Monday, 26 August 2013

Syria, chemical warfare and western intervention

The situation in Syria has deteriorated rapidly since the horrific nerve gas attack last week.  The PM is cutting his holiday short and is expected to hold a National Security Council meeting on Wednesday.  He had phone calls with leaders, including US President Barack Obama, this weekend, where they agreed on the need to take ‘strong action’.  William Hague, Foreign Secretary, stated that he would not go into options but was not going to rule anything in or out on this morning’s BBC’s Radio 4’s Today programme and that intervention (in some as yet unspecified form) could occur without the unanimous backing of the United Nations.  It all sounds depressingly familiar.

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William Hague has repeated his assertion that the suspected chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian regime not by those seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.  Now he may have sound intelligence for his statement but so far the rhetoric has not been backed by any concrete evidence.  UN weapons inspectors en route for the site this morning were fired on and had to withdraw.  There are only two possible explanations for the outrage: it was either action by the Assad regime (with or without his express instructions) or by the Syrian opposition.  If it was an action by the Syrian regime, it was poorly timed given the presence of the weapons inspectors in the country.  If it was an action by the Syrian opposition, they were killing people in areas they already control and could blame the Assad government.  Possible intervention seems to be based on a dodgy a dossier as the invasion of Iraq.  Both sides, it is claimed, have used chemical weapons in the past and both sides have been accused of committing human rights violations.  To conclude on the basis of no real evidence at all, that one side or the other committed this crime is pure speculation and should not be used as the basis for making a decision in favour of western intervention. 

There may have been a case for intervening in Afghanistan and Iraq and later in Libya and I emphasise ‘may’, but intervention has come at a massive human cost for military forces, insurgents and the civilian populations.  Whether this ‘war on terror’ has made the Middle East more stable or reduced the threat of terrorist activities is questionable.  The authorities, of whatever hue, will inevitably point to what has been achieved (whatever that means) but the experience of the last decade shows clearly that you cannot easily import western style democracy to countries without a tradition of democratic institutions and rights and that if democratic regimes do emerge, you have to be prepared to deal with governments, in Egypt for instance before the military coup, whose ideologies you do not like.  The situation in Syria is even more complex because there is no united Syrian opposition with different groups, with markedly different agendas competing not simply against the Assad regime but also against each other.  So who are you intervening to support?  This question will not go away even if the unlikely eventuality of complete UN backing is forthcoming unless you accept the amorphous and bankrupt notion of intervention to ‘protect the people’.  In Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, intervention (whether you agreed with it or not) was in support of a specific goal; that luxury is unavailable in Syria.  What began as a campaign for democratic liberation has degenerated into a vicious, bloody struggle for military domination in which calls for democracy have become increasingly redundant.  So what are we considering intervention for?

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