The disconcerting truth is that Putin's Syria strategy is beginning to look like the right approach
Published 05/12/2015 | 02:30
One of the more disconcerting aspects of the Syria debate is that the Russians seem to have a point. It's not just Vladimir Putin's rather successful bombing strategy, which uses ground troops and seems to have persuaded rebels to evacuate the city of Homs.
The Kremlin's overall view is starting to make more sense. Its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently put things succinctly. Muammar Gaddafi has been murdered, he said: is Libya better? Saddam Hussein has been hanged: is Iraq safer? Can we learn lessons? British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will pursue the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) first, but then wants regime change: Bashar al-Assad should be replaced by a new, "inclusive" stable government. A noble goal; Assad is a brutal war criminal. But his likely replacements are murderous jihadists; the chances of genuinely "inclusive" moderate government are almost nil. The British may bring optimism to the coalition - but as recent history has shown, optimism can be a dangerous thing.
It was optimism that led Tony Blair to make his Chicago speech in 1999 setting out the case for liberal interventionism. Communism had fallen; an unchallenged West had the money and ability to confront the worst regimes. At the time, it seemed like history was moving in the West's direction - and, in places, needed to be given a nudge. In Sierra Leone, intervention worked. When Blair addressed the Labour Party conference after the September 11 attacks, he spoke of a new order. "The kaleidoscope has been shaken, the pieces are in flux," he said. "Let us reorder this world around us."
Those who supported him then (myself included) must now admit that there are few examples of this working out. The detailed plans for a new Iraq, complete with its own national heath service, were consumed in the sectarian bloodshed that followed.
Extremists There normally are moderates who can be empowered after a dictator is swept away; but the moderates tend to lose to the extremists. Plenty of Western blood and treasure was spilt in Iraq but creating an inclusive new regime proved, in the end, beyond the ability (or attention spans) of Western governments.
Afghanistan, too, is disintegrating. The lesson of the past 15 years is that the West - for all its wealth and good intentions - lacks the ability to grow new regimes.
Optimism needs to be replaced by realism. And the reality in Syria is one of three hideous options: Isil, Al-Nusra or Assad's repugnant regime. No one else has any power on the ground, or any prospect of acquiring power. So, many of Mr Cameron's new allies are dropping the idea of regime change - and asking whether working with Assad may be the least bad option. (© Daily Telegraph, London)