Michael Burleigh writes:
During his Commons début as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson claimed British public opinion is ‘shifting’ on the Russian bombardment destroying the Syrian city of Aleppo, or what remains of it.
Using a characteristically odd turn of phrase, Johnson said he would propose more ‘kinetic’ solutions at today’s summit of foreign ministers in London.
That’s fancy jargon for fighting – and in particular it means establishing a no-fly zone over northern Syria.
He is not alone, of course. Hillary Clinton, too, has played to the gallery with proposals for a no-fly zone.
Many more perfectly well-meaning people agree.
For sure, television viewers in Britain and elsewhere have been moved by the scenes of carnage in eastern Aleppo, where 250,000 civilians are stranded amid rebel fighters.
But I wonder how many of those distressed viewers have thought through the consequences of what the Foreign Secretary proposes?
They certainly should.
Because to impose a no-fly zone is to confront the Russians, who are hell-bent on destroying Aleppo-based opponents of their ally, President Assad – rebels whose elements include, it should be remembered, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda.
It also means confronting Syria itself and its Iranian allies and Iran’s client Hezbollah militia, all of whom are ranged alongside Russia.
In other words it is to risk consequences of unimaginable seriousness, quite possibly a Third World War.
Syria, irreparably shattered by the five-year civil war, is already an unstable, explosive brew – a battleground for a proxy war between Sunni and Shia heavyweights, Saudi Arabia (funding the rebels) and Iran (backing Assad).
This division is one of the most dangerous fault lines on the planet.
Saudi-backed jihadis are fighting with Iranian-funded Hezbollah troops.
Throw in an American air force taking on IS, a Turkish army waging war on Kurdish nationalism on the Syrian border and Israeli forces determined to snap Hezbollah supply lines to bases in Lebanon and we have conditions for a conflagration that will drag in nations from around the globe.
Yet it is a decision to confront Russia and President Putin that poses the most terrifying leap into the dark for America and its European allies, including us.
We are, after all, no longer discussing how to take on the rusting shambles of a military left over from the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Today, the Russian forces are a different prospect.
Despite the small size of his economy (the size of Italy’s), Putin has poured money into modernising his armed forces and the result is both impressive and fearsome.
Russia has ships armed with missiles in the eastern Mediterranean.
It has positioned its most advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems across the Assad-controlled parts of Syria.
The idea that we can dictate conditions to its air force is a non-starter.
The Israelis of all people know this and are very careful to co-ordinate with the Russians when their pilots want to fly into Syrian airspace against Hezbollah.
Even the Americans take care to ensure that their pilots bombing IS do not ‘conflict’ with Russian planes bombing Syrian rebels.
The tiny RAF is barely involved, which is perhaps why talk of direct conflict between US and Russian aircraft seems too easy.
Then there is the matter of Putin’s agenda.
After a decade and a half of American arrogance – which has included destabilising countries on Russia’s own borders – Putin is aggressively reminding Washington that Russia remains a great power.
Or at least, that it wishes to be – and for that it needs international reach.
Remember that America has 800 ‘facilities’ (ranging from radar stations to major air bases) in no fewer than 70 countries around the world. Britain, France and Russia combined have 30.
And one of those Russian bases is in the port of Tartus in Syria.
The relationship between Russia and Syria goes back a long way, and Putin has no intention of letting it go now.
Assad’s father, Hafez, became their chief ally in the Middle East after the Soviet military was turfed out of Egypt in 1972.
The Tartus naval base followed and now the Russians have an air base there, too.
To secure these, they need Assad to be in control of what they regard as ‘useful’ Syria.
That is why, with Assad losing, Russia intervened a year ago.
The Americans can hardly complain. Russia has been forced to watch a show of strength from the US that has toppled regime after regime in the Middle East, much of it under the guise of the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’.
Now Russia is giving us its own display.
Partly, it intends to leverage concessions from the West after its incursion into eastern Ukraine.
It wants sanctions eased. And it hopes to compensate for low oil and gas revenues with arms sales.
Live-fire demonstrations of new weapons in Syria are a wonderful advert.
Then there is Russia’s own domestic jihadist problem.
It has already fought two wars in Chechnya to defeat them. And Syria is not far from the Caucasus hotbed of unrest and militancy.
The fact is that Russia has little to lose and the prospects of it backing down are minimal.
The more aggressive Putin’s foreign policy, the more popular he is at home.
A solution is desperately needed.
Half the Syrian population are displaced and hundreds of thousands have been killed.
What Britain’s Foreign Secretary is proposing, though, would involve us in the wrong conflict and one with unimaginable risks of escalation, at a time when all civilised forces should be focused on the menace that is Islamic State.
Johnson is supposed to be a diplomat, not a pyromaniac.
Worse still, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would actually divert the mainly American combat aircraft that have for months been softening up IS before the expected liberation of Mosul – the second-largest city in Iraq, now the effective IS capital.
For any solution to the conflict we have to face reality.
We must accept that it is not Assad who has unleashed terrorists on Brussels and Paris.
We must accept it is our so called ‘friends’ in Saudi Arabia whose pernicious religious doctrines have sown the seeds from which the evils of Islamism have mutated around the world.
And we must accept that Russia is going nowhere until it has achieved what it wants: the destruction of IS and Al Qaeda and the support of an important regional ally.
The lesson from 2003 and our fatal diversion from Afghanistan into Iraq is all too clear: it is best to fight one war at a time.
Finish off IS in Mosul before venturing into the mayhem that is Syria.