Bill Carmichael: Military action against Syria two years ago could have avoided current crisis

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Russian build-up in war-torn nation adds new dimension to perilous situation.

AFTER what happened in Iraq we are painfully aware of the possible consequences of taking military action, even if we have the best intentions.

But after what happened in Syria we can see that not taking military action can also have serious and damaging outcomes.

In the summer of 2013 the British government was preparing military action as part of a multinational force against Syria to try to stop President Bashar Assad using chemical weapons against his own people.

Initially, the proposal had cross-party support, but at the last minute the then Labour leader Ed Miliband wobbled because of opposition from the party’s left wing (the sort of people now running Labour) and the vote was lost.

Who knows what would have happened if the West had fired a warning shot across Assad’s bows two years ago? Perhaps the catastrophe that has engulfed Syria could have been avoided.

What we do know is what happened as a result of the West’s weakness – Assad was able to unleash the full fury of his armed forces against the civilian population and ISIS gained a foothold among the rebels.

As a result hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced to join the migrant rush to northern Europe.

Of course the West has been blamed for taking military action in Iraq – and blamed for not taking military action in Syria. Whatever we do we just can’t win.

But the simple truth is none of this is our fault. The two main sects of Islam have been busily slaughtering each other since the Battle of the Camel in the year 656.

The civil war in Syria is just the latest franchise of the never-ending Sunni/Shia blood feud that has been raging for almost 1,400 years.

Western democracies have a duty to help suffering civilians wherever we can – but we have to accept that our ability to persuade Muslims to be more tolerant towards each other is very limited. Whatever we do the sectarian slaughter is likely to continue.

But now we are entering even more dangerous waters. Over recent weeks there has been a significant build up of Russian military equipment and personnel in Syria.

Vladimir Putin can get away with such meddling because in Barack Obama we have the weakest US president in living memory. The Russians simply don’t care if the US objects or not.

Meanwhile, in the UK word from the Conservative camp is that they are preparing a new vote on intervention in Syria in order to expose deep divisions in the Labour party.

New leader Jeremy Corbyn would oppose such action of course, but many Labour MPs, including shadow cabinet members, are likely to vote in favour.

This may be shrewd politics by Cameron and co, but it is questionable statesmanship. It is far too serious a matter to simply use this as a tool to embarrass Labour.

It is not even clear who we are going to bomb if we take action in Syria – Assad’s troops or the ISIS jihadis on the opposing side? Both are as bad as each other.

And if it is the former, isn’t there a grave danger we could end up confronting better equipped and better trained Russian forces rather than Assad’s ragtag army?

Extreme caution should be our watchwords over the coming months.

Merkel to blame for Hungary

GERMAN Chancellor Angela Merkel carries heavy responsibility for the clashes between riot police and migrants on the Hungarian border this week.

She made a catastrophic error by offering an open invitation to all Syrians – and anybody who claimed to be Syrian – to settle in Germany.

This unleashed a huge tide of people – not just Syrians, but Afghans, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Eritreans and Kosovans – heading north to Germany. It also encouraged many more to try to get into the EU in rickety boats, often with tragic consequences.

Once Merkel realised her mistake she panicked – immediately closing Germany’s borders in contravention of the Schengen Agreement that guarantees freedom of movement within 22 EU countries.

This has left hundreds of thousands of migrants who answered Merkel’s invitation stranded, and countries such as Greece and Hungary having to cope with the mess she created.

Germany is a rich country with a low birth rate and an ageing population. The least it can do is to honour Merkel’s promise of a new life for migrants and to relieve the pressure on much poorer EU countries to the south.

Bill Carmichael