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Hague compares Syria to Bosnia. But a big British military intervention remains unlikely.

By Paul Goodman
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The Foreign Secretary said yesterday that British military intervention in Syria "can't be ruled out".  One would expect Mr Hague not to close down options - since he is cautious soul - but what followed can be read as more suggestive: he compared Syria to Bosnia, saying that the country "is looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s, being on the edge of a sectarian conflict in which neighbouring villages are attacking and killing each other. So I don't think we can rule anything out".

As the Times (£) points out in its report this morning, Bosnia eventually saw a  NATO bombing campaign of air strikes, the commitment of 12,000 British troops and the eventual installation of Paddy Ashdown as "the Viceroy of Bosnia" - or the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, as he was properly known.  So was the Foreign Secretary hinting that he is willing to see Britain play a major part in a similar venture, following the Coalition's military intervention in Libya?

The trigger for the Cameron/Sarkozy campaign was the Arab League lining up against Gadaffi, and it is increasingly doing so against Syria too.  None the less, Mr Hague may have been drawing a different lesson from the Bosnian conflict than the one the Times implies, and notwithstanding the uncertainty over the regime's future and the possible consequences of Syria's civil war for its neighbours, I suspect a big British intervention is unlikely, for the following reasons:
  • There is no appetite in the Obama administration or in our Government for George W.Bush-style military interventions outside the U.N consensus and framework.
  • Lord Owen argued in the Guardian recently that Russia participated in the Bosnia settlement alongside NATO, and it may well be that this was part of the reason why Mr Hague drew the parallel.
  • It isn't clear how military intervention could practicably be undertaken in Syria, or what objective British and other international troops could be expected to achieve (and let's not forget the scaling-back of Britain's defence budget as the Eurozone crisis gathers pace).
  • The Foreign Secretary claimed that the Russians "are not wedded to Assad being in power", and this suggested the latter's possible replacement by a transitional leadership before free and fair elections (again, Lord Risby has made the same point).
  • But with the Annan plan not going anywhere and gathering sectarian conflict in Syria, the chances of such a peaceful outcome look increasingly remote.

I suspect that even with Arab League aquiesence a Libya-style intervention in Syria involving Britain won't happen.  That it isn't clear what would replace the Assad dictatorship provides further reason for caution.  I can think of scenarios in which my view that Britain shouldn't fight major wars outside the European theatre can be seriously contested, but a big-scale intervention in Syria really isn't one of them.  Mr Hague will make a statement on Syria to the Commons later today.


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