Last week I was deluged with emails demanding that we do something – almost anything – to relieve the desperate situation of Syrians besieged and trapped in eastern Aleppo.
George Osborne was right when, in the emergency debate held in Parliament, he pointed out that whilst intervention can have unintended and severe consequences, so too does choosing not to intervene.
I was a government whip in late August 2013 when the Government sought parliamentary authority to take punitive military action against the Assad regime after it had crossed the ‘red line’ defined by President Obama, and used chemical weapons against its own civilian population.
The difficulty we faced in the whips office was not that the situation in Syria did not demand it, rather that colleagues were fearful of what happened a decade earlier with our military intervention in Iraq.
In 2013 the emails, which now demand that we intervene, were – notwithstanding the obscene chemical attacks – demanding that we stand aside. They won the day and we have watched the slaughter from the side lines ever since. As a consequence of the decision to do nothing, hundreds of thousands have died, our allies in the region have been destabilised by the presence of 4 million refugees, and a million refugees have fled to Europe; the dreadful regimes in Iran and Russia are in the ascendant.
Even before that fateful vote at the end of August 2013, much of the damage had already been done. From the very outset of the rebellion we supported the objectives of Assad’s moderate opponents – the Free Syrian Army, but we refused to arm them. Consequently the opposition to Assad’s murderous regime became increasingly dominated by the better armed Islamist militias.
Now it is too late. Assad, his Russian and Iranian allies are triumphant. The prospects for Syria and the entire region are frightful. This is a mistake we have made before. After the first Gulf war, when Saddam’s Shia subjects in southern Iraq rose in rebellion, we stood aside while he massacred them, with consequences that lasted a generation, and continue.
The consequences of what we have now allowed to happen in Syria will also reverberate for a generation, that’s if we are lucky.