If Britain sends weapons to the Syrian opposition, we will take on risks that far outweigh whatever interest we have in seeing them triumph. The conflict is horrific, but it simply isn’t important enough to us for us to take on these risks. Britain should help topple brutal regimes only where it is in our interests to help and our help ought to be proportionate to those interests. We must do all we can to soften the humanitarian crisis, but otherwise, Syria should be kept at arm’s length.
This ‘realist’ prescription will seem coldblooded to many readers, even inhumane. How can someone be so selfishly detached in the face of such appalling crimes committed by the Assad regime; when tens-of-thousands of people are already dead? Something must be done and arming the rebels is something, therefore we must do it. And according to the Prime Minister, spreading our values is the same thing as pursuing our interests, thus it would be a perfectly proportional policy.
Whenever great tragedies occur in places like Libya or Syria, there are calls for Western intervention, and the debate over whether or not we should intervene is typically reduced to a matter of interests vs. values. Some, like Mr. Cameron, try to end the argument by claiming the two are synonymous. It is much more complicated, of course. We don’t have a mutually reinforcing set of values. ‘Spreading’ one can undermine others and governments must often make trade-offs between them. If Britain arms the Syrian opposition in order to ‘stop atrocities’ or ‘advance freedom’, then we will be forced to make trade-offs elsewhere – trade-offs that could undermine our moral credibility just as surely as Bosnia-esque inaction.