The year’s legacies

It has become a media tradition around the New Year to look back at the highlights of the year – and, indeed, I have always done so here on Topical Creativity. This year, however, I am not giving you a blow-by-blow reminder of the past twelve months. Instead I present you with a list of events which have struck me as most important, the moments which, when we look back, will mark turning points and define 2013. And so, in no particular order, here goes:

  • The US government shut itself down.

This was a rather dramatic way for the Republicans and Democrats to prove that they hate each other, considering the uncertainty the move could have created on the financial markets and the hundreds of thousands of people they sent home from work. In the end, however, the Republicans saw their popularity ratings tumble so far that they were forced to compromise – something they hadn’t done for a while. Once the government was back up and running, Congress actually passed a budget for the first time since 2009. There is a feeling that maybe – just maybe – this heralds a new era in which the governing parties tone down partisanship and, you know, actually govern.

  • France intervened in Mali

The situation in Mali provided us with several lessons. Firstly, the French President may not actually be as wet as he appears (although with his approval ratings bobbing around the 20% mark, this doesn’t seem to have made him any more popular). Secondly, Western intervention can lead to good outcomes if it has a defined purpose and is planned thoroughly – news indeed to many. Although Mali remains unstable, the country’s Islamist rebels no longer threaten the vast majority of the population, especially as French forces still stand in their way. Lastly, we saw that a new wave of terrorism is emerging, this time not in the Middle East but in Africa, where groups take advantage of failed states and rampant poverty. This fact was highlighted by the later attacks on an oil plant in Nigeria and a shopping centre in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. The world is still waking up to this new development.

  • Syria’s President Assad got away with gassing his civilians to death

Despite France’s success in Mali, the West spectacularly failed to hold Assad to account for his use of chemical weapons. Chilling images of dead children could not overcome the political legacies of Iraq and Afghanistan, and although many, including Obama and Cameron, wanted to act, nothing was done. And with that, the West lost its credibility as the world’s protector. What this means for the perceived world order is yet to be seen.

The civil war is now close to entering its third year. Having already claimed over 125,000 Syrian lives, it is now threatening the peace in neighbouring Lebanon and across the region. And the protracted length of the war is causing the moderate opposition to lose ground while Islamists grow stronger as disaffection grows. An uncomfortable situation is now emerging in which no one particularly wants either side to win. This makes moving towards a peace deal increasingly complicated. Recently, talks have begun in Geneva, but with key players like Iran absent from the table, no one is holding their breath.

  • A deal was made with Iran over its nuclear programme

After years of stalemate, the ice between the US and Iraq has begun to thaw around the edges. Negotiations have finally yielded a deal. Although interim, the deal goes a fair way in limiting Iran’s ability to quickly manufacturing a bomb without anyone knowing. It provides a glimmer of hope for those arguing that the new President will really be a moderate and try to open up his country. It remains to be seen, however, if the Supreme Leader will let him do so. It is possible that the economic sanctions the rest of the world has imposed on Iran will force the Ayatollah to give ground in order to keep a lid on growing domestic resentment. On the other hand, the Ayatollah’s power is legitimised by a cultivated sense of an ideological battle between Iran and the ‘Evil Empire’ of the US. If the two countries enter a period of rapprochement, this legitimacy simply disappears, and so perhaps the economic sanctions pose less of a personal threat to the Ayatollah. Either way, change is coming to Iran and its place in the world.

  • Chaos came to Egypt again

The heady days of the Arab spring are a thing of the past. In early 2011 the world was fooled into thinking that people power and optimism could transform autocratic states into liberal democracies. Alas, the naysayers were right: it wasn’t to be. When massive protests erupted again in Egypt against the Islamist President this summer, in anger at his attempted power grab and undemocratic ways, there was a brief sense that Egypt new what it wanted and was going to get it. But then the army – the kingpin of the ancien regime – arrested the President and staged a coup. After a year’s interlude, the generals were back in power and promising new elections. But with the recent banning of the Muslim Brotherhood, it is unclear who anyone would vote for and, most importantly, if the army would honour the people’s decision should an election actually be held. As the rest of the Middle East has a habit of following where Egypt boldly goes, these questions will prove very important in 2014.

  • We lost a “giant of history”

Nelson Mandela died this year, at the age of 95. The rebel, freedom fighter, President of South Africa and world statesman will be missed dearly, but his iconic status lives on in his legacy. He taught the world many lessons: endurance, forgiveness, devotion to a cause. The question now is whether, with Madiba gone, his country and others can live up to his ideal of rainbow nations free from the scourge of racial oppression. Probably not, but his death has certainly highlighted the failure of South Africa’s current President, Jacob Zuma, to help his people or, indeed, to act within the law. Such increased scrutiny suggests it may be a choppy year ahead for South Africa.

  • A new round of reforms began in China

This development garnered less media attention than my other highlights of 2013, but it may be one of the most significant. With China fast becoming a candidate to be a new superpower, how the vast country controls its internal affairs will, more and more, shape everyone else’s too. The latest gathering of the top echelons of the Communist Party, under it’s relatively new leader Xi Jinping, resulted in the announcement of a relaxation of the infamous one child policy and the extension of market based economics. China is not embarking on an unstoppable march towards liberalism, but it is showing that it will abandon ideological dogma if circumstances require it. This will have one of two opposing effects: make the new China easier to work with, or increasingly unpredictable.

This is not peace

Perhaps the definition of a crisis is that the ground shifts so often that one starts to feel seasick. That is certainly a good description of the Syrian crisis, where developments are happening thick and fast – and coming from all over the world. It is safe to say that, over night, my last post became utterly redundant. The make-or-break Congress vote was cancelled, military action indefinitely postponed – perhaps forever.

What caused such a turn around? Believe it or not, the Russians may have found a solution which everyone can almost agree on; for the Assad regime to give up its chemical weapons to intermational control. They would be secured by UN inspectors and then destroyed. This, on the face of it, is a simple, effective solution, acting to prevent the repetition of war crimes. It also gives the US and Russia a reason to unfreeze their relationship, which could be the key to finding long-term peace.

See the full, edited version on Prospect’s website.

On Syria – a briefing

I do not remember the Rwandan genocide, nor the Bosnian war; Vietnam and Korea remain raw for many, but are history to me. Instead, I am of the Iraq/Afghanistan generation – I have grown up in a post-9/11 world where foreign policy has been dominated by the War on Terror. The lessons I have learnt warn of the dangers of an over-powerful executive (remember the scandal of Parliament’s Iraq vote?) and fabricated evidence. The military interventions I have known have been ill-defined and impossible to end, and may well have led to more civilian deaths than would have occurred if the West had stayed away. The events I have witnessed ever since I was just six years old have, naturally, made me quite sceptical about the West’s capacity to do good in the Middle East.

However, despite all the lessons that must be learnt – particularly from Iraq – it is time the spectre of that now-past era stopped inducing rash policy decisions on and hyped-up media coverage of Syria. The situation is different now, and clear thinking is needed. To do justice to the complexity of today’s events and the immense human suffering happening right now, we need to be making decisions which are not coloured by fear. And yet the events of the past two weeks have exposed the extent to which the West is still afraid.

It all started on the 28th August when news came that the Assad regime had probably crossed the ‘red line’ by using chemical weapons. For the best part of a week, governments around the world scrambled to find enough evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the attack had indeed taken place, and that it had been perpetrated by the regime. UN weapons inspectors, already in the country investigating alleged previous chemical weapons usage, fought for and won access to the newly affected areas – rebel held suburbs of Damascus.


This is where things started to unravel in the West’s response. David Cameron, the British PM, rushed headlong into a parliamentary vote without waiting for either UN or US intelligence. Although this was foolish and led to a deeply embarrassing defeat, Cameron was sending a signal: that unlike Tony Blair, he respects the workings of parliamentary democracy. The defeat itself was also political rather than strategic; the proposed motion promised another vote and more evidence before any actual military action could occur, and was intended to be merely symbolic. Here, Labour was equally as foolish as the Prime Minister.

Nevertheless, the real problem actually came when, following their defeat, Tory cabinet members overreacted. Too quickly, Cameron et al promised that there would not be another vote on military intervention and that any British involvement in Syria was simply off the table. This, they implied, showed that they respected the voice of Parliament. In reality, they have silenced that voice on the world’s most important issue and, in the process, relegated the UK to the children’s table of global politics. When it dawned on them that this was all rather embarrassing, the government quickly employed some verbal slight-of-hand and altered its message: there would not be a second vote unless the situation changed dramatically. It is safe to say that, given the vagueness of that condition, no one actually knows whether Britain may still get involved.

Focus quickly shifted to the US, where everyone expected President Obama to announce cruise missile attacks. But he, too, decided to surprise us by asking for a Congressional vote. He, too, seems to be mindful of the image of an over-powerful executive. However, there was no need for Obama to seek approval; unlike the British PM, the Presidency is designed to control foreign policy. Indeed, Congress hasn’t declared war since the US entered WWII in 1941. So, why is he bothering? Put simply, Obama wants Congressional Republicans to share the blame if intervention goes wrong. And yet, he is taking a huge risk. If he loses the vote (many members of Congress may vote against him in light of the strength of anti-war public opinion), it is hard to see a way forward. Will he simply make use of his prerogative powers and bomb Assad anyway? This may be better than become a ‘do-nothing’ Commander-in-Chief, but would still constitute political suicide. He may take some confidence in the fact that John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and effective opposition leader, has signalled his support. But it will have been a long ten days for the President when Congress finally votes tomorrow.

The future of American foreign policy, and that of the democratic, developed countries it leads, now rests in the hands of the 112th Congress. So, in fact, does the future of Syria. That is more than a little worrying.

So there’s your round up of what’s happening on the Syria question in Western politics. Now, here’s what I think.
I mentioned earlier that, thanks to circumstantial conditioning, I am a sceptic about intervention in the Middle East. But I am also a natural humanitarian; and I think it is time to act for three main reasons. Firstly, despite everything, I do believe that the West still has a role in imposing some basic morality, especially when it comes to preventing the mass murder of civilians by their own government.  I cannot forget the picture of a crying child among dead bodies, and I don’t think politicians should either. We have a duty to protect.
Secondly. the use of chemical weapons is against international law. In an increasingly globalised world, it is time to take such law seriously and to enforce them. There is no chance of getting Assad and his merry men to the Hague anytime soon, and so military action is the only way to do this. There is also a moral hazard problem here; if Assad is allowed to go unpunished there will be no reason for him – or any other despot – to refrain from using such nasty weapons. Do we want that to be the message we send to the regimes of North Korea or Pakistan? Just remember, 25 years after Saddam Hussein killed 5000 Kurds in a chemical attack on the town of Halabja, he was still murdering thousands of his people and unsettling the entire region.
Which leads me on to my third and last point. Letting the war rumble on as it is will increase the rate at which it spreads across the Middle East. As I have argued before, the Syrian civil war is not just a conflict between regime and rebels, but between Sunni and Shia. Already, the level of violence in Iraq is rising after years of tapering off. Tensions in Lebanon, whose civil war took place all too recently, are beginning to flair again. The once-secure monarchy of Jordan is being destabilised by huge numbers of refugees – as is Turkey, which has problems of its own to contend with. The sooner this ends, the quicker calm can be restored and a regional war avoided.
And so, against all instinct, I am advocating Western military action in Syria. To prevent the deaths of soldiers and unnecessary escalation, it is vital that politicians keep their promises and do not put boots on the ground. To prevent causing civilian deaths and even more dangerous acrimony between Islam’s many branches, it is vital that the West does not go in for regime change but instead uses targeted cruise missiles to disable Assad’s military capabilities and stop further breeches of international law. That way, it is possible to learn the lessons of Iraq and still do the right thing.

The shock of no blood

I often say that being a journalist and working with the news as much as I do has desensitised me. Political scandals, hospital failings, rigged elections, death and disease – this is what we are confronted with on a daily basis. Shock turns to surprise which in turn becomes cynicism. Analysing the news becomes more natural than being upset by it.

But sometimes the emotional response comes first. Every now and then a photo, a video or the first sentence of an article will send shivers down the spine of even the most hardened reporter. Maybe even Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, has these moments. I think the entire journalistic community did this week, when we saw this photo from Syria:

Of course, what is horrific about this picture is that all the bodies are children, some just toddlers. But horror and surprise are different things; and everyone knew that countless children have already died in this war. The real shock of this picture is the complete lack of blood.
On Wednesday, around 600 people living in Damascus’s suburbs were killed by a nerve agent attack. They died of seizures and an inability to breath. Hundreds more are seriously ill, and there are few ways of alleviating their suffering now that stocks of anti-toxin medicine are running out. Footage of the sick and dying has flooded out of the country. Various experts have verified the film, saying that it would be impossible to teach young children to fake a fit convincingly or narrow their pupils.
Nevertheless, there is an ominous feeling that not all may be as it first appears. Why would Assad deploy chemical weapons when UN monitors are in the country investigating alleged previous instances of their use? Does he have such blatant disregard for the international community that he just doesn’t care (which would be unsurprising, given the lack of attention it’s paid recently)? Or, as some suggest, did the rebels unleash the poison themselves in a bid to change the game and force the US or NATO to intervene on their side? The on-going stale mate only provides the regime time to build up strength while weakening the rebels, giving them a motive. And the rebels could have won control of some chemical weapons stock when they captured army basis, giving them a means.
I am unconvinced. Since the attack, the regime’s men have been bombarding the afflicted areas with conventional mortar fire. This has made it impossible for the UN monitors to investigate Tuesday’s atrocity and implies that Assad does indeed have something to hide. Even so, the question remains: why did the regime strike now? Until we know the answer, governments around the world will be haunted by the rows of corpses in too-white sheets.

Only questions

Sometimes there is a problem to which no one has an answer, to which there is no answer. So it seems with the Syrian crisis – the ‘worst war of our time’ as one Newsnight reporter put it yesterday. Sorry Obama, Cameron and Hollande, for all your good intentions you’ll just have to wait this one out – there’s nothing you can do.

Since last week’s White House confirmation of the use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s forces, the pressure to arm the rebels has grown and Obama has finally bowed to it. But he was right to express concern in doing so – there is nothing the West can do to stop any arms ending up in the hands of the jihadists who are already gaining strength and support. No one wants a repetition of what happened after we armed the Mujahideen in Afghanistan (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read this mind-blowingly accurate book) – the Taliban made us miss the Soviets, and missing Assad is a sickening thought. If we were going to arm the rebels, we should have got on with it 18 months ago before the Islamists took control.

Even without the Islamist element to worry about, it is hard to ignore the harsh fact that more weapons generally means more death. Let’s not forget; 93,000 people have already lost their lives in Syria, many of them women and children and non-combatants. But that is not to say that the reasons given for arming the rebels are flawed – they’re just as sensible as the ones against. Proponents of the policy point out that, with his forces pushing back rebel lines, even taking back much of Aleppo, Assad has no incentive to enter any settlement which could lead to a peaceful transfer of power. Change the situation on the ground and his political rational will have to shift, sending him running for the negotiating table.

Still, I am inclined to believe that arming the opposition cannot have a positive outcome and so the question remains: what is to be done? The humanitarian in me cannot counternance not taking any action at all. A Libya-style no-fly zone is pretty much out of the question; Syria is too big, too spread out, to be comprehensively covered, and Assad’s air-defence systems are very advanced (thanks in no small part to his dear friends the Russians). The West, then, should give up on the fanciful idea of changing the balance of power and start doing what it can to stop people dying. The enormous sums of money which could be spent on arms should be spent instead on bullet-proof vests and helmets, on food and blankets for the homeless, on doing something to make the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan more than a living hell. These are the things which can be done without any risk, solely benefiting a population which, having spent two years living in a warzone, desperately needs help.

We will feel that this is inadequate – that our only thought should be to stop the bloodshed. But we can’t; the situation is too complex for any interference to be successful. Indeed, the Syrian conflict needs to shed the veil of the Arab spring and be seen for what it is, a proxy war between Iran, Russia, Hezbollah and Assad on one side and Iraq and the West on the other. Put simply, it is just a small, bloody episode in the never-ending Sunni-Shia war. It is spreading over boarders – tensions in Lebanon, not-long dormant after the civil war, are rising again, and Turkey and Iraq are struggling too. The unrest threatens to engulf the entire region in bloody sectarianism – this is no place for American guns.

It won’t be a turning point

10 months ago I wrote that a massacre in Houla, a small town in Syria, would act as a turning point in that country’s civil war. With the slaughtering of women and children, I thought, the world would not stand on the side-lines and let more deaths pile on top of these. At the time, the death toll was 19,000. Now it stands at 70,000. The world is standing on the side-lines.

In some feeble attempt at doing something, Gulf countries have been helping to arm the rebels. This has, indeed, changed the balance of power – making it more equal. But all this has done is lead to stalemate: despite rebel control of some districts of Aleppo and Damascus, the regime still holds both cities. And the shelling continues, and childen keep dying.

The West has dithered. No-one wanted to enter another Arab country in an unwinnable war. To add to worries, it became obvious that any new regime would be Islamist-dominated (as in other countries buffeted by the Arab spring), and no-one fancied being responsible for that.

But no-one could stomach not saying anything. So President Obama drew a line in the sand, which, should the regime cross it, would trigger a severe response. That line was the using of chemical weapons. Last week, news came of a nerve agent attack. The line has been crossed.

Obama reacted with a caution which, unsurprisingly, did not match the rhetoric. He commented that more intelligence was needed, but one would think that photos of blistered skin would be confirmation enough. Finally, as I have been writing, the administration announced that they would be sending the rebels ‘lethal aid’ – in other words, sophisticated weapons. This is the first time America has taken real actions.

But I’d be surprised if he went further; there’s not a lot more he could do anyway. And although lethal aid sounds minor in terms of US foreign policy, it’s far from risk-free. He is gambling that the weapons won’t fall into jihadist hands. Nevertheless, the arms won’t bring the fighters anywhere close to the regime’s artillery power. In short, the use of chemical weapons by President Assad will not mark a turning point. The war of attrition will go on.

So what’s the outlook? It is far from promising. There are two ways it could go: continuing stalemate or a sudden dramatic collapse of the regime. Either way, the conflict is likely to spill over into Lebanon and drag in Iran, while bolstering the Islamists. This does not bode well for a fragile region and a fragile world. But let’s be clear, it seems Assad can gas his people with impunity.