observers, the Assad regime refuses to adhere to a ceasefire demanded by the UN.

Whether it involves arming the rebels or a repeat of the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995, the ongoing strife in the country calls for further action, and US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry recently urged consideration of both options. Yet despite the frustration of diplomatic efforts, military options seem bleak.

Those who argue that past success in Bosnia could be replicated in Syria both ignore the history of the Bosnian war and its differences with the current conflict. The UN’s attempts to create “safe zones” resulted in the horrific massacres of Srebrenica and elsewhere. The Bosnian war was ultimately won when the numerically superior combined force of Croatian and Bosnian troops launched ground offensives, not when NATO began air strikes.

Similar attempts to implement “safe zones” in Iraq following the first Gulf War required the threat of ground assault in the south of the country, and the tactic failed frequently in the north, such as at Irbil in 1996. Even after the Desert Fox bombing campaign, forces withdrew once a Baghdad supporting faction secured that area. Notably, Saddam Hussein’s rule was not ended until troops fought their way to the capital in 2003, despite “safe zones” having been declared alongside frequent US air patrols and strikes.

In Syria, as in Bosnia and Iraq, neither protection of civilians nor regime change can be assured without superiority on the ground. Even air strikes would require a bombing campaign larger than in Iraq in 2003.

And enormous obstacles stand in the way of arming the Syrian rebels. In Bosnia, for instance, it was Croatia’s invasion that brought about a Serb defeat, not Bosnian forces. In Syria, without a ground invasion of tens (or hundreds) of thousands of troops - from Turkey, the Arab states, or the West - Syria’s rebels will remain woefully outmatched in conventional capabilities. Indeed, Turkey rarely conducts cross-border raids against PKK terrorists without several thousand soldiers.

The Syrian rebels need artillery batteries, armour and air support, not just man-portable anti-tank or anti-aircraft weaponry.

Even with Western air support, the rebels would likely continue to use the guerilla tactics befitting the outmatched force that they are, avoiding pitched battles and ceding territory to draw out hostile forces. While these might be effective tactics in a long-term insurgency, they are unlikely to result in regime change or effective protection of civilians in the short-term. Even the maintenance of a safe haven for rebel forces would need to be done outside Syrian territory, rather than in “safe zones”.

Simply arming rebel forces is more likely to cause a protracted civil war than a quick victory. The United States and others learned this is Nicaragua, Angola and Afghanistan during the Cold War. But in those cases, there was thought to be some value in attrition, and supporters of proxy groups were relatively indifferent to civilian casualties and the collateral damage of prolonged conflict. In Syria, such outcomes are unjustifiable on humanitarian grounds, nor on strategic aims (seeing Assad depart quickly).

Moreover, an influx of arms leaves lasting consequences. The behaviour of Libyan militias is a case in point.

An authoritarian regime such as Assad’s can hold on until hostile armoured columns roll on Damascus. Therefore the only strategically feasible option for a quick victory in Syria is a full-scale invasion. Yet no Western state is willing to undertake such a mission and a Turkish or Arab effort seems very unlikely.

Ultimately, Syria’s civil war will drag on. In the meantime, Western powers must work with Syria’s neighbours to prevent WMDs and other arms from leaving the country; they must provide aid to refugees that manage to escape Syria; and continue to exercise diplomatic options to the best of their ability.

Unless Western policymakers can convince their own populations and their Middle Eastern allies that an invasion is justifiable, providing military aid or half-hearted intervention can only worsen the consequences of Syria’s conflict - for both that country’s neighbours, and the interests of the West.

Dan Trombly is a student of International Affairs at George Washington University. He blogs at Slouching Towards Columbia.

The most sensational result in British by-election history?

Nik Darlington 10.22am

George Galloway has completed an astonishing return to Parliament with a runaway win in the Bradford West by-election.

With typical understatement, Mr Galloway described it as a “Bradford Spring” and “the most sensational victory in British political history”. Here he is, in his inimitable - and it would be churlish not to say captivating - style.

Comparing this win with the Arab Spring - a passionate mass movement that swept the breadth of an entire continent and has claimed thousands of lives in the name of giving the unvoiced a voice - is the type of unbounded arrogance few can rival, and a hallmark of Mr Galloway’s political career.

Yet in pushing Labour into second place by ten thousand votes, in a seat that Ed Miliband and his party fully expected to win, Mr Galloway has provided a bitter bookend to a week in which the Labour leader’s star had begun to shine so brightly.

It is a frightful result for the Tories too, considering how well the party performed here in 2010 (though we should be thankful the rumours of falling behind Ukip did not materialise). And the Lib Dems lost their deposit, though these days that is hardly surprising.

But David Cameron et al will surely be smiling this morning after a torrid ten days. This was never a seat the party truly expected to win, and Mr Galloway’s stunning triumph poses more questions for his former colleagues in the Labour party than the Tories upon which he wished nothing but “perdition”.

All things considered, this is potentially a great moment for Bradford West. Few fates are more dispiriting than being one of those desperately safe urban Labour seats, taken for granted by the party’s machine. The constituencies that vote in Labour candidates with a resigned shrug year after year after year, candidates who pledge social justice, urban renewal, progressive politics and fair chances, yet deliver little.

If Mr Galloway can change the habit of a lifetime and put Bradford West before his own vanity, he could be precisely what the people there need. Someone to stand up for them as a community, not a fiefdom. Someone to shout stirringly on their behalf, instead of condemning them to suffer under a failed party line.

If Mr Galloway can manage to do this, and few have the charisma to manage it better, then he deserves our (very much qualified) support.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington