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An imperial gene that makes the British want to save tragic Syria

WITH a tremulous, sinking heart, I heard this week that the British are planning "humanitarian" assistance to "liberal opposition" leaders in Syria. Ten years on from Iraq and the lesson has apparently not been learnt on this fateful meridian, where the abstracts of modern English usage have almost no meaning: hence the scatter-gun distribution of inverted commas through any account of what is going on there.

Yes, I know Syria is a different country from Iraq; but its similarities are sufficient to warn outsiders against intervention. I say this with feeling, because I was one of the few Irish journalists to have supported the US invasion 10 years ago, giving me ample opportunity to repent as I watched that ill-planned fiasco slip into anarchy, abuse, torture and murder by allied soldiers, concluding in Basra with the greatest defeat of British arms since Arnhem.

Hearing Foreign Secretary William Hague declare his interest in limited involvement in Syria is like hearing a long dried-out alcoholic say: "Thank you, a small gin and tonic. Oh, and skip the tonic, and no ice, please." I can only presume that some addictively imperial gene, or perhaps a deeply masochistic one, could impel any Englishman to look at the vast forces of anarchy and wickedness unleashed in Syria, with some 1,000 semi-autonomous factions, and say: "Well, I like the cut of the jib of that bunch: jolly decent chaps – let's give them what they need to defend themselves."

Speaking as I am from the security of Kildare, it is obviously both presumptuous and preposterous to offer an opinion about Syria. That reservation thus declared, like a pound of cocaine at customs, I believe that the only outcome that will guarantee some semblance of lawful secularity in Syria is a victory for something like the Assad regime. As with Iraq, or Egypt, or Libya, or Tunisia, above all else Syria needs order. "Democracy" – ah yes, those inverted commas again – has virtually no meaning in a society that is without an impartial court system, or civil service, or police, or army, and where religion, kin and clan effortlessly trump any sense of national identity.

The theory that once an Arab despot is overthrown, democracy will blossom in his former domain like flowers in the desert after rain, was tested to ruination in Iraq.

Yet there is clearly something in the Arab air that unhinges the British senses, allowing William Hague to declare that Syria was becoming a hotbed of Islamic terrorists. "We cannot allow Syria to become another breeding ground for jihadists," he said. But then, he proposed sending body armour and even armoured cars to the opposition groups which include the very jihadists he purports to oppose.

However, at least he proposes to send no troops: which is a little late, because many British soldiers are already fighting in Syria – though they would probably dispute the term "British", just as William Hague would dispute they are soldiers.

Either way, in a triumphant vindication of British multi-culturalism, hundreds, if not thousands, of British-born men are now fighting in Syria; and though off-duty they might sport Aston Villa strips, they are not serving queen and country, but sharia law: they fight for the execution of apostates and the stoning to death of gays and adulteresses.

And the most potent force against these religious lunatics is not the nice, liberal, western-educated, sexually-active, unmarried female Syrian lawyer with the chic hair-do and varnished toenails, and who is spokesperson for the Democratic Front for a Free and Open Syria, who almost certainly has an appointment with a travelling crane or a pock-marked wall when the jihadists triumph, but someone like Bashar al-Assad. Yet he is the very fellow the British want overthrown.

Is he a nice man? No, of course he's not. Nice doesn't get you very far in Syria: either to a summary roadside execution alongside a hundred other manacled captives, or to a refugee camp in Iraq (which is truly a bizarre turn-around, for until recently the traffic was all the other way). Either way, whoever triumphs in Syria will be surely red in tooth and claw.

THE EU arms embargo on Syria faces a review in May. The Government should argue for retention. Merely because others – Iran and Russia in particular – are arming rival factions in Syria doesn't mean the EU should get involved. There is no clear and virtuous victim here. This is not like 1940, say, when the Third Reich invaded Norway, which was so peaceful that even its defence minister was a committed and religious pacifist.

And let us not forget the fulsome gratitude shown in Libya for the NATO-assisted overthrow of Gaddafi: namely, the cold-blooded murder of the newly-appointed US ambassador, Chris Stevens, along with three staffers. And we know from Iraq that involvement in an Arab country is like embracing a tar-baby.

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And one thing is absolutely certain. Whatever Caliban triumphs in Syria, regardless of the atrocities and mass murder he might do when in power, he will never earn the insensate hatred that the liberal-left everywhere feel for his little neighbour, Israel.

Marvellous, eh?