Monday, 23 November 2015

Syria: no easy answers


The world is full of armchair generals and rent-a-quotes, and this is never more clearly proved than in debates over peace and war. Just do this easy thing, they say; that'll put things to rights. Press this big red button. Or, alternatively: don't do anything. That's the way - when did intervening in foreign countries ever solve anything? Bomb. Don't bomb. Blow stuff up. Talk. Oh yes, it's all so simple, isn't it? Well, excuse us if we don't think that a load of journalists and politicians make up much of a Royal United Services Institute seminar, but they don't. Most of them don't know what they're talking about, won't own up to their lack of expertise, and just use the whole thing as a way to settle partisan scores or shout out about a load of stuff you knew they thought anyway.

They're all fakes. No-one's sure what will work in Syria, and if anyone tells you that they are, you should put your fingers in your ears and shout 'la, la, la' rather than listening to them.

Regular readers will know that this blog was rather sceptical about the case for bombing Syria when this question last came up (in a very different context) during August 2013. Well, we said: what's the case for it? Can we get a timeframe, a set of objectives, a sense of the political track that will be pursued alongside the bombs, an impression of the type of targets we're going to strike out at? Only then can any responsible legislature make such a decision. We were prepared to look at the case, and often since then have often stopped to think: 'did we make a horrible mistake? Should the UK have intervened against President Assad two years ago, before some of these horrors unfolded?' We'll never know for sure, but to be perfectly honest, a few cruise missiles and bombs at that point might not have made much difference, and might have caused the Syrian state to collapse even more completely than it did later on. Look at the fate of post-intervention Libya, for instance. But maybe we're wrong. Maybe sending a political signal then would have restrained the Assad regime, forced it to the negotiating table, reduced the scale and scope of the chaos that has allowed ISIS to grow and thrive. Who knows?

And it's that sense of indeterminacy, of we're-not-sure, that should be your marker in the coming days. MPs who sit down and listen to the case in the House of Commons, without histrionics and shouting, are your friends here. Not the certain bombers and the certain refusers. The thinkers. The doubters. The listeners. They're earning their keep as your representatives.

Because there are good points to be made on both sides of the debate. There is absolutely no doubt that the case for intervention has strengthened since 2013, that it is still strengthening, and that our alliances and treaties - agreements that have kept us (mostly) safe since 1945 - may require military action. The new United Nations Security Council Resolution on Syria calls for states to act together to 'eradicate' the safe havens that Syria represents for ISIS. If France invokes Article Five of the NATO Treaty, there seems little doubt but that the UK would be legally required to go to her aid. And the threat that has emerged is nothing like that presented by jihadi fighters in the past. Groups such as al-Qaeda lived in something resembling the modern world. They had political demands. They had objectives. They wanted things. ISIS has made more than clear, over and over again, that they want nothing but a millennial round of destruction that brings the world down on their own heads, all the better to meet their eschatological ends. They're probably about to get their wish.

Nor is it the case, despite the disgusting and disgraceful reaction of the increasingly unacceptable, beyond-the-pale Stop the War campaign, that something called 'the West' has 'brought retribution on itself'. Such vile victim-blaming and falsehood is totally ahistorical, and it ignores the chronology, the geography and the geopolitical realities. ISIS isn't obsessed with hitting NATO and the US: that's a sideshow. They're focused - for now - on killing everyone else. Yazidis. Secularists. Christians. Socialists. Druze. They're not motivated by the Iraq War. No-one attacked most of them from the skies before they revved up their murderous campaign. Attacks like Paris (above) are a by-product of their suicidal war on the world, and thinking anything else is just a load of self-hating and Western-centric self-obsession. No. We're looking at a much wider game here. Everyone has played a role in bringing Syria to its knees, allowing what is basically an obsessive death cult to flourish there. The Saudi money that helped to build up their extremist ideology. The Iranian militias that have helped to devastate the country. The Russian bombs that have followed. The US and British states' error in first invading Iraq, and then allowing it to fall apart on their watch - creating yet another part of the power vacuum into which ISIS have inserted themselves.

All that said, there's a respectable case to be made for holding one's hand. No-one expects to find backing for Jeremy Corbyn's increasingly doomed and embarrassing leadership of the Labour Party here. It's pretty much all over now, and all that remains is to clear up the wreckage. But he does have a few good points to make on this one (while twisting and turning all the while to avoid the awful moment of reckoning when he has to make up his mind on whether to offer Labour MPs a free vote or not). Although Western intervention hasn't 'caused' atrocities like Paris, it doesn't seem to have done all that much to deter them, either. Political strategies are just as vital as military ones, as Tony Blair's ex-Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, has just pointed out (though of course this isn't an 'either'/ 'or' question). And as we said back in 2013, lobbing a few more bombs into an unstable mix of civil war, outsider opportunism and the vastly complex chess board of the Middle East might well not do much for anyone. Without a multi-dimensional diplomatic effort to try engagement on some level with Iran and Russia - and ground forces on which we can rely - just bombing some Syrian oil refineries and ISIS supply routes runs the risk of just 'doing something' for doing something's sake.

The truth is this, however much no-one wants to hear it: there are no easy roads before us in Syria, or anywhere else in the region for that matter.

In a political world more and more defined by 140 characters, full of shouting, clamour and rage, the Syria vote is an opportunity to meet together as a country and plot our course: to listen. Truly listen.

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