James's chief contention is that had the Commons voted to bomb Assad and his regime this time two years ago, the appalling refugee crisis and the tidal wave of suffering it unleashed might well have been averted. It very might well have not, either. As it happens, I think opposing the war was the right thing and adds to Ed Miliband's credentials as one of the most effective opposition leaders never to have won an election. But that was no triumph. Not intervening against Assad didn't mean endorsing his crimes and utter disregard for the devastation the regime is prepared to wreak to prevent its toppling, but one cannot simply sweep wash one's hands of it. It was clear back then that 'doing nothing' had consequences, and those were likely to be many more tens of thousands of deaths. The heartrending scenes from the Mediterranean today were always foreseeable.
While some opposition to bombing Syria might have been motivated by callous disregard for the fates of others and/or little Englandism - which has always been UKIP's position, incidentally - the only really credible defence for those opposed was the supposition that the consequences of bombing and overthrowing the Assad regime would have been even worse. Yes, Assad has killed a great many more than his opponents. The prisons and torture chambers at his disposal remain busy as the civil war grinds on. However, had US and UK warplanes attacked his regime, crippled its military capability, and seen it swept aside by the ground forces of its enemies, in all likelihood the vacuum would have been filled by Islamic State. The chemical and biological arms Assad has would have become their chemical and biological weapons. With the Syrian regime gone, there's little doubt a new wave of terror would have swept the land. The other factions in the civil war - the other Islamists, what ever is left of the FSA, the Kurds in the North, IS will have had a freer hand to deal with them. Its invasion of Iraq could have reached further. Lebanon might well have been threatened. In a weird turn of fate, Hezbollah and Israel might have shared a common enemy. And thanks to the "prestige" of its victory and larger, more porous borders; even more foreign fighters may have made their way to IS territory via Jordan.
It's very difficult to see how this scenario could not have come to pass. The injection of large numbers of US and UK troops might have brought about an Afghanistan/Iraq-style "solution" with all the anti-insurgency actions and casualties that would have entailed, but IS would have been locked out. However, as we know neither the public nor for that matter the political and military elites were taken with such a scenario. Perhaps timing could have made a difference. Had the bombs fallen on Damascus earlier today's crisis might have been avoided. Possibly, but as the last foray into Libya showed early intervention is no guarantee of success. If the bombs had landed in support of the 2011 uprisings, what has befallen Tripoli, Benghazi, etc. could be a window into the road not taken in Syria. That, however, was never on the table.
One cannot never know for certain, but thinking through counterfactuals has to weigh up possibilities. In this case, looking at the factors on the ground now, the balance of forces in play two years ago, and on the basis of past histories of Western intervention and its consequences, what we have now - as appalling as it is - is likely to be the lesser evil of all possible horrendous worlds. The thorny question is what can be done about it now and, apart from taking the refugees, the answer is not a lot.