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.