I know that it feels as if we have carried these burdens long enough. But we can only know that there is no choice, because one of two things will happen if we don’t lead. Either no one will lead and there will be chaos, or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values.
So boomed the voice of Dr Condoleezza Rice at the 2012 Republican National Convention in the United States (US), with the confident authority befitting a former US National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. At the time she uttered them, these words were meant as a warning to America and the West that a superpower has certain moral and strategic responsibilities to shoulder.
In retrospect however, these words look more like an augury; a dread harbinger, heralding the designs of the Ghost of Geopolitical Future, the cold hand of a spectre which stalks the halls of power in the Western world.
Whilst many point to Iraq as the archetypal conflict demonstrating the follies of political interventionism, we can now point to the arguably far more catastrophic failures in Syria as bearing all the hallmarks of the grim consequences of non-intervention.
Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, is the world’s leading expert in mass murder, having dabbled in the distinct but related fields of war crimes, politicide, and genocide, aided and abetted by his political patrons in Tehran, whilst also providing a fertile killing field for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey, to carry out his own ethnic cleansing of the Kurds in his back yard.
There is a longstanding myth which has taken many of the governments in the liberal democratic West – including the United Kingdom (UK) – hostage: that the majority of the world’s problems are the legacy of colonialism and that if the West simply stops its meddling and withdraws, then the ills of the world will heal themselves. This is manifested on the British left by the preoccupation with labelling foreign engagement as ‘neo-imperialism’ and on the British right with the isolationist tendency that wants to see ‘no more foreign wars’. Whilst the Labour left and Tory right can scarcely find any topics for agreement, the withdrawal from international engagement is a rare olive branch between these two camps.
However, recent events have belied this ideological claim. Where the US stepped back in Northern Syria, the world’s wounds did not heal themselves. Instead, both of Dr Rice’s portended outcomes came true. First, a power vacuum in which chaos reigned. The Turks, as they said they would, rolled further into Syria and began shelling civilian populations, with a litany of war crimes already apparent.
From the chaos we now see Dr Rice’s second warning came to pass: the vacuum is being filled with the leadership of Mr Erdogan, Mr al-Assad, Mr Putin, and Mr Khamenei, the four horsemen of the Syrian apocalypse.
The Kurds, as they pledged, and having been given no other choice, chose to make a deal with the Devil in Damascus rather than choose extinction. Frankly, who would not in their desperate situation? The Syrian regime, as it said it would, stepped in and is currently looking to repel the Turkish incursion, using what remains of its army and its rag-tag militias of sectarian forces and Iranian proxies. As was also warned, hundreds of ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) prisoners have escaped Kurdish custody and are now on the loose. All Western claims of the defeat of ISIS need to be taken with a full shaker of salt, and the reckless actions of Donald Trump, the US President, may well have breathed new life into the organisation’s heretofore moribund carcass.
From the chaos we now see Dr Rice’s second warning came to pass: the vacuum is being filled with the leadership of Mr Erdogan, Mr al-Assad, Mr Putin, and Mr Khamenei, the four horsemen of the Syrian apocalypse. Their values are strong-man authoritarianism, instrumentalised sectarian violence, and a shared desire to see Western values purged from the world, that they may go about their tyrannical business unimpeded by such niceties.
What remains for the UK now in the immediate aftermath of this wholly avoidable and calamitous misstep is one of damage control. The West in general, and the US in particular, are being viewed as capricious, unreliable friends. This stands to have repercussions that make the grave miscalculations in Syria pale by comparison. The West has alienated crucial security partners in the Gulf and Sunni Arab world when negotiating the Iranian nuclear deal, setting aside their strongly-articulated concerns around Iranian missile proliferation and destabilising use of proxies.
With an ever-clearer question mark staining Britain’s reputation, the time has come for solidarity with allies in the Muslim world. If the UK wants to recover the high ground for Western liberalism and its often-stabilising influence, it must begin by lining up with its allies to clearly address these concerns. Britain is uniquely placed to do this given its historic ties to the region, its deep understanding of the political and social dynamics at play, its strong soft power – all backed up with one of the world’s leading military forces. Dr Rice’s warning presents the UK with a choice today – either to put its money where its mouth is on its fundamental values, or else to concede the political space to genocidaires and violent dictators.