Bill Carmichael: Why the West can do little about Syria

the submarine HMS Astute could be deployed by the Ministry of Defence against Syria, but will military intervention work?
the submarine HMS Astute could be deployed by the Ministry of Defence against Syria, but will military intervention work?
Have your say

TODAY’S events have the feeling of something from the height of the Cold War more than half a century ago.

It may not quite have the apocalyptic atmosphere of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but it is not far off.

Syria, under the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad, has used chemical weapons against his own people – not for the first time – with the enthusiastic backing of his Russian and Iranian allies.

The West, appalled at images of civilians, including young children, being gassed in their beds, says it cannot stand idly by the face of such atrocities.

US President Donald Trump condemns the “heinous attack on innocent Syrians with banned chemical weapons” and warns Russia to “get ready” for a US military response.

In turn, Russia dismisses evidence of a chemical attack as fabricated propaganda, and threatens to shoot down any missiles fired by the US and attack their launch sites – presumably US navy ships in the Mediterranean.

If this does happen, it will be a major escalation of the conflict. We’ll no longer be talking about a Cold War, but a hot one.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Theresa May calls a Cabinet meeting to discuss the UK joining military action against Syria, either with or without Parliamentary consent.

At the time of writing there are conflicting reports as to the degree of enthusiasm for military action amongst the Cabinet, but the signs point to some kind of limited response.

So expect some cruise missile strikes against Syrian military targets by the West in the hope of deterring the most brutal attacks by Assad on his own people.

And, indeed, it is difficult to see what more can be done because the West is largely powerless to stop the bloodshed.

This battle was lost way back in 2012 when the then US President, Barack Obama, laid down strict red lines to Syria over the use of chemical weapons – and then promptly capitulated when Assad brazenly crossed them.

This exposed a fatal weakness at the heart of Western foreign policy in the Middle East that has been ruthlessly exploited by Russia and Iran.

Indeed, you could argue that the reason children are dying in chemical attacks today is largely because of the feeble nature of Obama’s response the last time it happened five years ago.

Our big problem is that on both right and left we have a Western-centric view of the world – specifically that all the problems of the Middle East are the fault of the West and it is within our power to put them right.

It isn’t so. The root of these conflicts isn’t in the regional rivalry of the West versus Russia, or in Western imperalism, or the thirst for oil or the existence of Israel.

Instead look at the schism within Islam. Sunni and Shia Muslims have been slaughtering each other since the Battle of the Camel almost 1,400 years ago – hundreds of years before the British Empire was even a gleam in Queen Victoria’s eye.

This sectarian feud continues to rage with much bloodshed on both sides. Indeed it helps to explain much of the violence when you understand that Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are engaged in a bitter war to the death.

Many recent conflicts – including Syria, Iraq and Yemen – are merely proxy wars fought with the backing of these feuding regional powers.

The real apocalypse in the region will come if Saudi Arabia and Iran face each other in war directly – possibly using nuclear weapons.

This would possibly result in the deaths of millions of Muslims – not that the mediaeval bigots that run those two countries would much care.

Western foreign policy should aim to prevent this from happening – most importantly by limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But the idea that if we in the West can just persuade Muslims to be more tolerant of each other we could transform Syria into an Arab version of Switzerland is nothing more than fantasy. It isn’t going to happen.

The Sunni-Shia schism has been with us for hundreds of years, and will remain the defining characteristic of the politics of the region for the foreseeable future.

Grasp that and you can understand why our powers to prevent the violence endemic in the Middle East will always be limited.