Thoughts on Syria

It is Christmas 2013, the weather is foul and I have been thinking about how appallingly freezing it must be for the people of Syria who are stuck in tented camps at the moment. The conditions cannot be too dissimiliar to those of late December 1992 when in the freezing cold and snow my soldiers in Bosnia escorted over 2,000 civilians to safety across the front lines.  I recall the temperature was about minus 15 degrees Centigrade and I remember carrying a child over the lines and a sniper taking a shot at the two of us as I did so!  Those two thousand people in Bosnia only had what they could carry and were very wretched. So twenty one years later I cannot help but remember those poor people and, of course, that turns my mind again to what is happening in and around Syria this Christmas. 

My view remains that we should not, indeed cannot, take effective military action in Syria.  But, one way or other, we cannot just walk away either.  To say a blanket ‘no military action' under any circumstances would be wrong.  All options to help the people of Syria should remain on the table - at least so as not to tie the hands of negotiators who are doing their best to sort out the situation there.

In my view it is also high time that Arab League and the Arab World more generally took more responsibility for sorting out their own region.  They cannot continue to blame us because of our historic involvement in the area.  In truth we have trained and armed many of the Arab World's professional uniformed services and perhaps they should start to put that training into effect by helping their neighbouring states more.    

For our part, since 2001, we have intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya - albeit with good intentions - but our efforts on behalf of people who live there have either gone wrong or simply not been appreciated. Most importantly, of course, we have played a high blood price in military lives in two of those operations.  As an ex-soldier who has been committed into almost impossible situations myself I am reluctant in the extreme to send our armed forces into action unless there is a very good reason.

I really believe that no outside state can do anything effective in Syria without a mandate to do so from the Security Council of the United Nations. As the highest authority in the World the Security Council must be involved and give any such operations legitimacy.  Having been a UN Commander myself I frequently cited my Security Council Mandate as my authority for action in Bosnia and it often worked or at least I liked to think it did. But right now two Permananent Members of the Secufrity Council;, with veto rights, have refused to consider establishing even a limited mandate to help Syria. 

As I have previously mentioned my mind is not totally closed to some limited form of military involvement.  I believe that sometimes we have a Christian or moral duty to help human beings who are less fortunate than ourselves  - even when it may not be a vital national interest. That is how I felt when I commanded the British in Bosnia and my view remains unchanged.

Right now public opinion may not want us to take any form of military action but, in my experience, that could change rapidly if circumstances on the ground in Syria compel it.   Exactly that happened in Bosnia after July 1995 when over 7,000 boys and men were massacred at Srebrenica. The Public suddenly demanded effective action.  In 1995 I was a Colonel and Chief of Policy in NATO's European Military Headquarters.  I had handed over command in Bosnia some 2 years before by then.  

But in March 1993 I personally had organised the digging of a mass grave for over a hundred men, women and children  and I remember being terribly bitter about the fact that the UK was simply sitting on its hands and saying we should not get further involved.  I can tell you that was not what my soldiers were saying as they picked up the broken bodies of children!  I say this to demonstrate that sometimes I believe we should be a force for good - where and when we can.  It might, just might, be required in Syria at some stage, who knows?  

Syria is a very difficult problem and  I have thought long and hard about it. At the moment I remain very much against the deployment of British combat forces there.  But I suppose I might contemplate our military involvement in some lesser way - maybe escorting humanitarian aid as I did myself in Bosnia durting 1992-93.  I would much prefer our involvement to remain humanitarian in nature rather than any form of fighting role but, as I stated earlier, we should rule nothing out.  The spectre of international inaction and then lots of dead innocents still haunts me from from my time in Bosnia.