Syria and the West are intimate friends. For years Western leaders courted Bashar Assad, arguing he was a moderate and a vehicle of change. Vogue even produced a propaganda edition on the Assad family. Elsewhere, Russia and China continued to support and supplied buckets of armaments to the Syrian dictatorship or shuffle their feet at the UN.
“The BBC, Galloway complained, is denouncing Syria for using Apache helicopters to attack its own people. “I’ve never understood,” said Galloway, “why it is worse to kill your own people than other people’s people.” The BBC had cheered a week or 10 days earlier for Apache helicopters used by Britain to kill Libyans. The problem with Syria, Galloway said, is not that it’s run by the latest Adolf Hitler of the month, but that it harbors Palestinian leadership, supports Lebanese national resistance, and refused to participate in the attack on Iraq.” [My emphasis.]
That was good enough for them, deliberately forgetting Assad’s unsavoury allies.
Yet there is a foul stench that pervades any discussion on Syria, the inability to stop a dictator from openly murdering civilians for 2½ years. The West in terms of political leaders and supposed “activists” have given this smiling dictator an easy time. Complacency has rules from March 2011 onwards, with Westerners largely hoping that the slaughter in Syria would go away, all by itself.
Syria is not far from Europe. A mere 300 miles from Cyprus. A relatively quick trip from Italy, under three hours in a plane. Just over 4½ hours from London but it could as well be a world away, whilst the Assad regime carried on torture and murder, under Russia and China’s protection and it slipped down the media priorities.
Leaving aside the question of intervention for the moment, the inability of Westerners to inform themselves on the nature of the Assad dictatorship is exceedingly troubling. From 1963 coup d’etat to the later one in 1970 when Hafez Assad took power, civil rights were never on the agenda. However, Western Human Rights organisations have covered abuses over the years and those with access to the Internet have no excuse.
There are many and varied opinions on what should be done, below is a random selection and then I shall give readers my views.
At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum argues Why Air Strikes Against Syria Probably Won’t Work. A Middle Eastern journalist and writer, On Interventions and the Syrian Revolution. Anyone with a strong stomach for whataboutery can guess what Robert Fisk will say, Iran, not Syria, is the West’s real target. Max Fisher provides 9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask. Hopi Sen is clear, For Syrian intervention, still. Over at Salon, No one wants it, but we’ll have a little war anyway. Syria: British Doctor, Dr Rola, Challenges Ed Miliband To Come To Syria On Holiday. Steven A. Cook is direct, In trying to help Syria, an intervention would destroy it. Howard Jacobson, Twerking pop stars and errant footballers I can give an opinion on. Syria leaves me stumped.
Finally, Red Pepper reminds us:
“Think of Syria and what images come to mind? Wrecked buildings, refugees, a stoical Bashar al Assad? Ask most activists in the UK what they think is going on in Syria and the majority response is ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It’s been taken over by al-Qaeda now, Saudi Arabia and the USA‘ or ‘Assad is better than imperialism’. Two of the most popular are: ‘There’s nothing we can do’ and ‘Revolution? What revolution?’ There is still an ongoing revolution and broadly speaking, the left/anti-war movement in the West is undermining those struggling to keep it alive by focusing on political posturing and lobbying rather than practical solidarity. “[My emphasis.]
I have to admit I am torn on Syria. Not for the want of opinion, but trying to think what is best for individual Syrians, for civilians is beyond difficult. I have watched over the last few years as they demonstrated, were murdered and rose up against a dictatorship. In the West, we take far too much for granted, we cannot understand the level of courage needed to oppose the hereditary Assad dictatorship.
There should have been an intervention in April 2011.
The Syrian regime should have been told, strongly, very early on, that slaughtering civilians in the street is wrong. Instead the West dithered, indifferent to Syrian deaths and unwilling to upset a dictator or his protectors.
However, we must not forget that intervention has already occurred and is not one-sided, Assad benefits from Russia’s arming and repairing his weapons of carnage. China has deliberately blocked action in the UN. Iranian Revolutionary Guards aid Assad’s campaign of murder. Hezbollah and other militia are actively fighting on Assad side, killing Syrians.
The inability of the UN, or anyone else, to check the continued slaughter in Syria from the mid-2011 onwards left a vacuum and that was filled by Salafists or worse.
After the suspected chemical attack Western leaders realised they could not drag their feet any more. They made no comprehensive suggestions to resolve the conflict, such as deposing Assad, bringing in a pluralist government and employing UN peacekeepers throughout the country.
Instead, in all probability, a few dozen cruise missiles will be fired into Syrian government installations. And then the potential for a wider regional conflict opens up, if Iranian Revolutionary Guards who act as a proxy for Assad are killed. It could lead to the Iranians attacking Israel. That would, in turn, drag the US and others into an open-ended conflict and a significant use of chemical warfare.
I find the prospect of a limited intervention leading to a ramping up of the conflict and dragging in neighbouring states too terrible to contemplate. It is the people of the region that will truly suffer. I suspect Assad could survive any cruise missile attack. Such an attack will only bring untold misery to a region which deserves so much better.
My solution: the world (not just the West) should take the strongest approach towards China and Russia. Aim to strong-arm them into withdrawing support from Assad. Exile him and his supporters in Moscow, and bring in a multiethnic pluralistic Syrian government. Along with a massive humanitarian operations must be put in place to support Syrians, preferably with large and wealthy states (US, Russia, Saudi, Qatar, China) contributing billions.
However, I accept that it is extremely unlikely.
In the end
In short, all of this was predictable. Dictators do not give up power willingly. They cling on to the last bullet, to the last thug willing to kill civilians. The West, the media, the elites, activists, we are all guilty. But that shame cannot be assuaged by a score of Tomahawk missiles raining down on Damascus. Doing nothing is not an option. Waving a few placards in Whitehall, whilst Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards kill Syrian civilians is posturing of the worst kind.
The yearly death toll in Syria has unceasingly increased yet the West has done nothing of consequence. The humanitarian efforts are meagre and paltry. The media lost interest and attitudes in the West became more isolationist. Only now with suspected chemical usage do politicians feel compelled to act, that is in August 2013, when the time for a serious response was March 2011. Those 100,000+ dead Syrians merit considerably more than Western inattentiveness or cruise missiles.
Living Syrians deserve that we consistently oppose murdering dictators, not just when it’s convenient or when the geopolitical winds blow in the right direction.
Living Syrians hunger for peace, security and freedom from the tyrant’s boot, we should support them to the fullest extent and not just to alleviate our guilty conscience.
Update 1: This is good, An open letter on Syria to Western narcissists.
Update 2: The Economist has nicked my title, On Syria.
Update 3: Fat Man on a Keyboard put it nicely (wish I had written it!):
“If there was one other thing that disappointed me, particularly from the Labour Party, it was the failure to develop and propose an alternative strategy. The motion in front of them was feeble, Obama’s proposal for military action was nothing more than half-hearted tokenism. This was one reason to reject it. But to simply replace it with inaction is unconscionable. Parliament replaced inadequacy with negligence. The consequences remain to be seen.”[My emphasis.]
Update 4: Hussein Ibish writes Open letter to Congress on Syria:
“The vote facing you when you return after September 9 is one of the most momentous foreign policy decisions Congress has faced in decades. I urge you to have the courage to support President Barack Obama in defending the American national interest by authorizing military action in Syria.
The Syrian regime has violated one of the most fundamental tenants of modern international law by using chemical weapons against defenseless civilians. No one else is going to act in response to that. If the United States also does nothing, then there is, in fact, no prohibition against, and no consequences for, the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Syria is not going to be a repetition of Iraq or Afghanistan. We have learned the lessons of those mistakes. The public is fully justified in skepticism about another quagmire, but that is not going to happen. No one in the United States, Syria, or anywhere else, wants a major American military presence there, and it’s not going to happen. The United States is not preparing to walk into another inextricable trap or quixotic nation-building campaign.
At the same time, missile strikes only make sense when combined with efforts in conjunction with our allies to strengthen and reinforce the Free Syrian Army and other groups that will stand in opposition to both the Damascus dictatorship and al-Qaeda.”[My emphasis.]
Sadly, I can see no evidence of learning “the lessons of those mistakes”.