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Why bombing would not have averted the Syrian refugee crisis

31590193_sJust a few of points by way of counterfactual theorising in response to James Bloodworth’s piece in the International Business Times about Syria and the decision not to go to war.

James’s chief contention is that, had the Commons voted to bomb Assad and his regime this time two years ago, the appalling refugee crisis and the tidal wave of suffering it unleashed might well have been averted. Or it very might well have not have done so. As it happens, I think opposing the war was the right thing and adds to Ed Miliband’s credentials as one of the most effective opposition leaders never to have won an election. But that was no triumph. Not intervening against Assad didn’t mean endorsing his crimes and utter disregard for the devastation the regime is prepared to wreak to prevent its toppling, but one cannot simply sweep wash one’s hands of it. It was clear back then that ‘doing nothing’ had consequences, and those were likely to be many more tens of thousands of deaths. The heartrending scenes from the Mediterranean today were always foreseeable.

While some opposition to bombing Syria might have been motivated by callous disregard for the fates of others and/or little Englandism – which has always been UKIP’s position, incidentally – the only really credible defence for those opposed was the supposition that the consequences of bombing and overthrowing the Assad regime would have been even worse. Yes, Assad has killed a great many more than his opponents. The prisons and torture chambers at his disposal remain busy as the civil war grinds on. However, had US and UK warplanes attacked his regime, crippled its military capability, and seen it swept aside by the ground forces of its enemies, in all likelihood the vacuum would have been filled by Islamic State.

The chemical and biological arms Assad has would have become their chemical and biological weapons. With the Syrian regime gone, there’s little doubt a new wave of terror would have swept the land. The other factions in the civil war – the other Islamists, what ever is left of the FSA, the Kurds in the North, IS will have had a freer hand to deal with them. Its invasion of Iraq could have reached further. Lebanon might well have been threatened. In a weird turn of fate, Hezbollah and Israel might have shared a common enemy. And thanks to the “prestige” of its victory and larger, more porous borders; even more foreign fighters may have made their way to IS territory via Jordan.

It’s very difficult to see how this scenario could not have come to pass. The injection of large numbers of US and UK troops might have brought about an Afghanistan/Iraq-style “solution” with all the anti-insurgency actions and casualties that would have entailed, but IS would have been locked out. However, as we know, neither the public nor for that matter the political and military elites were taken with such a scenario. Perhaps timing could have made a difference. Had the bombs fallen on Damascus earlier today’s crisis might have been avoided. Possibly, but as the last foray into Libya showed early intervention is no guarantee of success. If the bombs had landed in support of the 2011 uprisings, what has befallen Tripoli, Benghazi, etc. could be a window into the road not taken in Syria. That, however, was never on the table.

One cannot never know for certain, but thinking through counterfactuals one has to weigh up possibilities. In this case, looking at the factors on the ground now, the balance of forces in play two years ago, and on the basis of past histories of Western intervention and its consequences, what we have now – as appalling as it is – is likely to be the lesser evil of all possible horrendous worlds. The thorny question is what can be done about it now and, apart from taking the refugees, the answer is not a lot.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image Copyright: ijacky / 123RF Stock Photo


  1. David Ellis says:

    The Putinite Left cheered the decisions of Parliament and Congress to abandon the Syrian People to the barrell bombs and machettes of the Assad regime and he killed tens of thousands and displaced several million but there was never any chance of a Western intervention such as a No Fly Zone in Syria because they were already embarked on a new Middle East policy involving raprochment with Iran. The people of Syria were horribly betrayed by imperialism, which we of course expect, but worse by the left who did not just oppose Western intervention but opposed a revolution to which they should have been giving unconditional support.

    The Western Left has blood on its hands on this one but the `decents’ and Zionists like Bloodsworth are trying to re-badge imperialism as a system that cares.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Well the numbers are these; before WWII it has been estimated that, 10% of the casualties from warfare were civilians and that 90% were combatants.

      Today those figures, (post Viet Nam,) are now the complete reverse of that and “we’re,” basically killing relatively innocent men, boys, women and children far more often than we are enemy combatants, (whatever that even means in this context?)

    2. James Martin says:

      There was never a revolution to be betrayed in Syria, just as there never was one in Ukraine. You trade in fantasies and myths David.

  2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    An interesting article that implicitly buys into the good-guy/bad-guy narrative, (the, “other guys,” are always even worse than we are or are simply communists,) always used by the US as a spurious rational/excuse for exactly the same antidemocratic globalization/neolibral agenda that’s been inflicted all across South America and the Caribbean and beyond, now coming to North Africa and the Middle East and Europe, (check out what’s just happened in Greece,) ultimately by force of arms.

    For example contrast, “not intervening against Assad didn’t mean endorsing his crimes and utter disregard for the devastation the regime is prepared to wreak to prevent its toppling,” with supporting; American foreign policy with it’s utter disregard for the devastation the US is prepared to wreak to further it’s own commercial and economic goals, and so it goes.

    There is no sane or sensible reason whatsoever for us to bombing any part of those regions, not Assad or anyone else and we shouldn’t be involved at all.

    Isis by the way is what’s left when you systemically destroy every vestige of central government and civil infrastructure and saturate the region with with thousands otherwise unemployed young men, armed to teeth, many of them gangsters or former mercenaries with no other means of earning a livelihood for themselves or their dependents than theft, bloodshed and violence.

    This is a huge problem entirely of our own creation, lets just stop.

  3. I should like to congratulate His Majesty King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (that is, of Mecca and Medina), who has taken in literally no Syrian refugees whatever. Not a single, solitary one.

    The flag over our Parliament was lowered to half-mast when his mass-murdering brother and predecessor died in January, and our Prime Minister dashed off to the kiss the hand of this one almost immediately. The first beheadings of the present reign occurred immediately thereafter. There have been many, many more.

    We are at war in order to defend this regime. Doesn’t it make you proud? Indeed, we are at war in order to defend all of the Gulf monarchies, not one of which has taken any refugees. Send them to Dubai. Why has that fabulously rich city not already offered to take them? The rulers of the Gulf need to be confronted with the consequences of their policies.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      That too of course.

  4. James Martin says:

    The problem with most of the analysis of Syria from the west is that it sees only cardboard villains rather than the forces below. Syria was a distorted secular regime with elements of socialism (state planning, price controls etc.) which in recent decades had included a number of leftist parties (including two communist groups and a smaller trotskyist organisation), although the Syrian Ba’athists remained in control. Ironically the events that led to the civil war originated from the attempts to remove price controls and bread subsidies by the increasingly struggling government at the behest of the western IMF, although once the civil war started the secular ‘free syrian army’ forces were always a western myth – the reality was that opposition to the regime was from highly reactionary Islamicists of various shades, bolstered by the movement of what became ISIS from Iraq where they began to Syria where they made their main base.

    Talk of we should have bombed the Syrian army years ago is highly dangerous nonsense – the only result would have been a ‘Libyan’ one but on a far, far worse scale. As it stands now for all the horrors of the continuing war outside of the Kurdish held areas the only force still capable of containing the cut-throat fascist opponents of secularism is the Syrian army despite its huge losses – and the only reason it has not disintegrated as a result of those losses is because it retains genuinely popular support.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      A superbly terse analysis with which I agree completely.

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