Analysis: One year after Libya, Syria is Britain's latest dilemma

Will the west step in to help Syria's embattled civilians?
Will the west step in to help Syria's embattled civilians?

Last year Britain committed its forces against a brutal regime tyrannising its people. Twelve months later, are we prepared to do it again?

By Alex Stevenson

Imagine you and a friend are walking along the street and see, on the other side of the road, three figures ahead of you. Two of them are bulky, bullying types, engaged in a completely one-sided fight against the third, weaker figure. Your first instinct might be to run over with your mate and rescue the victim of their brutality. But those two stocky men don't look easily beatable. What do you do?

This was the dilemma Britain faced exactly one year ago this week, when Muammar Gaddafi's brutal security forces began their ruthless suppression of pro-democracy protests. They would not back down as the situation descended into a one-sided fight. Rebels could not stop the remorseless advance on Benghazi, which had been promised a vicious retribution for its innocent inhabitants. Would Britain and other countries let the killing take place and stand idly by? The inquiry into the last major international adventure, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, hadn't even been finished. David Cameron knew he was taking a big gamble when he backed military action.


MPs voted overwhelmingly in support of a limited intervention. The UN authorised "all necessary measures" to protect civilians short of a ground invasion. After a few nervous summer months, air offensives eventually helped oust Gaddafi from power. No British service personnel were killed, and a lot of lives were saved. A big success. Thank goodness it's over.

Libya might be finished, but the Middle East ructions resulting from the 2011 Arab Awakening are most definitely not. Exactly one year on, the west now faces yet another sickeningly brutal regime engaged in disgusting acts of violence against civilians. Yet this is no Libya. In Syria the stakes are even higher.

Already 6,000 people have died in the last ten months. The country faces civil war. So why haven't we intervened yet? Because Bashar al-Assad's military is much stronger than Gaddafi's. His air defences are much more formidable. His army is 325,000-strong. Invading Syria, defence analysts predict, would be even harder than invading Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The suffering is greater, in short, but so is the price of intervening.

"There are still a number of nations in the world who are very hesitant about the policy of intervention - they tend to be the more autocratic regimes like China and Russia," Richard Ottaway, chair of the Commons' foreign affairs committee, told me for politics.co.uk's podcast on Syria last week.

"I think the world is moving on now. As globalisation really takes hold and international communications get a grip we can see what's happening on the streets of Homs and Damascus daily, hourly... We have to accept there is a norm by which we conduct life on this planet and that norm is not being followed in Syria at the moment."

Gone are the days when we would get involved in a country to prevent it falling from communism, as happened in the under-remembered Korean War. The risk of British territory being invaded is low, although isolated incidents like the Falklands War of 30 years ago do crop up occasionally. So the current reasons to get involved are either to protect national security by fighting terrorism (as is happening in Afghanistan) or moving against rogue leaders (Iraq), or for humanitarian reasons. It's the latter which poses that dilemma: when to commit to action?

Libya was easy. Another successful British intervention occurred in Sierra Leone in 1999, when troops were deployed to help the government contain uprisings by militiamen. The Balkans were more difficult: here 72 UK service personnel died as part of their work suppressing the ethnic/religious conflicts of the 1990s. Although the UN's initial involvement came too late to save hundreds of thousands, there is little regret from those involved that intervening was the right thing to do. On each occasion, ministers had to make a very difficult call, assessing the 'value' of a simple bargain: how many lives will they save, and how bad will the military cost be of saving them?

Hang on a minute. It's not that straightforward, is it? There are other, more unpleasant reasons why Britain gets involved in wars overseas. Ask your average person on the street to sum up the UK's motives in Iraq, for instance, there's a decent chance they'll reply with a single word: "oil".

Of course oil matters. Last year, behind the headlines, it was critical; like Saudi Arabia, Libya is a 'swing producer' which has low domestic demand. This means it can, in the wrong hands, wreak havoc with global energy prices, even though its 1.6 million barrels-a-day of oil production is relatively low. According to the Wall Street Journal, Saudi Arabia would have to produce at least ten million barrels a day to compensate for Libya stopping production. This might prove tricky - as the Saudis haven't achieved those levels since the 1980s.

Iraq's oil-producing capacity was crippled in the final years of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, but the prize was there to be exploited. In both Iraq and Libya, British companies have been waiting behind the military.

There is no oil in Syria. But natural resources are really only a part of a much bigger picture. We're entering the world of geostrategy, the sort of reasoned ponderings mandarins in the Foreign Office spend their days plotting and planning. Britain's attitude to any country is shaped by its role in the region. And there is an argument, when it comes to Syria, that its stability is vital to Britain's own security.

"There is more than a moral imperative at this point - there is a geopolitical imperative," says Michael Weiss, communications director at the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign policy thinktank.

"Britain cannot afford to see Syria as a failed state. If we intervene it will still be a mess... but at least it then has the chance of being contained, at least there is something to counterbalance the axis of destruction that is wreaking havoc in this country - the regime, Iran and Hizbullah."

Right now, Britain's approach to Syria is in limbo. Our ambassador has been recalled, but the embassy remains open. The regime is condemned, but there is no practicable way of toppling it. So what do we do?

"It is a debate as old as the hills - intervention versus non-intervention," Ottaway says. As we mark the first anniversary of the violence in Libya which eventually led to a successful military venture, we have to ask ourselves: are we ready to gamble yet again?

For that's what this is, for the politicians at least: a gamble. Margaret Thatcher risked her career on acting to keep the Falklands - and won a second term as a result. Tony Blair staked everything from Iraq, and never quite lived it down.

What about David Cameron? He's rolled the dice once, and been lucky. Should he be prepared to gamble again? 

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