By James Sorene
This article was originally published in the Telegraph.
It is September 2012 and I am at the National Security Council in Downing Street. David Cameron is chairing a discussion about military options in Syria. Almost 40,000 civilians have been killed and thousands are displaced. The Chief of the Defence Staff explains how to establish a no-fly zone on Syrian territory and create a safe haven for refugees. Next up the heads of the intelligence services assess the opposition groups, some of whom are Islamist extremists. After a lengthy exchange of views the ministers agree not to take military action.
Fast-forward to August 2013, President Assad has used chemical weapons against his own people. Western powers are threatening military action. In a bizarre twist, I am in Afghanistan before the crucial vote in Parliament, with my inbox full of draft speeches about Syrian intervention: a tough juxtaposition as I visit the last forward operating base held by British troops in Helmand, the tail end of a 12-year intervention. Back in London there is high drama, the Government loses the vote on Syria and President Barrack Obama rows back from his commitment to bomb Assad.
The Middle East is never straightforward. The Syrian civil war involves ten separate conflicts involving scores of rebel groups fighting for control. Back in 2012 we were paralysed by this complexity and the likelihood, which came true in the form of ISIS, that a rebel group would become more dangerous than the regime.
The root of this paralysis was the trauma of Iraq. The hubris of liberal interventionism has been replaced by the paranoia of cautious incrementalism; we are obsessed with our diminishing ability to improve a situation, ever mindful of risks and the limitations of our intelligence, unsure of our instincts and afraid to enforce our values.
We were too slow to react to the emergence of ISIS, and we should have created safe havens in Syria because our inaction sent a message that we wouldn’t pay the price to protect civilians and enforce humanitarian conduct. The result is that Syria has become the devil’s playground and Aleppo the most macabre example – indiscriminate Russian bombing, chlorine gas, Hezbollah and Iranian forces slaughtering unarmed civilians.
In the short term, Assad’s regime has the upper hand and, in Western Syria and Iraq, ISIS is losing ground. But the long-term fallout from Aleppo will send shock waves across the Middle East for decades. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have all reaped rewards from the conflict.
When the US stepped back, Russia stepped in with ruthless effect. US policy in the Middle East now has to be brokered with a resurgent Russia, a stunning turnaround. Aleppo’s fall was a big win for Iran. It can boast a concrete arc of control stretching from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. Hezbollah gambled on Assad and, although its losses are heavy, its experience alongside Iranian forces within a Russian command structure has transformed it into one of the most effective armed forces in the region.
Furthermore, Aleppo has normalised war crimes, with the indiscriminate air bombardment of cities and the deployment of chemical weapons now common fare. If Hezbollah were ever to resume its conflict with Israel there is no reason to assume these methods wouldn’t be reprised.
The fallout from Aleppo may not be restricted to the resurgence of this trio. Consider a chilling lesson from history. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1989, the US armed the Mujahideen and the war spawned the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But it took years for that threat to materialise in New York in 2001 and London in 2005. ISIS may be in retreat, but its fighters won’t turn their swords into ploughshares.
How will ISIS reorganise? What ungoverned space will it operate from? Sinai? Algeria? Tunisia? Al Qaeda is resurgent amidst the melee in Syria. In ten or 15 years how many thousands will they have recruited to avenge the children of Aleppo? And whom will they target? Moscow? Washington? London?
The real lesson from Aleppo for Western leaders is to end their cautious incrementalism. As well as assessing the risks of action now, we need to balance those concerns against the devastating future impact of inaction. Because the message we send can have horrifying consequences.
Donald Trump will shortly unpack his puzzling form of belligerent isolationism in the Middle East. Our allies in Israel and the Gulf are fearful at a time when some of the most dangerous forces in the region are emboldened. It is time for Britain to decide now what values and interests it is prepared to fight for.
James Sorene is CEO of BICOM.