The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, said yesterday that the world could not "stand idly by" as the Syrian Government used chemical weapons against its own people.
The problem here is that we can't get involved in all the countries in which such outrages are committed because these things occur all the time and all over the place. For example, there are terrible things happening to Christians in Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, etc. and the British Government isn't getting directly involved – or involved at all – in any of these places. Terrible things have also been inflicted on the Kurds by the Turkish state in the last twenty years: around 20,000 Kurdish civilians were killed, and 4,000 villages destroyed, between 1994 and 2008. However, the Kurds clearly aren't completely guiltless either; and this parallels the situation in Syria perfectly. Perhaps it's simply the nature of the attack which has prompted the Government. That is, the use of chemical weapons and the fact that the West has been fed pictures of the many children who have been victims of these attacks. Nonetheless, is that enough to warrant an intervention when such interventions often – or nearly always – make things worse? In addition, enraged sensibilities and moral grandstanding are not always good starting points for fruitful and just political actions.
The problem is that the William Hagues and David Camerons of this world are itching to show themselves to be the true statesmen they think they are and thus go down in history. And, as usual, the best way of guaranteeing that is to get involved in a war; in the contemporary climate, likely a war initiated by outraged sensibilities. But, again, when will such interventions stop? And why should Syria warrant intervention when so many other conflicts do not? The argument could be, of course, that you can't intervene everywhere so you may as well intervene somewhere, especially where children are being gassed to death. But there is another option: intervene nowhere. Or, less inflexibly, only intervene in conflicts which have a direct connection or relevance to the country – Britain! – that's doing the intervening. (Personally I don't think I'm either an interventionist or an isolationist in general terms; as always, it depends.)
The reality is that we don't know the full facts yet. Still, it does seem that the evidence points in the direct of President Assad's culpability. Nonetheless, that may simply be because I, like everyone else, have been fed a diet of almost exclusively pro-opposition and anti-Assad propaganda, not only by Sunni Islamists and Syrian non-Shia Muslims, but also by many – or most – Western journalists. Despite that, what William Hague said yesterday does seem legitimate, at least at a prima facie level. To be exact, Hague said: "To argue that the Syrian opposition carried out this attack is to suggest that they attacked their own supporters in an area they already controlled using weapons systems they do not possess."
Actually, I'm not completely confident about William Hague's conclusions. Firstly, Sunni Islamists have frequently sacrificed their own to achieve their political ends. Think here of Hamas sending women and children into Israel to blow themselves to pieces or using them as human shields. In addition, how does Hague know, at this early point in time, that the Syrian Islamists and militants don't have such weapons? I have read, many times, that they have.
President Assad is of course no angel. The opposition isn't saintly either. Indeed there is no real opposition with a platonic 'O' in the first place. There is a loose collection of different interest groups and political parties. In fact it may be wrong to call it a collection at all when it comes to some groups – the Islamist ones – being categorised as being a part of that opposition. And in terms of overall organisation and unity, it can be said that many of the once rival Islamists groups have become more organised and unified than much of the non-Islamist opposition. More to the point, many separate Islamist groups have been organising together in a manner that is not being replicated by the Syrian moderates.
Cameron has also said that any intervention must be legal and proportionate. Ah! Those old chestnuts! The word 'legal' is bandied around all the time and often without people – even the people who use the word – knowing exactly what it means. If Cameron means UN legality, then Jack Straw MP has already suggested that such a 'humanitarian intervention' wouldn't need UN backing. And 'proportionate'? The only truly, or literally, proportionate response to the Syrian chemical attacks would be chemical attacks against the Assad regime. (This is what's so silly about talk of proportionality in the case of Israel's response to Palestinian terrorist attacks. Proportionality usually means, when it comes from Western leftists and left liberals, no Israeli response whatsoever; whereas a genuinely proportionate response would be for Israel to bomb Gaza, or its civilians, each time its civilians were bombed. But of course the proportionists don't mean that!)
It's not usually the case that the Archbishop of Canterbury gets things broadly right on these geopolitical issues. The new one, Justin Welby, has said that the facts on the ground are still unclear and, more importantly, that an intervention will have unpredictable consequences – you can say that again!
Jack Straw, on the other hand, has said that international law had "broadened" in order to make military intervention possible without UN backing ... but only in humanitarian situations (as mentioned earlier). Well, he would say that wouldn't he. Straw was part of a British Labour government which intervened in Iraq without such UN backing. (Although, on certain readings of that complex and endlessly interpreted war, there was indeed UN backing – if only you read the small print.) I'm not arguing against the intervention in Iraq and the toppling of the mass-killer Saddam Hussein. But whether or not that was the right thing to do at the time, it's still the case that there were innumerable unintended consequences to that intervention. Exactly the same will be true in the case of a Syrian intervention, even if there won't be – as Nick Clegg has put it – British "boots on the ground" ... at least not at first.
|George Galloway, John Rees & Lindsey German - all StWC: all Press TV.|
Meanwhile the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) has predictably opposed "another disastrous military intervention". They will no doubt claim this is to stop Western capitalist states claiming another stake in – or part of – the Middle East (for oil?). However, the StWC was set up by the Socialist Workers' Party and is still led by its members and former members. StWC, the SWP, and now Counterfire, have strong links with the Iranian regime and many of their leaders have been on its payroll (e.g., John Rees, Lindsey German, Yvonne Ridley, George Galloway and Lauren Booth.) So StWC is Iran-friendly at the very least. (StWC and Counterfire's John Rees, also former-SWP, once said he'd support Iran in a war with the UK.) This means that Syria, a good friend of Iran, is also a part-friend of StWC as well. This also means that we should be very sceptical about the StWC's anti-war message, in this and in all cases. These people most certainly aren't pacifists or peace-loving hippies. They are Trotskyists.
As is usually – or always – the case in these military situations, Cameron is contemplating an intervention without consulting the people who voted him in. Sure, not every government act or decision can be given a popular vote in a modern representative democracy. However, we are talking about war here – both a civil and a possibly an international war. We are talking about a possible situation in which British soldiers will be sent a couple of thousand miles to die on foreign soil. Or, at the very least, British military personnel involved somehow and somewhen. Despite that, Nick Clegg has promised, as I said, that there would be no "boots-on-the-ground" invasion. Clegg isn't a futurologist as far as I know; but he is a political dissembler, in that we've heard that old line many times before.
General Lord Dannatt, head of the British Army until 2009, has also expressed misgivings, saying that military action without UN backing would be "wrong" and that David Cameron must "convince the British people that there is a clear case for intervention". But that statement should be qualified. Intervention may be wrong even if the UN sanctifies it. In fact the UN has sanctified many wars, policies and actions that very many people thought were manifestly wrong.
The other obvious point is that Cameron won't need to "make a clear case for intervention" in order to intervene; as he will know full well. And what would a clear case – or a just case – actually look like? Perhaps the only way to solve this problem once and for all would be to destroy the Assad regime. But what would follow from that? It could very easily end in a continuing civil war between Shia/ Alawite and Sunni Muslims; between Sunni and Sunni Muslims; between Sunni Muslims and Christians; between Sunni Muslims and Lebanon's Shia Hezbollah; and, ultimately, between Syria's Sunni Muslims and Iran's Shia Muslims. And there's also the added bonus that Assad has threatened Israel with reprisals – how Israel is the legitimate target of reprisals in this instance I don't know – if the West intervenes, in any way, in Syria's affairs.