Opinion: Experience tells us that attacking Syria would harm rather than help

I live near Forbury Gardens in Reading where the Maiwand Lion statue was erected in 1886 to commemorate the loss of 280 soldiers from the 66th Royal Berkshire Regiment at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan on 27th July 1880. There is talk of a memorial for our brave soldiers who fought and have lost their lives in the current campaign in Helmand. In my opinion, when the Americans and the British leave, Karzai won’t be too far behind and Mullah Omar will be reinstated as leader. In recent years we also have the experience of the war in Iraq which has left the country a wreck.  There is condemnation and polarisation of opinion towards the west among Muslims for little gain. What was it all for?

Currently, the real issue in the Middle East is the fight between the Shia and Sunni Muslims for regional dominance. Syria is a case in point – Sunnis (backed by Sunni Saudi) are being ruled by a minority Shia Alawites (backed by Shia Iran). This is a proxy war being fought at the expense of Syrian people.

After the recent chemical weapons attack, likely perpetrated by the Assad regime, the moral case for any attack on Syria seems clear. A limited, quick and surgical attack on military targets to achieve a very specific objective will appeal to many. But how many times have we heard that?

Syria is not like Libya. Syria is a significant military power that has access to a sophisticated military arsenal and more available from Iran and Russia. We may well be surprised when we attack from the air that this time we are attacked back. Imagine if they launch an attack on our bases in Cyprus (100 miles away) or to an aircraft carrier leading the air strikes and they are successful. Where does that leave the western allies other than to escalate this skirmish to effectively a war. Syria isn’t as weak as Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya and they have strong backers who are willing to support them.

We cannot isolate a specific or short term attack on Syria no matter how abhorrent the actions of the regime. It should be clear from the lessons of Helmand and Iraq that there is no such thing as a limited strike. There are long term repercussions which often lead these countries to lean towards extremism rather than pluralist democracy.

As a conscientious objector I cannot advocate a limited strike. I also cannot abide the pain that Syrian people are experiencing. Geopolitics today gives alternatives to countries from America and Europe to Russia, China and other economically strong non-aligned countries.

We have to learn that military action should really be the actual last resort – not a talked up last resort. We can help the Syrian people by isolating parts of the country to offer them genuine refuge (this is where a strong military guard action maybe required); work with Turkey to secure the tent cities that are growing and ensure people in them are safe; use the EC and American economic power to significantly impede trade with countries who support Syria (trifling punitive sanctions have been used in the past but rarely have we in the west applied comprehensive widespread economic sanctions); confiscate and freeze the funds and investments held by senior Syrian leaders in the west; if another chemical attack is used expel Syria from international institutions so they are truly isolated and blockade their ability to trade. That will hurt Syrian people too but it’s a better alternative than military action.

There are other alternatives to a limited strike that will lead, in my opinion, to a larger involvement. We can make a stand; we can help the people of Syria and we can do that without using a military strike.

* Tahir Maher is a former Chair of South Central Liberal Democrats and lives in Wokingham.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Cllr David Becket 28th Aug '13 - 5:21pm

    Well said Tahir, at least there is the odd Liberal left in this party that ten years stood up against action in Iraq. We were right then but then we had leadership. If there is any doubt as to where our priorities should be read the letter from Olivia Byard in todays Guardian.

  • Ruwan Uduwerage-P 28th Aug '13 - 6:36pm

    “military action should really be the actual last resort – not a talked up last resort”

    Tahir this is an excellent article and I hope and pray that those with influence listen to such reason for the Syrian people need our support and help, not our bullets and bombs. I further hope that some people do not see engaging in a ‘nice little war’ as a means of distracting the British domestic populace from the woes that exist here.

  • Tony Harwood 28th Aug '13 - 6:40pm

    On February 15th 2003 I was proud to march alongside much of the Lib Dem Leadership and many of our Councillors and activists against an illegal atack on Iraq. Ten years later and sectarian bloodshed continues, with multiple explosions across Shiite neighbourhoods reported today, and many hundreds of thousands of innocents either dead or dying from their wounds or the fall-out from Nato’s favoured depleted uranium munitions.

    There is a national demonstration against the rush to war against the Syrian people scheduled for Saturday 31 August at 12 noon, meeting at the Embankment, London.

    Hopefully once again, Lib Dems will support this demonstration in strength and let us all hope against hope that the British Establishment is diverted from its current disastrous course towards to war by the UN and a growing cross party coalition of our wisest (and bravest) MPs.

  • The only issue I have with this otherwise excellent article is the linking of Afghanistan and Iraq. The initial intervention in the former was a direct consequence of a devastating attack on the US. Whatever the mistakes in the following period (and there were too many to list in any single article) we must not lose sight of the fact that the then Afghan leadership refused to curtail the AQ activity and gave open and tangible support. Was the attack then a true last resort – possibly not, but there was a genuine justification for the initial phase.

    Iraq, Libya and I fear in the none too distant future Syria were not active or effective threats. All three will also I fear end up more hostile to the West and bigger breeding grounds for future conflict.

  • Agree with the comments above. LibDem MPs are being ridiculed in the media for refusing interviews and not giving a view on intervention in Syria. Yet it is hard to see any benefit to the ordinary people of Syria from demolishing more buildings and killing more innocent people by raining a few missiles down on them? Opposition to any such proposal would be entirely consistent with the brave and courageous stand our MPs have taken in the past – and we know from experience that what can seem brave at the time will come to be seen as both principled and wise if, as is likely, the US goes ahead regardless and turns things from bad to worse in their customary fashion.

    Surely we of all people cannot see as any sort of good example all those many Labour MPs who, despite their reservations, were bribed, bullied and cajoled into voting for war in Iraq and earned years of shame in return for five minutes of misplaced loyalty?

  • Ray Cobbett 28th Aug '13 - 8:39pm

    Spot on with your analyis Tahir and a timely warning to glory seeking politicos of all parties wanting to gain the moral high ground on the backs of others. There are local MPs here gagging to loose off US made missiles without even wanting to find out what went on. Every intervention made so far in the West has been a disaster. Iraq now is a not very disguised civil war with 350 people a week dying in the street. The regime in Afghanistan is kept afloat with millions of US money going into private Swiss bank accounts. In Libya there are now dozens of factions and millions of guns.

  • Thank you for your kind words. As Tony Harwood says we held a march in 2003, the establishment was against us, the ridiculed us, the western world in the main was all pushing for a war. We the Lib Dems stood our ground with the opposition on our back and a million faces looking at us to lead and we did, we stood our ground on a principle, we stood our ground because we don’t kill. Our politicians stood and asked where was the legal case for Iraq, they asked where are the sanctions and asked for time to make them work before any military action is taken.
    I am disappointed to note that we are not standing our ground; I hear no call for sanctions from our MP’s and most sadly I fear we have abandoned a principle. This is what compelled me to write this – we must speak out on this to our MPs and the Party because we are what the Party is made up of. I still like to think that as Lib Dems we don’t kill

  • Thank you for reaffirming some of my core reasons for being a member of this party!

  • Jonathan Brown 29th Aug '13 - 1:09am

    A very good article Tahir.

    I personally don’t feel strongly about participating in an air strike either way. I don’t think a limited one will result in a significant Syrian response (there was none to Israel’s attacks a few months ago), and I would assume that the regime has been planning for, if not expecting such an eventuality for a long time. But nor do I think that it is likely to achieve much good unless our whole strategy to Syria changes, and I see no sign that this is likely.

    Well done too for actually presenting some alternative policy suggestions. Some I think are more likely to be effective than others, but it seems that very few people are willing to put forwards serious ideas for how to actually help the situation.

    I would take issue with some of the other commenters here however: although Iraq was clearly always going to be a catastrophe, ‘justified’ on patently false pretexts and never even seriously aimed at improving the lives of Iraqis, not all western interventions have been failures.

    Much as I hate to give him any credit, Blair’s intervention in Sierra Leone prevented a slaughter and gave the country a chance for peace. It was scandelous that the war in Bosnia was allowed to continue for so long. Even the recent war in Libya is I think widely misunderstood. It’s far from being a Nordic style social democracy, and I’m not wanting to downplay how unstable the country is, but we shouldn’t forget a) that Libyans strongly continue to think that the revolution/war was worth it and that b) the alternative – with Gadaffi taking bloody revenge upon the cities that opposed him (i.e. almost all of them) would hardly have been peaceful. It could still end up a disaster, but it’s too soon to say that it already is. Libya’s transition to a freer and more stable country was never going to be easy.

  • Richard Dean 29th Aug '13 - 1:24am

    This does seem like saying we shouldn’t do anything because there’s a risk we’ll get a sore toe. Can we not have a little more courage? The Russian bear might be frightened of the dark, but should the British bulldog tremble too? None of the alternatives proposed here seem realistic:

    – “isolating parts of the country” to give “refuge” … means a multiple-boots-on-the-ground invasion
    – ” securing Turkish tent cities” … will not affect people in Syria, except to encourage some to leave
    – “using EU economic power” … won’t work because Syria has significant support elsewhere
    – “confiscating foreign assets” … is a joke – can they use those assets now?
    – “if there’s another attack expel from talking shops” … why would Assad care? – they’ve laughed at the UN before

    and the last is the worst

    “This will hurt the Syrian people”

    But many of them are victims already, many ordinary people on all sides. Are we really so focussed on feeling good about ourselves that we’re willing to let those suffering people suffer even more ? Inaction now will send the strongest possible signal that the use of chemical weapons will have no discernible adverse consequences for the user. That is not the message that any Liberal should seek to send, IMHO.

  • Dear Tahir … liked the article. I have been a supporter of no-fly zones, but I realize this is costly … is very close to real war … and would need a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution (??) which is clearly not going to happen. Regarding Jonathan Brown’ s list of positive interventions, we should also add Mali.

    Beyond Syria per se, is how can we make the global body politic work again. The UNSC is now more riven than at any time since the Cold War … with at least 2 major differences … (a) China is now a genuinely big player, and (b) it is clearer than ever that significant players in the world (viz India, Brazil etc) are not given an effective role in governance.

  • R Uduwerage-Perera 29th Aug '13 - 10:03am

    Sanctions can ultimately have the same affect on the vulnerable within the general populace as bullets do, they kill!

    A peaceful resolution is required, so let us not encourage either our own Parliamentarians or others to ‘rattle their sabres’.

  • This is my first ever comment on LDV, but a very important subject to break my silence! A great thoughtful article, Tahir. I am so conflicted with the need to help the Syrian people but I do not want military action. Russia will seemingly always use their veto on the UN Security Council, so holding out for the UN to do anything may be wishful thinking.

    The saddest thing is that the UK is only one of a small handful of countries who actively want to do anything to ease the suffering of the Syrian people. Where is the rest of the world?

  • Clive Jones 29th Aug '13 - 3:11pm

    Well done Tahir, a very good article, very clear with alternatives to Military intervention now.

  • David White 29th Aug '13 - 4:29pm

    Well said, Tahir. You’ve said it exactly as I feel it.

    And I also thank almost all other commenters for their supportive remarks.

  • Yes Tahir, when will a limited strike be limited, if it has no effect what next? We keep getting involved in war’s that are not our resposibnility and I do NOT want another. I am traumatised by the pictures of Syian people suffering on TV but we must not be forced into military action which will then lead to further action. We MUST bring people and nations round to really understand the situation and try to work out a dialogue; if we cannot do that military action will only breed resentment and anger at our crude (RE)actions.

  • A Social Liberal 29th Aug '13 - 8:37pm

    First on Syrias ability to launch combat strikes against British Forces on Cyprus or US aircraft carriers.

    Whilst they have a more recent ground attack capability, the Syrian Air Force lacks modern fighter aircraft – Mig 21/25s are over a generation old and lack a beyond visual range aam. With the Typhoons capabilities and modern radar on hand I doubt syrian aircraft could mount a feasible attack.

    Of greater danger would be srbm missiles that Syria possesses, but these would be countered by Patriot missiles or Aegis systems. As for attacking a US carrier fleet – Aegis would be too much of a deterent. The biggest threat would be Hezbollah, but should the threat of retaliation stop us from acting, surely that is moral cowardice.

    I also take issue with Tahirs suggestion of harsher sanctions to prevent another chemical attack. Sanctions may work, but they are a long term strategy. As for placing sanctions against Syrias allies, we already have draconian sanctions against Iran which doesn’t prevent them from continuing their journey to nuclear weaponry and can you honestly see Russia walking away from their allies under the threat of sanction?

  • A Social Liberal

    It isn’t a game you know!

  • Jonathan Brown 29th Aug '13 - 11:42pm

    @Bcrombie, A Social Liberal makes plenty of perfectly fair observations. Why should you think he/she sees this as a game?

  • In your opinion

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