My friend George Osborne has one of the finest minds of anyone in public life. He brings a clarity to issues others often prefer to complicate or dodge.
So when he was asked recently what was the biggest cause of sadness for him in his political career so far, he didn’t prevaricate. The failure of the House of Commons to support intervention in Syria in 2013 was, George said, “the single most depressing moment of my time to date in parliament”.
As George explained to his audience, our failure to intervene has been followed by the killing of hundreds of thousands, with millions more driven from their homes. We hear constantly from some quarters about the failures of intervention. We hear far less about the terrible consequences of non-intervention.
Our intervention in Iraq in 2003 now finds few defenders. Mistakes were undoubtedly made. But had we not intervened then, the country would have remained a torture chamber above ground and a mass grave below. Power would have passed to Saddam’s murderous sons Uday and Qusay, who would have waged genocidal conflict on the Kurds and the Shia, while also exploiting western sanctions fatigue to re-stock their chemical and biological weapons arsenal.
More than that, Iraq enjoyed a new stability and security as a result of President Bush’s troop surge in 2007. The winding down of the US military presence following President Obama’s election was a foolish retreat from responsibility which allowed Islamic State to occupy a vacuum of the West’s creation.
And Obama failed again when he did not follow through on his threat to punish Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people. His failure to intervene in 2013, following the failure of our parliament to sanction intervention, has been a global disaster.
We threw away any respect for western security guarantees, we failed to save the Syrian people from mass murder, we failed to support those we called our allies on the ground, we allowed Islamic State, once again, to exploit another vacuum and develop a new global terror network and we signally failed to put any pressure worth the name on Vladimir Putin for aiding, abetting and funding tyranny, so he grew in power and prestige at our expense and strengthened the hold of his secret police state over the Russian people.
That’s not the worst of it. Our biggest failure has been our inability to check the advance of the Iranian regime — Assad’s puppet masters. The Khomeinist rulers of the Islamic Republic have been identified by the US state department as the world’s principal state sponsors of terrorism. Driven by eliminationist antisemitism and hatred of western values, they are intent on bringing yet more bloodshed to the Middle East — and beyond. Iran’s rulers describe Israel as a “cancerous tumour” and their Revolutionary Guards have promised to export violence to Europe and the US.
History warns us that it is seldom a good idea to acquiesce in the military advance of a regime which makes explicit its desire to purge the world of Jews. And doesn’t care how many other people it kills along the way.
However, it seems that we are determined to ignore the lessons of the past. Just as the civil war in Spain was won by Nazi Germany, with devastating consequences not just for the Spanish Republic but for all of Europe, so the civil war in Syria is being won by Iran with ominous consequences for the rest of the Middle East.
It’s Iran, not Syria, which provides the spearpoint of the assault on Aleppo. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, alongside auxiliaries they have recruited from Afghanistan, Pakistan and beyond, are prosecuting a ruthless total war in which the barest norms of civilised conduct are defiantly and sadistically ignored. These troops are supported and funded by money that Iran has made following the deal to “suspend” its nuclear weapons programme, a deal which, the German intelligence service reported this year, Iran was already seeking to subvert by clandestine methods.
For the Iranian regime, the West’s agreement to a nuclear deal was another sign of weakness, irresolution and short-termism. Iran will be free from any constraint after 15 years, and indeed it can prepare for the rapid acquisition of nuclear capability well before then. And all the time it can use, and has used, western danegeld to build up the armed forces now merrily slaughtering Syrian civilians.
I strongly support any action to counter Iran’s advance and help Syria’s innocents but I fear that the moment of greatest opportunity passed in 2013. If Iran now wins its war in Syria it will turn its attentions more widely. It is already supporting the Houthi takeover of Yemen, fomenting unrest in majority-Shia Bahrain, funding Islamic State’s offshoot in the Sinai, extending its hold over Iraq’s political culture and seeking to radicalise Shia minorities in other states such as Saudi Arabia. Iran has rekindled its relationship with Hamas and will deploy Hezbollah to terrorise Israel from the bases that it will shortly control on the Lebanese and Syrian borders.
Against this threat, there is a critical role for Britain to play. As an ally of both Israel and the Sunni Arab states of the Gulf, like the UAE, we can help to bind those nations together against the common enemy and support them in driving economic and political modernisation in the region.
History tells us that if we fail to act against evil now then we will only end up paying an even higher price later. If we do not learn from history, then we will, inevitably, be condemned by it.
Michael Gove is a British Conservative politician, who was Secretary of State for Education from 2010 to 2014 and Secretary of State for Justice from 2015 to 2016. He has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Surrey Heath since 2005. He is also an author and was a columnist for The Times.