‘You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor, and you will have war.’
Three years ago, Obama and Cameron were faced with a choice in Syria not terribly unlike the one faced by Chamberlain in the 1930s, to which Churchill was referring in this quote.
On Friday, Benjamin Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor, announced that the US is now considering taking its bombing campaign against ISIL beyond Iraq’s boarders into Syria.
When the uprising against Assad’s regime in Syria became violent in 2011, both the US and Britain looked on with concern, but chose not to act. Now, faced with an expanding, brutal caliphate established in Northern Iraq and parts of Syria, they have no choice but to act with a military response.
There were reasons, of course, for their inaction. An undue focus on regime change limited the options that were considered. With the precedent of the Arab Spring, perhaps Obama and Cameron were hopeful that a regime change in Syria would happen with minimal external assistance.
The option of supporting the uprising with air strikes – as employed effectively in Libya – was ruled out. Then they dithered around the idea of arming the rebels against Assad’s regime. In the end, with no cheap and easy way to unseat Assad, they left it to the Arab League to try to broker a solution.
Had the West not been so focused on regime change, they might have proposed other options to bring about an end to hostilities while maintaining the integrity of the Syrian state. Peacekeeping, which went out of vogue in the late 1990s, did not appear to be considered. This would have involved forcibly separating the warring factions – the ‘Peace Enforcement’ phase – followed by an extended military presence to maintain the peace. The main objectives would be to save civilian lives by avoiding an extended armed conflict, and to force the warring factions to the negotiating table. This would have required a strong UN-backed mandate and a willingness to commit significant military forces, including boots on the ground, for an extended period of time.
However, weary from lengthy engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and still reeling from the financial crisis, both the US and the UK were already cashing-in the anticipated ‘peace dividend’ by reducing defence budgets. In the UK especially, cut after cut was made, which took a deep toll on personnel and equipment of all three branches of the Armed Forces. Neither country, therefore, had the political will to propose to the UN a course of action that would greatly increase their military commitments.
In hindsight, the lack of firm, early action by the West has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, and allowed the most potent jihadist organization yet seen, to emerge triumphantly from the chaos. We have been reminded again that inaction leads to even bigger problems. In our modern world, jihadist groups are ever ready to exploit the power vacuum created by failed states. A reactionary policy of non-intervention cannot be our default position in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan.