Eighty-two men, women and children shot on the spot. Homes and buildings bombed to smithereens to create a landscape reminiscent of Dresden. Innocents blasted into oblivion by indiscriminate ‘air strikes’ or trapped under tonnes of rubble. Children freezing to death in the Syrian winter cold, their young minds shaped irreparably by the trauma of war. Tens of thousands living from one moment to the next not knowing if they will survive the day. An ancient city violently erased from time and place.
The offensive levelled against Aleppo by the Syrian Armed Forces, pro-Assad Shia militias and heavy Russian air strikes over the last six months has created a pocket of hell on Earth which will not be forgotten. It has stripped Bashar al-Assad of any pretence that he wishes to “liberate” the people of Syria from the dozens of rebel factions which plague the nation. His forces, along with Putin’s, have likely committed war crimes and certainly committed crimes against humanity with their total disregard for Syrian life.
It is entirely understandable in this context that western politicians and pundits are asking whether we could have done more to prevent this tragedy.
Many have cast their minds back to when parliament voted against launching a bombing campaign against Assad’s regime in 2013, dubbing the chaos in Syria as an example of ‘the price of non-intervention’. In an emergency debate on Aleppo in parliament last week, George Osborne, in his first major speech to the Commons since he was sacked from the cabinet, cited the 2013 vote and said that the tragedy of Aleppo had been created by “a vacuum of western leadership, of American leadership, British leadership”. The Labour MP, John Woodcock, chimed in on a similar note; excoriating Ed Miliband for having defeated the government over the Syria motion while leader of the opposition, saying “we are shamed as a nation by this”.
All this “we should have intervened back in 2013” talk is undoubtedly well-intentioned. But the harsh reality is that by 2013 it was already too late for western powers to get involved in this way. All democratic resistance (“moderate” is a meaningless term in this debate) had been sidelined within the first year or so of fighting by ruthless Islamist groups who were willing to do whatever it took to get ahead.
Without a proper player in the game, what could the UK parliament have hoped to achieve with such an intervention? By this point in the war ISIS was in the ascendant, gaining increasing power and influence in the region (though western governments were barely aware of this until the group had captured an area the size of Great Britain). Any bombing campaign against Assad by a US/UK-led coalition would have been a boon to what would become known as the Islamic State – as well as a plethora of other jihadist groups. Ground lost by pro-government forces due to our strikes would have been swiftly seized by these barbarous factions, not by any form of sane-minded, democratic sorts. We’d have been effectively enabling the most monstrous terrorist organisations of the 21st century. That, truly, would have been cause for shame.
Our intervention in Iraq in 2003 had catastrophic consequences, even though Saddam Hussein had flattened violent sectarianism in the country and he was the only man standing. This was because our handling of the $60 billion reconstruction of Iraq, led by the clueless Jerry Bremmer, reignited the vicious factionalism lurking beneath the surface, which resulted in complete chaos and jihadist insurgency. By contrast, in 2013 there was very little sectarianism left to ignite in Syria; making any military involvement in the country by the west even less likely to succeed.
The only point in the Syrian Civil War when western powers could have intervened militarily with some chance of success would have been right at the start of it all. In 2011, the US, UK and others could have tried to back the democratic factions (though I have no idea how they would have been able to know who stood for what at this early stage) with air strikes so as to give them the edge over their Islamist rivals and gather the momentum to take on the Syrian army. Yet this is also more or less what NATO attempted to do in Libya, an intervention which Barack Obama himself believes was ultimately a “shit-show”.
And that was what was so demoralising about the speeches given during the emergency debate last week. MPs from both sides of the house showed the British public they still had not learned the lessons of our failed interventions in Iraq and in Libya. They had not learned that you cannot simply bomb an evil regime on the “something must be done” mantra and expect good will come of it.
It was especially ill-judged of one MP to compare Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, to Douglas Hurd, the Conservative foreign secretary who, in the 1990s, rejected the notion that Britain should act to stop the genocide occurring in Bosnia. There is very little Johnson can do or could have done to put the brakes on what has been unfolding in Aleppo. A UN no-fly zone would have failed as Russia would have vetoed any such initiative – the same would go for an in-out UN intervention to protect civilians in the city. And any swift action by NATO to stop the slaughter would have risked a conflict with Russia to dwarf anything else occurring in the region at present.
This is not to say that nothing can be done. Peter Tatchell, who condemned the Commons debate as “all tears and talk”, has valiantly lead calls for the UK to conduct airdrops of food, medicine and fuel to aid the five million Syrians living in besieged and hard-to-access areas in the country. Such supplies, he says, are “desperately needed by starving, freezing and wounded civilians”, and could be delivered using drones and GPS-guided parachutes so as not to put RAF crews at risk from being shot down by anti-aircraft missiles or the Syrian (or Russian) Air Force.
It also does not mean that liberal intervention is always a mistake. It was entirely right for NATO to intervene to prevent imminent massacre in Benghazi by Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and for the US Air Force to repel Isis from launching a bloody assault on Erbil in 2014. Our disastrous military engagements in Iraq and Libya should not lead us to believe we cannot intervene anywhere. But they should make our politicians more far more sceptical than they currently are about the good interventionism can do in conflicts as frustratingly complex and morally convoluted as the one raging in Syria.