Cameron acts on Syria – but to what end?

While David Cameron resolves to act on Syria, what he is trying to achieve is far from clear. Emily Hohler reports.


Bashar al-Assad: do we really want to be making friends?

Following a public outpouring of emotion over a widely published photograph of a drowned Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years.

He justified the killing of two London-born jihadis in a British drone attack in Syria on 21 August as "an act of self-defence" and (according to senior sources) wants to persuade Labour MPs to back airstrikes in a Commons vote in early October, saysTim Shipman in The Sunday Times. The solution to this crisis requires action against "the evil regime of Bashar al-Assad and Isis", said Chancellor George Osborne. Even Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, called for airstrikes and "other British military assistance" in The Sunday Telegraph.

It's the duty of governments to "keeptheir heads even when ordinary folkslose theirs", says Max Hastings in the Daily Mail. Cameron has just won an election. As such, "it would beheartening to discern a scintilla of statesmanship in his conduct and rhetoric, rather than frantic pursuit of the moment's media agenda". I am not arguing for "passivity" in the face of Isis, only "honest acceptance of how little we can do". Dropping a few "expensive bombs on Isis pick-up trucks in Syria will be a gesture, not a solution".

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Consider Syria's recent past. Its pre-war population of 23 million is split between the ruling Alawites, Sunnis and Christians. The civil war, which exploded in 2011, has President Assad on one side, supported by Russia and Iran, and "scores of Islamist factions" on the other, the most formidable of which is Isis. The "tangle of allegiances" fighting Isis ranges from Shia Iraqis and Kurdish forces to the US Air Force, a handful of RAF Tornados and contingents from several other nations. So what are we trying to achieve by bombing Syria? "The triumph of Assad, a mass murderer?"

There is "no clarity of aim", agrees David Gardner in the FT. Anti-Isis forces amount to "tragically less than the sum of their moving parts" and "laying off" the Assads is not the answer either. It is a mirror of the "hopeless choice" facing millions of Syrians, caught between the barrel bombs of the regime and the barbarism of Isis. Yet we can still help displaced Syrians, and try to negotiate an end to the war, which would mean uniting the "least-compromised elements of the Syrian state together with mainstream opposition and rebels" to manage a transition without the Assads.

This may not be realistic, says Evgeny Lebedev in the Evening Standard. Assad is a dictator, but he is a "bulwark against the even greater evil of Isis". Surely we should put aside recent Cold War rhetoric and once more unite with Russia as we did 70 years ago to defeat Nazism?Assad may not be a long-term ally, but "Isis is a short-term, mortal danger".

Why do we have to choose a side at all? asks Hugo Rifkind in The Times.We cannot, as Tony Blair once said, "reorder this world around us"."That doesn't rule out safe areas, though, or no-fly zones, or bans on forces massing by towns. It doesn't rule out the more modest business of giving a damn."

Emily Hohler

Emily has extensive experience in the world of journalism. She has worked on MoneyWeek for more than 20 years as a former assistant editor and writer. Emily has previously worked on titles including The Times as a Deputy Features Editor, Commissioning Editor at The Independent Sunday Review, The Daily Telegraph, and she spent three years at women's lifestyle magazine Marie Claire as a features writer for three years, early on in her career. 

On MoneyWeek, Emily’s coverage includes Brexit and global markets such as Russia and China. Aside from her writing, Emily is a Nutritional Therapist and she runs her own business called Root Branch Nutrition in Oxfordshire, where she offers consultations and workshops on nutrition and health.