You cannot be Syrias

I’m not sure a pun in the title of a blog on this topic is acceptable. What is surely not is military assault on a population already ravaged by violence.

This is a blog I’d quite obviously rather not be writing, so I’ll attempt to keep it brief and to the point.

I’ve read this morning that the threat of a parliamentary revolt has pushed Cameron into accepting we must wait for the UN to establish more of the facts about what happened in that ravaged suburb of Damascus before military action is countenanced.

This is good news, but far from enough for us to rest easy. First, it is unlikely the UN inspectors are going to be able to establish much – if anything – conclusively about who fired whatever it was that caused the hellish asphyxiation of those poor Syrians a few days ago. The US has already made up its mind (and, therefore, so have we) that Assad is responsible, so UN uncertainty is unlikely to dent their (and therefore our) aspirations.

Second, a draft resolution being put to the UN security council to authorise ‘limited’ strikes on Syria (remember those? The ones that – somehow – managed to removed Gaddafi from power in Libya) will not be passed due to Russian and Chinese opposition. With the Russians also maintaining they won’t become militarily implicated in any conflict, we shouldn’t expect this outcome to dampen the aggressive intentions of the US (and, therefore, the UK).

So a UN mandate will not be served – but does this matter? Is there a moral case nonetheless?

I’m astounded this debate is even happening, so rich as we are in experiencing the manipulations, lies, incompetencies and two-faced justifications of Western governments in justifying ludicrous, bloody, expensive and – almost always – terrifyingly ignorant attacks on Muslim countries in the Middle East and Asia.

We are currently looking at the possibility of an attack, unsanctioned by the UN, on a large Arab nation on the basis of unproven use of chemical weapons by a regime. Even martians have heard that one before. And while this may not be Iraq, the circumstances differ in many ways, none of them either justify or oblige military assault.

For a start, don’t believe for a second the UK or US governments give a hoot about a moral case. Chemical weapons might be a ‘red line’, but Assad’s brutality – and that of his badly understood opposition – has been indiscriminate from the very beginning. The moral case has been there to make for 2 years. Why now?

A good question, and a difficult one to answer. Exactly what our, and other, governments think they can achieve from ‘intervening’ (that’s a PR term, if you hadn’t noticed) in Syria is debatable and mysterious. We know – or we should know – that we cannot predict or control outcomes of hyper-complex, historically laden conflicts (and I refer here both to religious divisions and colonial pasts).

We have categorically lost in Afghanistan, achieving nothing except to displace the war east into Pakistan and to strengthen the Taliban. We committed the greatest war crime of the 21st century in Iraq, eviscerating a country in the most hideous and unjust fashion imaginable, yanking it into a spiral of despair and violence that tore it apart and still does so today. In Libya we’ve created a power vacuum, aiding conflict in Mali and events like the Algerian hostage crisis in the Sahara. Our record is abysmal, and that’s a sympathetic reading.

There are only two broad explanations I can think of for the eagerness of Obama, Cameron et al to fire up the jets once more. First, perceived interests: Syria is a critically located country in a strategically critical region. It has a large military, with many seriously unpleasant weapons. The desire to influence and control the outcome of the current conflict, and profit from doing so, is no doubt significant for foreign policy wonks, realist hawks and unimaginative leaders.

The second is a self-delusion that bizarrely, given everything, still persists: that we (the West!) somehow possess a right to act in the so-called interests of others, even when it involves bombing their countries. This is the ‘sorting-out-their-mess’ complex. Except, well, most of the time it’s our mess. Every country I’ve mentioned in this article was created, in its modern form, by decades of Western colonialism. Each was mangled together with as much ignorance and carelessness as that with which they’re now being ripped up and ‘remodeled’.

The fact of the matter is quite simple. Even if were to act with the best of intentions (a laughably unlikely scenario), this is a conflict on scale, of a complexity and characterised by such a vicious and divisive brutality that our impact on its outcome would be – at best – random.

Until we lose the idea that we have a right to decide when countries should have violence enacted on them, we will continue to make the mistakes that lead to the contexts in which that idea resurfaces. This is a cycle we have to break, addicted as we have been, and are, to unjustly extending our influence abroad, in the crudest forms.

Syria is an unspeakable tragedy. There is probably nothing more depressing happening in the world today. But there is nothing we can do about it – that boat sailed a century ago. Sad as that is, to accept it is to accept a world in which, frankly, the UK doesn’t matter much.

This is something we should all be trying to get used to.

There will be two votes in the next week in the Commons on UK action in Syria. Email your MP to tell them to say no to a war in Syria. Find them here:


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