As the fallout of the government defeat in the House of Commons over the proposed military action against Syria rumbles on, it seems pertinent to ask a few questions.
Despite various attempts to place foreign policy analysis in some kind of ethical framework, the fact is that military action exists within a purely Darwinian framework: Right does not prevail, unless it has sufficient might. There are many despicable governments on the planet- including, not least, the government of Russia- but we do not propose to remove their corrupt and criminal incumbents by force. That would be inviting a trial of strength with a foe that has a nuclear arsenal that is quite sufficient to render the concept of victory a meaningless one. The West has disputes with China over human rights that are no less serious that with pre-war Syria, but we do not propose the use of force against Beijing- we use the instruments of soft power and persuasion to try to ameliorate the oppressed in that huge country.
So as the beleaguered Ba'athist dictatorship of Bashir Al Assad shakes on its foundations, we are entitled to ask what are the aims of the West in the Scorpions nest that Syria has now become?
Clearly the West would like the removal of the dictatorship in Damascus, as it did with the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. It also believes that military action will tip the balance against Al Assad, as it did in the overthrow of Qaddafi in Libya. In short the United States is making a calculation that it can remove the Syrian government and replace it with a less hostile neighbour to Israel- its closest ally.
Both prospects are highly debatable, and the risks involved are potentially devastating, not merely for regional stability, but also for world peace. Yes, it is horrific that nerve gas has been used in the civil war now raging across Syria; and yes the West has always made clear that the use of "weapons of mass destruction", whether biological, nuclear or chemical, should carry the stiffest retribution. However, even if it becomes clear that it is indeed the regime, and not the rebels, that has used such a vile weapon, it is not automatic that the immediate consequence should be for the West to let slip the dogs of war.
Russia has a naval base in Syria. That is a fundamental fact that is at the heart of Russian policy in the Middle East. The sharp decline of Russia since the end of Communism has made the diminished Kremlin extremely sensitive both to any further weakness, but also extremely sensitive to further slights. The lesson of Libyan intervention, which Russia fiercely opposed, was that the West would not even pay lip service to Russian interests or even concerns. In Tripoli, Russia ultimately had few cards that it could play. In Syria it is an altogether different affair. Increasingly tyrannical, and increasingly anti-Western, Vladimir Putin has been dismissing the West's concerns in Syria with the same casual determination as he believes the West showed towards Russia in Libya. Russia has clear interests in Syria, but, unlike Libya, it has the means and the determination to defend them.
Meanwhile Russia has been making nice with Beijing, to the point where Russia and China are clearly expressing a common front towards certain, though not yet all, Western interests. From the point of view of NATO, the coming together of an aggressive Russia, which explicitly rejects the rights of European states to chose their own destinies, and China which grows increasingly assertive over the issue of its maritime and other borders, and especially Taiwan, is a strategic nightmare. As I have noted before, there is a horrible symmetry between the unexpected breakdown of the strategic order in Europe in 1914, and the potential for a similar Asian/global breakdown now.
After several decades of internal instability and war, the Balkans- as Bismarck predicted- ended dragging the great powers into fighting each other. For "the Balkans", now read, "the Middle East".
So, although there has been a great deal of hand wringing over the House of Commons vote, I for one do not regret the opportunity for NATO and the West to reconsider their strategic imperatives. Russia may have done the West a favour by forcing us to reconsider what our goals are in the this fight. It has certainly done us the favour of considering the risks of war.
The regime of Assad is criminal and monstrous. However, the enemy of my enemy may not be my friend- as the events on Egypt have already made clear. It is time to consider not merely the tactics of any military strike, but the global strategy that we must adopt in order to avoid the same catastrophic breakdown that occurred in 1914.
In this we must consider not merely the actions of the great powers: Russia, China, the US and so on, but also their proxies in the Middle East. In particular the time has come for the United States to set red-lines to Israel.
Israel has many rights. It has the right to exist. It has the right to order its government within borders based upon- if not precisely the same as- the 1967 armistice lines. It does not have the right to turn Gaza and much of the West Bank into prison camps and to oppress Palestinians in order to drive them out of the whole of the territory of the former mandate of Palestine. There will never be security for Israel for as long as that oppression continues: it is the running sore that has helped to destabilize the Arab and Muslim world for half a century. Israel will ultimately suffer the same fate as the Crusader Kingdoms of the Holy Land, unless it can find a way to live at peace with its neighbours, and it is in the interests of both Israel and the United States that a historic compromise is finally found- no matter what the state of Egypt, or Syria for that matter.
Of course that is, alas, for the much longer term. It seems that the Syrian civil war- as for so long predicted- is going to outlast the horrors of the Lebanon in both the savagery and brutality of the war- and maybe even its duration. The West must now consider what that means for the future of the Middle East and the wider world. It must recognise that a joint Russian-Chinese front is a serious strategic threat and either by hard words or soft power it must undo that threat. Most of all it must begin to unpick the knot of the wider Middle East- the challenge of Iran, the instability of North Africa, the economic deficiencies across the Arab world as much as the festering Arab-Israeli conflict. That requires real statesmanship- not the foaming short-termism that has disfigured most of the debate as to whether or how the gas attacks in Damascus can ever be revenged.