If Miliband continues to dither on Syria, he may go down in history as Labour’s John Major

According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.

According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.

This in practice assists Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; freezing in place its military superiority over the poorly armed Free Syrian Army, and enabling the dictatorship better to massacre its own citizens. FSA soldiers, demoralized by their shortage of arms, have been responding by defecting to the relatively well-equipped Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, Iran systematically violates the arms embargo by sending arms to its Syrian ally.

To its credit, David Cameron’s Britain has, along with France, been the member of the Western alliance readiest to push for a change in the latter’s lacklustre Syrian policy. But it has long been frustrated by the reluctance and foot-dragging of Barack Obama – the US’s most conservative president, in foreign affairs, since the first George Bush. Also by its EU partners, especially Germany, which has for years based its foreign policy on friendship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which in turn is Assad’s principal foreign ally after Iran.

The fiasco of the West’s policy is reminiscent of the earlier fiasco over Bosnia in 1992-95. Then, the West maintained an arms embargo that worked in favour of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb rebels. As with Syria today, so over Bosnia then, the justification was that lifting the arms embargo would undermine the pursuit of a negotiated settlement. Britain’s then foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, infamously claimed that it would create a ‘level killing field’.

So the West maintained a killing field that was tilted in favour of Milosevic and Karadzic, and pursued a string of negotiations and peace plans. The result? In July 1995, Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb forces conquered the enclave of Srebrenica, supposedly a UN ‘safe area’, and carried out a genocidal massacre of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.

However, things could have been worse: at least the Labour opposition at the time was not calling for a still more extreme conservative-realist policy, though some Labour ‘left-wingers’ such as Tony Benn and Dennis Skinner were. Now, however, even though the US has apparently come round to the idea of lifting the embargo and German resistance has softened, Labour has joined with the hardline pro-embargo bloc of EU states to help obstruct the policy.

Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has stated: “For months Labour has expressed real concern about the risks involved in sending British arms to Syria’s opposition forces not least because vital questions about their end-use remain unanswered.”

And: “How would the government prevent British-supplied weapons falling into the wrong hands, and how does supplying weapons help to secure a lasting peace?”

Like Hurd in the 1990s, so Alexander today is concerned less with the vast bloodshed actually being caused by the tyrant and his murderous forces, and more with the possibility of the resistance killing people (in Bosnia, at least 86 per cent of the killing of civilians was committed by Serb forces).

Yet the Bosnian war only came to an end in the autumn of 1995 because the Bosnian defenders and their Croatian allies finally began to inflict military defeats on the Serbs, and because NATO belatedly intervened with serious air-strikes. In Libya in 2011, as in Kosovo in 1999, Western air-power in alliance with the domestic resistance brought a rapid end to the bloodshed – in each case, without the loss of a single Western soldier in combat.

In other words, conciliating murderous regimes and sabotaging the resistance to them only fuels the killing; halting the killing requires supporting the resistance. This lesson can also be drawn from the effects of the NATO summit in Bucharest of April 2008, when Germany and France blocked the granting of a Membership Action Plan to Georgia, in order to appease Moscow.

Then, the silence of Britain’s new prime minister Gordon Brown in the face of this betrayal was deafening. Putin read the signal correctly and invaded Georgia a few months later.

If Ed Miliband continues to follow the sluggish example of his mentor Gordon Brown, he may go down in history as Labour’s John Major.

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