Danny Finkelstein has a characteristically smart piece in today's Times. If I were still a Trotskyist writer, I would add that Finkelstein hides his devotion to the British Imperialist neoliberal project under a veneer of sweet-reasonableness. Yet there is always the barest hint of sophistry in his arguments .. if you can lift up the right piece of the carpet.
He starts with an endearing dig at the bluff, unreconstructed Scottish Nationalists:
" The day after last week’s debate on Syria I bumped into a Scottish Nationalist MP who had spoken forcefully against the action recommended by the prime minister. I told him truthfully that I thought his speech the best on his side of the argument.Beautifully written. That's exactly how the SNP come across - dogmatic and immune to argument. Next Finkelstein takes us through the many d*gs in the fight, all of them pretty bad.
"The MP thanked me and told me that his intention now was to do all he could to undermine David Cameron’s claim that there were 70,000 non-jihadist Syrian fighters. This, he said, was exactly like Tony Blair’s dodgy 45-minute claim.
"As people often do in politics, he said this with a stare and in a stern, unyielding way that didn’t leave much space for questioning. His eyes didn’t say: “And what do you think, Danny?” So I took the hint, nodded politely, and left him to it."
"The idea that we should join with Assad has the support of foreign policy realists such as Julian Lewis and Boris Johnson. They accept the moral case against the Syrian regime, but Lewis points out that there was a moral case against working with Stalin in the Second World War. Assad can be our ally, as the Soviets were, in delivering us from the greater evil of Isis.It is worth recalling that in the old days, when Syria kinda worked, the neighbouring Israelis always gave the Alawites implicit support. Running a fragile, unstable dictatorship over a majority Sunni population made the Assad regime weak; Israel liked it that way.
"On its own terms — on realist, practical, pragmatic terms — this argument is utterly wrong.
"Assad is now in alliance with Shia Iran and its proxies to suppress a mainly Sunni revolt. As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan describe in their book Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, his strategy has been to make the West believe he is fighting only jihadists and thereby to draw us in on his side. Throughout the conflict he has therefore been aiding Isis, while fighting the Free Syrian Army and other factions.
"If the West joins with the regime to assist Shia suppression of the revolt against the regime it will drive even more Sunnis into the hands of Isis, making the problems in Syria worse, not better."
"There are many Syrians living in or near Isis-controlled areas who accept jihadist rule for entirely practical reasons. There is fear, of course. But it is also because Isis keeps the lights on and suppresses crime (except its own) and ensures the supply of food (having first taken control of the grain stores).Politicians and the media have demonised Isis as uniquely awful. Yet they are on a continuum with pretty much every Islamic fundamentalist outfit: a little more observant, a little less corrupt, a little more ruthless. Hamas in Gaza, tainted by compromise and corruption, is presently losing members to Isis for just these reasons.
"One might think of these Syrian acceptors as “shy Isis”. They have little ideological commitment to Isis. They resent the jihadists’ medieval social ideas as much as one might imagine they do. Yet Isis protects them from the regime and from Shia revenge. Western support for Assad would deepen and widen Sunni commitment to Isis, pulling in moderate Syrians. It would be a disaster."
So if supporting the Assad regime would put us on the wrong side of the majority Sunnis, but the Sunnis themselves are dominated by fractious, clannish Islamic fundamentalists, perhaps we should admit our limitations and just clear out?
"Those who don’t want to support Assad argue that our best course is just getting the hell out.Have you ever seen a more feeble argument? We have a murderous civil war dominated by extremely-unpleasant militias, with no significant forces aligned with objectives any bien-pensant Western liberal would sign up to. And Finkelstein talks about a police action?
"I think there is quite a strong argument for this. After all, the conflict seems never-ending; the moderate forces, however many there are, appear not that forceful and dubiously moderate; and the sectarian battle is not something we want to be muddled up with.
"There is no clean finish, no victory, so what’s the point?
"The point is that leaving the whole thing alone altogether won’t work either. We can’t allow the creation of what one might call “terrortories” — lands where either Sunni or Shia jihadists settle and can turn from fighting the near enemy (each other) to fighting the far enemy (us).
"So our best bet is to see that we are involved in something that is better thought of not as a war, but as a police action, one that sits alongside our domestic anti-terror policies. One that won’t have a neat ending but will carry on for many years. One in which conquering and concluding is not likely to be an option.
"We have to work with the bogus battalions and the shy Isis and the many Syrians willing to live in peace and under law. There are many of them, however weak or fractious they may be, and however much their status as fighting forces may be questionable.
"We have to help them — that means them, not us; we can’t do it for them — to take control using every lever we have, diplomatic, economic and, where necessary, military.
"I can’t see that we have much of an alternative."
When you see logic replaced by artful sophistry, you know that the real reason for intervention is going unmentioned. And what would that be, Danny?
Yes, it's the Great Game all over again.