In 1914, as a continent marched to war, British Foreign Secretary Edward Grey made this mournful statement: "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time." Nearly a century later, we might comparably observe that fires have been started all across the Middle East -- and we shall not see them put out in our time.
From Tehran to Tunis, from Aleppo to Benghazi to Cairo and now, of course and yet again, the streets of Gaza and Tel Aviv, the region is ablaze. No statesman, be he ever so powerful, can predict where the fire may spread. Far less can he control the burning.
The war between Israel and Hamas grips the world's attention like no other battle in the region and overshadows all else. But gruesomely compelling though it may be, it is sadly not the only show in town. Syria's own drama continues to run and run and one could forgive the Syrian opposition for wondering why the outside world is less interested in their tragedy than in those now unfolding elsewhere in the region.
The international community's attitude is best-summarized by a recent headline from America's most reliable news source, The Onion: "Having Gone This Far Without Caring About Syria, Nation To Finish What It Started." That may be about to change, however as European powers -- as such Britain and France insist they be deemed -- inch closer and closer to intervening in the Syrian tragedy.
They do so despite a palpable lack of public enthusiasm for the project. Bismarck's crack that the whole of the Balkans were "not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier" finds a contemporary echo too. Still smarting from the consequences of ill-fated expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq, I doubt the British public considers Damascus or Aleppo worth the bones of a single Grenadier Guard. Syria is a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing -- and care about even less.
The public may retain a lofty disinterest in Syria's agonies but British and French politicians are not so shy. The French have already recognized the Syrian opposition as Syria's legitimate government-in-waiting-if-they-can-win-their-civil-war and it seems probable that the British will follow suit sooner rather than later. If this seems familiar it is because it is familiar. Last year's Libyan playbook is being dusted off for a repeat performance, this time in Syria.
Yet despite inching towards war, British and French agitation still resembles nothing so much as an unorthodox variation on the classic governmental mantra: Something Must Be Done. In this instance, the novelty is this: no Something has actually been identified.
There is talk of lifting the arms embargo that currently hampers the Syrian opposition's attempts to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime. There is talk too of establishing a "no-fly zone" in Syrian skies and yet more talk of creating -- and, presumably, defending -- "safe havens" within Syria. There is, you will gather, a lot of talk.
All of which leads one to suspect that the road to Damascus, like that to hell, is paved with good intentions. Fine words and noble sentiments are harmless enough provided they do not become the spur for reckless adventures that begin in the haze of sentiment and are likely to end in the fog of unintended consequences. Moreover, one cannot quite resist the doubtless ignoble thought that it is irresponsible for Britain and France to make promises they're in little position to deliver. Call it Operation Raising False Hope, if you like.
We must presume all this enthusiasm for fresh foreign adventures stems from the presumed success of the Libyan intervention. The generous desire to solve other people's problems is a bug that, once caught, rarely dies.
On Friday, Foreign Secretary William Hague met representatives of the Syrian opposition in London. The British government plainly wishes to help the Syrian rebels but is equally keen to vet them first. Or, as Hague, had it: "We need their assurances about being inclusive of all communities, we need to see they have genuine support throughout Syria if we are to take that important step of recognition. We should do so in full possession of the facts and on the basis of discussions with them. The meeting is an important component of that and we will continue to work on this over the next few days."
To which Hague added: "A military victory of one side over the other would be a long, expensive process in terms of human life. Our top priority remains achieving a diplomatic and political solution.... We cannot stand still and just say we will leave things as they are ... but how we respond has to be well-judged and well-thought through."
It may be true that a well-judged response is preferable to a hare-brained reaction but that largely depends upon your definition of what manner of response may be considered "well-judged" or "well-thought through." Especially since, like his colleagues in Paris, Hague's suggestion "we cannot stand still" might leave an innocent observer to presume that the matter has been pre-judged more than it has any chance of being well-judged.
Standing still and leaving Syria well alone is, of course, not just an option but also the most realistic approach to a problem that is neither of the West's making nor its solving.
Evidently, however, there exists some kind of intervention algorithm that determines the tipping point at which Western powers must become involved in an affair they had not previously considered any of their business. We can live with -- or, more accurately, ignore -- 20,000 deaths. But 30,000 corpses suddenly renders the situation intolerable.
In February, the British position at least had the virtue of clarity. According to Hague, Britain saw no need for a military response, not least because a "military intervention would have to be on a vastly greater scale than in Libya." By June, the looming failure of Kofi Annan's attempts to broker a solution to the conflict meant Britain, like other countries, "would have to consider other options for resolving the crisis." The fundamentals of the conflict have not changed but Britain's position has, as they say, evolved.
The instinct to do something -- anything -- is understandable. But it amounts, in this case, to gambling upon opposition forces of unproven class and form whose future actions, preferences, and ambitions are essentially unknowable. If governments are not good at picking winners in domestic matters, their record of doing so in foreign entanglements is even worse; if you thought this lesson had at last been learned you are, I'm afraid, very much mistaken.
The current search for something to do with regard to Syria represents mission-creep without an actual mission. According to Sir David Richards, chief of the defense staff and Britain's most senior general, "The humanitarian situation this winter I think will deteriorate and that may well provoke calls to intervene in a limited way." As if this was not enough of a hostage to events that lie outside Britain's control or even, necessarily, interest, he added: "There's no ultimately military reason why one shouldn't [intervene] and I know that all these options are, quite rightly, being examined." No wonder military intervention -- albeit intervention of an as yet undetermined type -- is not considered "impossible." If you sense a whiff of In the Loop -- Armando Iannucci's satire of the politics of the Iraq war -- you may not be wholly mistaken. When a politician says "war is unforeseeable" it means war is probably waiting round the corner.
Yet absent American support for intervention, what can Britain or France realistically achieve? They retain some diplomatic clout at the United Nations but unless the United States moves, neither China nor Russia seem likely to be persuaded to lift their objections to foreign intervention in Syria. Even if Moscow and Beijing were to change their minds (an unlikely scenario), the British and French are likely to need American logistical and military support if they're to achieve anything. In this respect, they are not so much writing checks they cannot cash as forging American checks and trusting that Washington will not mind honoring them. This seems a mildly reckless course of action.
Syria's plight is terrible; that much is clear. Yet intervention is not something the faint of heart should risk contemplating. Nevertheless, there are limits to what the Europeans can realistically achieve. Prime Minister David Cameron may be correct to observe that "Frankly, what we've done so far is not working" -- but at least what has been done so far has not made the Syrian situation appreciably worse. Syria is broken but it's not the West's responsibility. At least not yet. War without aims is almost as bad an idea as war without end. But if Western politicians cannot even agree on their aims how can they be trusted to navigate these treacherous waters?