Tuesday 27 August 2013

Syria: The Path to Hell

The path to hell is paved with good intentions. And to take most people at face value who favour military intervention in Syria, they appear to sincerely favour "doing something" - anything - for the best of reasons. The chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus is utterly reprehensible, no doubt about that. After repeated massacres of civilians by all sides and the infamous flesh-eating episode that went viral, this signals a new, barbarous low. Not even the Nazis used biological or chemical weapons on the battlefield - that was something reserved solely for helpless inmates in the death camps. But put in historical and geographic context, Assad's regime, if it does turn out to be responsible for the atrocity, is in the august company of the late and very much unlamented Saddam Hussein. More surprisingly, it's a stable shared with Israel and NATO too, who, in Gaza and Afghanistan respectively, have used white phosphorous. But as it just sits on the legal side of international law, that chemical weapon "doesn't count".

I'm not a pacifist. I am a socialist. There are just and unjust wars, and even the most morally right of wars are, at best, brutal and regrettable necessities. An Anglo-French-American attack on Syria would definitely be brutal and regrettable, but necessary? No.

In James Bloodsworth's argument on Left Foot Forward, suggesting a cruise missile putsch would hand all or large swathes of the country to Islamists is essentially a "conservative position with a leftwing twist". After all, that's the argument put about by the Syrian government and the Kremlin. And the portrayal of dictatorships as bastions against the rising tide of Islamist extremism suits the interests of certain Middle Eastern gentlemen. However, James's is a position that does not survive first contact with the balance of forces on the ground. The choice immediately facing is not Assad or a liberal democracy, it is Assad or a country fractured into warring Islamist fiefdoms.

Of course, there is a third choice. While regime change isn't on the table, we saw mission creep in Libya. It hard to see how the situation in Syria, where the conflict is more complex, messy, and intractable, won't suck the Western powers in once the sorties are launched and the targets attacked. This third option sees the replacement of Assad by some nice, liberal-sounding chap who promises new elections. But the price for this liberty would be less eternal vigilance and more perpetual counter insurgency. Think Iraq at its worst. Think Afghanistan, its endless conflict, and the indifferent, unthinking consequences of Obama's drone war. This is what a "humanitarian" military adventure will mean. This is the language of good intentions in bombs and bullets.

Sunny says we shouldn't talk about full intervention of the sort described above, because no one of consequence is arguing for it. Okay then, what does limited intervention mean? If, as Sunny's piece admits, Assad has a huge military advantage over his Islamist enemies (I'm not convinced, it seems stalemated to me) and that airstrikes or what have you will have little effect, then what is the point? What appears to be on the cards and what Sunny is prepared to back is the geopolitical equivalent of a punishment beating. The thinking goes dictators in the future won't unleash their stores of chemical weaponry because they fear of retaliatory strikes. It sounds naive if you ask me. The fates of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and the sticky ends other dictatorships have met have hardly acted as warnings from history to those who would follow them. Put plainly, despite being well meant, this is bombing for bombing's sake.

There are good reasons. And there are real reasons. Britain, France and the USA are, how shall we say, "inconsistent" when it comes to applying humanitarian principles to their statecraft. So why now? As appalling as last week's chemical attacks were, Syria has been a charnel house for going on two years. It has only been eclipsed once, and that was for a single day during Egypt's day of terror a fortnight ago. Since then the grisly daily toll continues to climb. No, what guides the Western powers - as always - are their projected geopolitical interests for the region.

For the Middle East, the US is only interested in regional stability under its hegemony. Britain and France are happy to go along with this as long as crumbs continue to fall into their oil companies' coffers. Ba'athist Syria under the Assads has long been "unhelpful". The derailed Syrian revolution and now the civil war presents the State Department an opportunity to remove a geopolitical obstacle once and for all and with it, possibly, Hezbollah in Lebanon too. The second objective is containing Russia. The Cold War is done, but international rivalry remains. The "Saudi Arabia with trees", as Russia was once summarily dismissed as, is using the vast funds from oil and mineral exploration to assert itself in its near-abroad. If Assad can be knocked out, it's one less ally Putin can call upon in a region where they're very thin on the ground. A foreign policy reversal for Russia now may mean a Russia less likely to play diplomatic hardball in future crises, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. The question the international relations wonks are now wrestling with is whether the price of mission creep and permanent war is one worth paying to achieve two immediate geopolitical objectives.

This is no justification for us to wage war on Syria. In the mouths of Hague and Kerry, B52 humanitarianism is but a pretext. The well-meaning people who want "intervention" are different. Principled, different, and wrong. History does tell us things so we don't have to rinse and repeat every single time.

We meant them well, but we gave them hell. That, I'm afraid, is the outcome any attack will most likely bring.


Speedy said...

Personally I don't think I've seen a "bigger lie" than this - one is reminded of the Nazi ruse to excuse their invasion of Poland: a fake attack by Polish patriots.

Assad is winning, and he had plenty of armaments. There was absolutely no reason for the regime to launch this attack, and the combined US/UK/Israel/Saudi intelligence/special forces had every ability to make it seem like an Assad attack.

And I say this as one who did not believe we went to Iraq on a lie (ie they believed there were chem weapons, they just couldn't find them).

This is all about assisting the losing rebel/ jihad Sunni forces against the Shia - there are gas pipelines at stake etc and Israel in particular wants to see Hezbollah weakened. It is deeply cynical and (cynically) not even good strategy, "monkey with a grenade" indeed.

And what of the ordinary people (who overwhelmingly backed the survival of the Assad regime before this kicked off)? No serious person believes this will shorten the war. Weakening Assad will only prolong it. And on the basest moral analysis - yet again the West backs Salafist Islam against two more progressive forms. No wonder they hate us - we deserve it.

Gary Elsby said...

'I'm not a pacifist, I'm a socialist'
Second opinion please.

Assad wins his election and secures an easy majority to rule.
The lads don't like the outcome and hit the streets with guns.
The 'legitimate' Government puts down the insurrection as best it can.
We supply the rebels (rioters) with 'radios' (cough).

Use Chemical weapons and we'll use force against you, says the West.
Assad, on queue, uses chemical weapons (cough).
The West considers force.

You sink our ship we'll sink three of yours.
You sink two of ours, we'll sink seven of yours etc..

Blowing up the local social security dept or the Assad army HQ sends a message all so powerful.

The 'human error' of a Tomahawk dropping down the wrong chimney and into the local primary school causes mass hysteria and pain (along with the bombed children's hospital).

I'll take bets 2/1 on the 'human error' now.

Anonymous said...

Assad did not carry out the chemical weapons attack, more likely this was a conspiracy of imperialists.

The imperialists will not allow the rebels to take control of Syria if they can help it, they will put in their own strongmen, educated at their expensive schools and pretend they are democrats. After the Iraq invasion scores of protesters were shot dead by the new 'liberal' regime. In Syria the new Western backed regime will simply kill the rebels en masse, just as Assad is trying. Or the Saudis will order some of them back to base, ready for the next Western backed mission.

The West have one interest, their own.

They should be opposed but not for the reasons Speedy provides, which are hopelessly liberal reasons imo.

We should back the revolt against Assad but decry those who call for the West to intervene.

MD said...

It's nonsense in my opinion to argue that the chemical attack was the work of foreign intelligence services, it was either the government or the rebels and the rebels are unlikely to have had the weaponry.

So on balance it was probably government forces.

It is also incorrect to say that the battle is one between Assad and islamists - although there is no doubt a strong islamist strand among the rebels.

However I fail to see how any sort of intervention from the West will bring peace and reason to the conflict at this stage - and anything more than what happened in Libya threatens to go as well as Iraq did.

Phil said...

Speedy and Anon, there is no evidence that this is a "false flag" operation - none whatsoever. Just because something serves as a handy pretext doesn't mean it didn't happen. Besides, you don't have to get keep company with conspiracy theorists to be utterly opposed to what the US wants to do. I think the culpability for the chemical attack lies with Assad, but that doesn't change my view on the proposed war being unjust one jot.

Phil said...

Beneath the usual unnecessary verbiage, I think I agree with you Gary. Must be novelty to oppose a war for once, eh?

Phil said...

MD, it is a mess. But the Islamists are the strongest and the best-financed. Having them take over Syria would be the sociological equivalent of letting a nuclear bomb off. But it is true that while there is a civil war within a civil war going on between rival Islamists, the hand of Assad looks stronger. I don't think they are on the verge of victory like Speedy says, but the pendulum is swinging the Ba'athist's way.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the old conspiracy card is played. i.e. anything that implicates the noble West is conspiracy! There is plenty to suggest this was an attack dreamt up by imperialists, likely the chemical substances were developed in Western labs, as part of the incredible military expenditure. The fact the US spends more on its military than the next 16 nations put together shows the kind of morality that lies at the base of their society. Just another murderous empire.
It is utter conspiracy to suggest Assad would do this, utter, total and complete conspiracy.

This has "false flag" written all over it.

The chemical weapons users will soon be in charge of newly 'liberated' Syria. The devil will have his way.

Gary Elsby said...

Nothing unusual at all Phil.
The Intervention into Iraq was a no brainier.
UN weapons inspectors did not have 'unfettered access' when the regime were given a final ultimatum to do so.

This is a different matter and no proof of chemical use is on the table.
A serious politician,such as me, cannot give a considered opinion on guilt. Assumed guilt is as bad as assumed innocence and that is why proof must be delivered, if only to isolate the apologists among us.

We isolated Iraq apologists quite well and made them look amateurish.

NATO has the authority to deliver a message on behalf of the West due Syrian violations against it and Turkey in particular.

Speedy said...

"hopelessly liberal" as opposed to...?

I don't get a kick out of playing soldiers. Neither do i have much time for placing "higher causes" above human tragedy, which was the (literally) fatal flaw of communism.

As a socialist i am inclined to sympathise with the side least steeped in regressive attitudes to gender equality for example. Capitalism and its buying power may constitute the Western strain of oppression but in Imperial Islam, it was mainly about gender when they weren't beating up on the lesser beliefs.

But i digress. Phil - the UN reported some time ago they believed the rebels were using chems. As there was no logical reason for the Assad regime to do so, I just don't think they did (at least not on purpose).