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.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Is international diplomacy working?

Hello all. I’m writing this instead of revising for my mocks, planning university applications and generally doing things I need to do. But, you know, if I don’t blog for a while I get really cranky. Really cranky. Anyway, what do I have to say today…

Firstly, a word or several on Syria. Along with the appalling loss of life, torture and incredible despotism, the ‘Syria crisis’ has showed us the true uselessness of international diplomacy. It seems that the UN – the world’s only chance of achieving anything, has been hijacked by China and Russia. This surely is a worrying state of affairs? These two incredibly powerful countries have one rather important shared trait: they are ruled by dictatorial regimes. When asked at the UN’s Security Council to vote against Syria’s President Assad, they unsurprisingly refused. What we can do about this, I have no idea. However, the West need not just sit on its bum and do nothing. There is a lot that can still be done without the Council. The General Assembly passed a similar but less important resolution that did not require an unanimous vote. Now stronger consternation needs to come from the Arab League, which should start drafting a deal to put to Assad. A safe zone needs to be set up in Turkey, beside the Syrian border, so that refugees have somewhere to go. This would also allow the opposition to ferment itself into something coherent which can stand up for itself. Plans to set up a safe zone inside Syria are ludicrous. It would just give the army a definite target. I sincerely hope the international community realise this.

My despair at the international response to Syria has been calmed a little by the recent effort to do something about Somalia. Last year I reported on the famine that was devastating millions of lives and the rule of the militant al-Shabab Islamic group. However, the Shabab have suffered some defeats in recent months. The UN’s peace-keeping force has even managed to clear the militants from most areas on Mogadishu, the capital, and a vague sense of normality has returned. Yesterday David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, chaired a summit to help create a proper international plan to support Somalia. Today he announced that the UN had extended the mandate for its forces and African Union troops to stay and keep the peace. The conference set out big steps on the road to ending piracy, especially establishing where any pirates will be tried. He also set counter terrorism methods and renewed the international community’s commitment to providing humanitarian aid. If all these agreements are as good as they sound, this forsaken country may have a chance of clawing its way forwards.

Before I sign off I just have to mention the Sun on Sunday. Let’s just say, everytime I hear or see the advert I get wound up. The fact that Rupert Murdoch has the guts to open this paper shows that the man has no morals. It also makes me sad, as I feel that when The News of the World shut down the collective intelligence of the nation jumped a few notches – I am sorry but as an aspiring journalist intrested in the truth I am not a fan of tabloids. When in doubt, read this blog.

Finally, Palestine?

Yesterday the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas received a standing ovation from the UN General Assembly as he presented his country’s bid for statehood to the Security Council. It was by all accounts an historic moment. And yet, amid the furore, we all knew that the Council will not pass the bill because of the US, whose government is doubly bound to its obligation to oppose a Palestinian state. Firstly, the US and Israel are joined at the hip, and secondly no one in America is willing to risk the wrath of American Jews a year before the election. They will, therefore, veto any positive ruling.

Which is a shame, really. Everyone, even the US and Israel, has long been agreed that peace in the Middle East will only be achieved with the creation of two separate states (apart from the Palestinian, Islamist group Hamas – which still wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth). I too am an advocate of the two state solution. Problems have arisen, however, because no one can agree where these states should draw their boarders. The popular refrain is ‘along the pre-1967 lines, with land swaps’ which means nothing and is a fantastic way to avoid saying anything that could lead anywhere. One feels as if one is walking in circles. In my opinion, the US should stop playing to political agenda and get something moving.

The case is also moral. I have no problem with the idea of the Israeli state being where it is. There is an obvious and compelling historical – as well as religious – case for its location. Very few people would disagree with me. Therefore, does it not follow that the Palestinians have an equal right to a state in the area, having lived there for just as long? What makes Israelis more important than Palestinians? It would be possible to argue that the West’s long-term backing of Israel constitutes religious discrimination. The Palestinians deserve their country.

No matter what I write here, the US will veto a Palestinian state at the UN Security Council. Mahmoud Abbas has foreseen this and has already made plans to return to the General Assembly. The Assembly does not have the power to grant full statehood, but it can award the Palestinians the status of an ‘observer state’, on par with the Vatican. Judging by the reception Mr Abbas got yesterday, the Assembly is eager to further the Palestinian cause. Being an observer state would give the Palestinians more clout at any new negotiations with Israel, which can only be a good thing – providing they forgo their prerequisites before talks begin. Palestine is not about to spring onto the map, but with a little luck and a lot more judgement, a two state peace deal may be a tiny bit closer. Don’t hold your breath though.