Syria Should Be Tearing Us All Apart

If you’re not torn over Syria then I’d suggest you haven’t thought things through sufficiently.

If you’re for military action and you haven’t asked yourself whether we might not end up with something worse, with more dead, and with Western countries mired in yet another intractable conflict, then you really haven’t been paying attention.

If you’re against military action but you don’t at least worry that somehow we should do something to help the millions of Syrian civilians caught up in this bloody mess, or you don’t fear that we’ll see more chemical attacks, bombardments of residential areas, massacres of entire families, even communities, that we’re in danger of becoming bystanders to crimes against humanity, then ‘principle’ has clearly trumped empathy for those whose lives are being torn apart.

But then this is not a simple situation. For those who like their morality black and white this is frustratingly grey.  Syria is not just a civil war. It is a proxy conflict for every tension being worked out across the Middle East.  To the Saudis Assad, an Alawite who enjoys the support of Shia and Christian minorities, is both a threat to Sunni orthodoxy and a last vestige of secular Ba’athism, statist Arab nationalism. To radical Sunnis, Salafists and Al Qaeda affiliates it’s the latest draw for an international community of adherents who exist to fight, whose reason for being is to wage religious war and to create a new Caliphate, a fantasy state for those wanting to return to a ‘purer’ age that never existed.

For Syria’s Alawites and Christians it may seem like a last stand for people who want to remain Arabs in an Arab world yet free to practice their own beliefs.

For the Iranians and Hezbollah it’s a new front in their battle against the Gulf States.

Yet into this cauldron of conflict we’re being asked to believe we can make a simple intervention that will somehow do good, or at least mitigate bad.

Yet because this is not a simple situation it’s almost impossible to know what consequences even a simple intervention would have.

There is talk of airstrikes or cruise missile attacks.  What would those achieve? Even if they did send a signal to Assad that chemical weapons attacks won’t be tolerated, the thousand or more who died from an as yet unidentified agent, presumed to be a neurotoxin, were one thousand among a hundred thousand others who’d already died from shell, bullet, blade, disease and malnutrition.  We might stop another chemical attack but even without chemical weapons we could see another hundred thousand die by other means before this conflict is through.

And think of the risks. Just imagine Western fighter pilots shot down by Saudi or Iranian supplied surface to air missiles and held hostage. The Americans readily admit they have only a passing idea of what is going on, on the ground, now. Imagine video of Western military hostages being posted on the internet daily with no possibility of locating and extracting them.

Or if, despite protestations to the contrary, Western troops are sent in then a proxy conflict between the different ideological strands across the Middle East also becomes a proxy conflict between Islam and the West drawing in every would-be mujahedeen who wants to die in a holy war or return home with a video of him slitting an American throat.

None of these is one iota of help to a people who have already suffered two tears of horrendous conflict.

Caroline Lucas says we should focus on helping refugees and providing humanitarian aid. Yes, we should. And rather than ratcheting up the pressure with military action we should use this dark opportunity to bring together a wider coalition of interests to use such pressure that can be brought to bear on the players in this conflict to de-weaponise Syria. That means persuading the Russians, who will argue that any nation or government has a right to weapons with which to defend itself, to stop sending arms to the Assad regime. It means persuading Iran and Hezbollah to back off. It means leaning on the Saudis. It means policing borders that are more or less unpolicable. It means giving Assad, a man who should rightly lose everything, something to lose because right now he has absolutely nothing to lose. He can fight or he can die like Saddam at the end of a rope or like Gaddafi in a storm drain. Assad cannot ultimately stay, but right now neither can he leave. If and or all of this seems highly improbable that’s because it is highly improbable. However every state in the region, and those looking on, know that it’s a better option that the alternatives; a failed state, a sectarian conflict spilling out into Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, the Caucasus, possible the wider Arab world.  It took 150 years for Europe’s religious wars to play themselves out and we’re still living with the scars

The chances of Syria having a peaceful democratic future are very slim right now. If we’ve learned anything from the Arab spring it’s that democratic minded groups rarely cooperate well with one another, nor do they fare well against radical Islamist groups prepared to use extreme violence to further their cause.  A Salafist takeover post Assad remains a real possibility and in a country as diverse as Syria that could of itself prompt a further humanitarian crisis.

Syrians rose up against Assad because, like others across the Middle East, they want freedom. Right now I suspect millions of them would settle for peace.

There are no right answers and no good outcomes – only imperfect answers and less bad outcomes. But there are some very wrong answers and any course of action dictated by Western politicians feeling that they must be seen to be doing something would be very wrong. A politician’s ego is not worth the loss of a single life. Not one.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: