Pundits across the political spectrum have claimed recently that had MPs supported military action in Syria last summer, the world might just have been a better place today. Yet there is no reason why those who opposed intervention should regret their stance, as there’s no reason to believe that it would have made a difference to the conflict. The truth is that diplomacy has achieved far more than punitive airstrikes would probably have done – at least as far as chemical weapons are concerned.
Last week, Syria enjoyed its longest period of media coverage since the August crisis. On Tuesday, thousands of documents and photographs were published which strongly suggest that the al-Assad regime ‘systemically’ murdered around 11,000 detainees. At the Geneva II summit the next day, negotiations between the regime and the opposition started acrimoniously. And at PMQs, Ed Miliband pushed David Cameron on whether or not Britain would accept more Syrian refugees. Perhaps because of the lack of exciting political news, these were given relatively wide coverage, and some commentators questioned the wisdom of the Commons vote. If we had gone in, journalists might have been reporting much better stories from this devastated country.
On Wednesday, both Matthew D’Ancona on the right and Sunny Hundal on the left argued that non-intervention has caused more suffering than intervention would have done. D’Ancona wondered ‘how many detainees have been maimed and killed’ since the vote. Hundal implied that due to a lack of Western military presence, al-Qa’ida and other militant Islamists have taken over the rebellion. The next day, Dan Hodges (wherever he is on the political spectrum now) basically claimed that only those who supported intervention really care about the Syrians. Presumably, we can only show our sympathy for the millions caught up in the appalling humanitarian crisis by bombing stuff.
These arguments suffer from the same flaws as those put forward by Mr. Cameron last summer. All of them are vague about the military action that was being proposed, and none of them explain why that particular use of force would have generated the desired outcome.
Shortly after the Libya campaign began, the Prime Minister argued that Britain was “sending a message” that “the way to meet the aspirations of people…in the Arab world is with reform and dialogue, not with repression.” Over a hundred thousand deaths later, we can safely assume that Mr. al-Assad did not receive that message, so why would he have gotten the one about chemical weapons? Or murdering detainees? As Mr. Cameron once remarked, “[b]ombs and missiles are bad ambassadors.”
It is easier to think about the potentialities of bombing someone than it is about the potentialities of negotiating with them, yet the Kerry-Lavrov deal has achieved far more than a few airstrikes would have done. Whereas the regime would still have possessed chemical weapons after the attack, they are now actually being removed from Syria. Last September, the regime became a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention. The diplomatic outcome of the crisis is the only bright spot in the civil war, the Foreign Secretary said last week, which is why those who opposed intervention shouldn’t regret their stance. It helped make the world a marginally better place.
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