Can Cameron follow France into the Syrian war?

“I’m right behind you … hopefully.” EPA/Ian Langsdon

In the wake of France’s military response to the Paris terrorist attacks, British prime minister David Cameron has felt compelled to restate his case for similar action by Britain’s forces. In this environment, symbolic acts of solidarity, such as singing the Marseillaise at football matches, will quickly turn into empty gestures if UK troops remain on the sideline.

Cameron has long been out in front of public opinion on the question of military action in Syria. He originally sought permission to join the US in a military response to Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons in August 2013. But his plan was defeated in the House of Commons by the majority of MPs, who felt that their constituents had not given them a mandate to intervene in Syria.

At that time, the Syria question was viewed mainly as a problem of how to protect the country’s civilians and end the civil war. That, at least for western leaders, meant removing Assad from power and setting up a process of political transition. From this perspective, the chemical weapons crisis was a missed opportunity. Following Russia’s lead, the international community responded with a plan that removed the chemical weapons but kept Assad in power.

After Paris

The Syria question has since evolved. It is now mainly the problem of tackling the threat of Islamic State.

Of course, the extremist threat has always been part of the problem. It was the reason Barack Obama was reluctant to support plans to arm the Syrian opposition. But the intense focus on Islamic State in Syria now poses a difficult conundrum for western powers: if my enemy’s enemy is my ally, what is to be done about Assad?

This is perhaps the most difficult question for Cameron to address.

Reports that NATO ally Turkey has downed a Russian plane illustrate the complexity – and potential dangers – of an increasingly complex and crowded military arena. But we are told that the US (and presumably NATO) and the Russians have “deconfliction” processes in place.

The legality of armed strikes in Syria is also less contentious now the UN Security Council has called on states to the use “all necessary measures” to fight Islamic State – although, somewhat confusingly, the UN resolution on this does not “authorise” the use of force under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.

But British MPs will still want to be reassured about how the government sees Syria’s future. Tory MPs have shown signs of wanting the government to be less ideological about getting rid of Assad in the interests of making progress against IS. Yet during a visit to Paris in the wake of the attacks, Cameron continued to talk of helping Syria towards a “more democratic, inclusive and stable future” – suggesting regime change is still a priority.

The choice is between idealism and realism, which makes it particularly difficult to make. We were told after the Bush and Blair years that our politicians would be more conscious of western limitations – and British MPs are conscious of repeating the mistakes made at that time. Some might say that by not intervening in Syria until now, Cameron has shown the wisdom of the realist. But this is not the case.

Indeed, there has been a failure to think through what the former Chief of the Defence Staff General David Richards described as “second and third order questions”.

A protestor calls for Cameron to act in 2011. Pete Riches, CC BY-NC

In other words, if western powers were going to insist that Assad must go, they needed to think about what would happen next; and if they were not going to intervene or arm the rebels, then they had to rethink regime change. Put another way, western powers have never properly matched their means to their ends, nor tailored their ends to match their means, which (for a realist) is a non-negotiable aspect of responsible foreign policy.

In this vein, it is interesting to note that Richards recently argued that Cameron “should abandon his ‘contradictory war aims’ and accept that Assad must remain in power to allow his army to take the lead in defeating Islamic State forces in Syria”.

Better the devil you know?

MPs will be looking for this kind of coherence in the plan Cameron outlines to parliament. The Foreign Affairs Committee insisted just this month that Cameron’s plan must have a realistic chance of defeating Islamic State and of ending the civil war in Syria.

But of course there are costs to the kind of realism that leaves Assad in power. Human rights advocates are correct when they argue that Assad’s alleged atrocities are criminal and that he should face justice at the International Criminal Court. It is difficult to see how peace can exist with him in power.

Yet politics is about the art of the possible, which invariably means making a judgement on when and how to compromise.

There are so many echoes of the Bosnian crisis in the Syrian situation. To end that conflict, western powers negotiated with individuals accused of human rights atrocities and justice followed peace.

Perhaps that cannot be articulated by the prime minister at the moment, but it may yet end up informing his comprehensive strategy to the Syria situation.