To intervene or not to intervene?

Julian Borger and Portuguese
Ambassador Joao De Vallera

The “ghost of Bosnia” haunts Conservative Party thinking as the British government considers how to intervene in the Syrian conflict, a top diplomatic editor told press attachés at a meeting hosted by the Portuguese Ambassador.

Speaking at the DPAAL meeting as EU foreign ministers prepared to discuss the arms embargo on Syria, Guardian diplomatic editor Julian Borger said the previous Conservative government’s campaigning against intervention in the Balkans had been a “traumatic experience” for current Tory foreign policy makers.

“The ghost of the Balkans is in the room every time Syria is being talked about,” said Borger. “You will hear William Hague saying we have to weigh up the cost of non-intervention.”

But while the UK is a powerful lobbyist for supporting opposition groups in Syria, David Cameron’s instinct to intervene is not so strong that the UK will act unilaterally, he added.

Any intervention is likely to remain “strategic” and limited to training opposition combatants, controlling arms flows and training witnesses to gather evidence of war crimes.

“Air strikes alone can make a situation worse, as we saw in Kosovo, and there is no appetite to put boots on the ground,” Borger said.

The British government also realises that arming moderate rebels is not without its problems. “Giving [Assad’s] opponents arms with US and British fingerprints on them would be seen by many people in the Middle East as Western intervention. That is why they [the US and the UK] have been happy to keep their fingerprints off them until now.”

The UK and US are also cautious about acting too hastily on evidence that chemical weapons have been used. “This is no Iraq redux…they are going to leave it in the hands of the UN to make that Red Line judgment,” he said.

Borger also alluded to the impact of low-level intervention in Syria was having on Assad’s ally, Iran: “The US with UK help is giving enough to Syrian opposition to keep Iran bogged down in Syria.”

The toll this is taking on Iran may lead to a breakthrough in the second half of the year after the Iranian elections. “With someone in power who has the Supreme Leader’s approval, there may be room for a deal on Syria and possibly a nuclear deal,” said Borger.
But Tehran is a “black box” he warned. “And none of the above may happen.”