Reality check for Mr Osborne please

When it comes to the Middle East, George Osborne seems as confused as ever suggests Steve Beauchampé.

Ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne told the House of Commons on Tuesday that he and his fellow parliamentarians should acknowledge their share of responsibility for the situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Osborne was referring to the decision of the House in August 2013 to oppose military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following his government’s use of chemical weapons against civilians.

We can’t know for certain what the result of such action by Britain (presumably supported by the United States and possibly other NATO allies) would have been, but the history of western military intervention in the Middle East shows that our involvement almost always makes matters worse. In the case of Syria there would likely either have been a short but largely ineffective bombing campaign aimed at degrading Assad’s military infrastructure, essentially a finger wagging exercise with fatalities, or a more ambitious attempt at regime change, with the west arming opposition groups and hoping for a better outcome than when similar tactics in Iraq (2003) and Libya (2011) – both supported by Osborne and former Prime Minster David Cameron – opened the way for Islamist jihadi groups to turn tragedy into catastrophe and wreak years of havoc on the local populace.

Whichever the outcome in Syria the principle beneficiaries would have been the then burgeoning Islamic State, who as the most organised, sophisticated, best funded and extreme of all the insurgent militias, would have filled the vacuum created by even a temporary weakening of Assad’s power. But international support for the Syrian leader would inevitably have followed (as it did even without that western military intervention) from Iran, from the Lebanese Hezbollah group, and, probably sooner rather than later, from Russia.

If Britain and its allies had been trying to replace a regime that Iran, Russia and Hezbollah were determined to keep in place, then who knows how extensive a conflict could have been created, and how widespread, lengthy and unpredictable its consequences might have been. For all the horror and tragedy of Aleppo, and Homs and Idlib and the territory controlled by Islamic State, for those who believe that things couldn’t have been any worse had Britain intervened as Osborne still wishes, well yes, they certainly could.

And lest anyone still thinks that George Osborne’s political antennae is working fully as regards Syria, a reminder of the arguments that he and David Cameron espoused in November 2015 when they persuaded not only their Conservative colleagues, but the likes of Labour’s Margaret Beckett, Hilary Benn and Dan Jarvis to follow them into the Division Lobby following a House of Commons debate on extending into Syria British military action against Islamic State. Then Cameron claimed that such a move would help create a coalition of around 70,000 ground troops, consisting of Kurds, Sunnis, tribal groups and militias opposed to al-Assad, first to defeat Islamic State, before this victorious assemblage turned their attention to overthrowing Assad, presumably leading to a hitherto unprecedented outbreak of democracy throughout the country. None of it ever happened of course.

Syria, for all of its horrors, is not the West’s fight and to imply that we ought to have done something more militarily is to imply that there was more we could have done. But the Syrian civil war is a complex, multi-layered web of both centuries old religious, tribal and ethnic disputes and divides and modern day political and territorial opportunism that those recent western military escapades, enthusiastically supported both in opposition and in office by the likes of George Osborne, have exacerbated.

The fall of Aleppo will not end the Syrian civil war, merely change its dynamics. Britain’s best and most productive response must continue to be seeking as peaceful a resolution to the conflict as possible, providing humanitarian aid and bolstering the role of the United Nations.

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