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Syria: The International Toolbox is Perilously Empty

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Thinking about Syria and reading the commentary about whether anything can be done I am reminded that the biggest lesson I have learnt as an MP and as CEO of BICOM is this: as an international community we constantly overestimate what we can achieve. I have learnt - from the Iraq intervention and from working in the Israeli-Palestinian arena - that we assume the 'international community' has capabilities that, quite frankly, we haven't seen evidence for.

For example, during the 2008-9 war in Gaza I came up against a widespread misapprehension that there were better options there for the taking. However, I learnt that in this connected and complex world of ours you can very rarely do anything successful on your own.

Israel couldn't stop the rockets unless she could stop the smuggling, but she couldn't stop the smuggling without Egypt's support. But Egypt couldn't do it on its own without the help of other African and Arab states, and they couldn't do it without the help of the international community due to the laws that govern the high seas, amongst other things.

Even when after the war in Gaza when there was international agreement and political will to take on the issue of smuggling, the will soon ran out and nothing got done; we still have smuggling of arms and Islamic Jihad in Gaza is now at least as well-armed as Hamas.

We are flailing around about the tragic situation in Syria as though it is in our gift to sort it out if we only 'did something'. We talk about the UN and international law as though it is a magic wand. But as Israel found out, after 18 months of trying to get the international community to help it solve the problem of terror caused by smuggled rockets into Gaza - the international tool box is perilously empty. It is all too hard even where there is unanimity to achieve a desired outcome but virtually impossible without it. It shouldn't stop us trying, but we need to be realists if we are going to help anyone.

Often, we are left with no options or just bad ones. We rarely have international unity - and on Syria we can see the tragic consequences of Russia's and China's support to the Assad regime.

And when we lack that unity (sometimes, even when we have it) we are reduced to trying to convince the only country in the world that is still willing and able to act to be the adult - America. We need to bear that in mind before we wish away a uni-polar world.

We are seeing the green shoots of leadership in the Arab League through the courageous efforts of the Qataris, amongst others. But we are also reaping the reward of decades without it.

So we need to encourage them. Leadership isn't easy at the best of times but in the Middle East today, it could not be more difficult. We need to have some humility and remember we still make mistakes ourselves. Let's allow them to make theirs whilst doing what we can to minimise them. The best hope this region and the Syrian people have is that the Arab League stick at it (and improve their performance) while we encourage Russia to change its position.

We need to be a bit more circumspect about what options there are, and not just in Syria. We help no one by inflating expectations and we know through tragic recent experiences that we overestimate our own powers at our peril. We constantly say that Israel should do this, that or the other, but not once do we think about the realities as if we were in her shoes. None of this is to say that we should or should not intervene in Syria - the international community has an absolute responsibility to protect - but it does tell us that there are very rarely easy answers to be had.

Ours is a culture of "I want it all, and I want it now," as the song has it. But life is not like that because human beings are not like that. There is many a slip between the grandiose certainties of the op-ed writer and the messy world of the soldier or a decision-maker in the thick of it.

The tough question to ask ourselves is this: where is that small zone of influence in which our statecraft, allied to that of our partners, can help us improve our options? And then, how can our diplomacy open up those options, including the military option should we take it. No more talk of easy choices.

Next time you are tempted by easy rhetoric, think first.

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