So former Foreign Aid Minister Andrew Mitchell wants the UK to take action to stop the slaughter of civilians in Aleppo. While no one could fault the worthiness of the aim I fear that it is vacuous and potentially dangerous.
There has been talk of creating a no-fly zone. While these have prevented bombing attacks in the past, notably in Iraq, there are two problems. The first is technical – a no-fly zone will not stop artillery munitions, surface to surface missiles or ground troops from continuing the destruction. And to those on the receiving end, it actually makes little difference if they are hit by a 1,000 kg bomb or a 50 kg artillery shell. Stopping ground troops from the air is fraught with danger – and generally involves dropping ordnance on them. Again, it makes little difference to the civilian if they are hit by a 1,000 kg Russian bomb or a 500 kg British one.
But a bigger problem is that enforcing a no-fly zone means shooting down anything breaching it. Taking out the odd, old Iraqi MiG is one thing. Getting into full on air to air combat with top end Russian Sukhois (operating in conjunction with some formidable air defences) is quite another. While the Sukhoi would probably get splashed in the end, it is likely that Mr Putin would regard this action as very close to an act of war – remember the Russians have a strategic interest in Syria: the Assad regime provides them with a warm water port that can’t easily be blockaded by NATO. It is unlikely that Mr Putin would take such an attack lying down; he would retaliate. Aggressively, probably in Ukraine or the Baltic.
There is also the minor glitch that it would be impossible to get a UN resolution, as Russia would veto it.
The simple truth is that the uprising in Syria has failed to oust Assad. The chaos has revealed the fault lines in a region where post Great War lines on the map have little rationality. As is always the case, the fighting has killed many civilians. (Remember, in the 1944 battles around Caen, the British killed more French civilians by mistake in three months than the number of British civilians the Luftwaffe managed to kill deliberately during the entire war.)
The only way to stop the continuing slaughter is to stop the fighting. The rebels have failed to win, Assad will not back down and thus a pragmatist would say it’s time to support Assad – or at least not oppose him. Until the Arab Spring we weren’t much worried about his actions.
You may consider, like Mr Mitchell, that we have a duty to the Syrian population. To convince me you would have to demonstrate that a mandate existed from all Syrians, which it clearly does not. You might argue that we have a duty to humanity, but then you would have to prove that risking armed confrontation with Russia would work and that fewer would be killed in Syria as a result. Good luck with that.
Life, and particularly government, is about hard choices. It might be helpful to consider the three principles of First Aid.
(1) Do not put yourself in danger. That just increases the problem for someone else.
(2) Do not make the casualty’s condition worse. That just increases their suffering and reduces their chance of survival.
(3) Try and make their condition better.
It is clear that so far our efforts in Syria have failed on all three principles. We’re in a hole – it’s time to stop digging and start thinking.