Syria is the biggest blot on an awful year

2016 is not over yet. And one of my bugbears is people reviewing the year before it is finished. Sometimes life delivers a finale in the last week. Who can forget the Boxing Day tsunami? Older readers may remember the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the last days of 1978 – an event which changed everything. But surely there is nothing that can possibly happen in the last few days of 2016 that can redeem it – though things could happen to make it even worse. If Jesus Christ was to make his second coming, and call out Nigel Farage and Donald Trump for the evil that they have perpetrated, nobody would believe it was the real Christ, and nothing would change.

Brexit is, of course, the event that most colours my view of 2016, as it is has the most direct impact on me. It has plunged my country into years of bad-tempered, divisive politics and an administrative quagmire for no obviously good purpose, and given has licence to the intolerant to deliver their bile in the name of free speech and democracy. And the election of Donald Trump as US President does similar things – a campaign built almost entirely on untruth and false promise.

But rumbling behind this is Syria. This is not a new story, but one that took an evil turn in 2016. And unlike Brexit or Trump, it has been killing and maiming many thousands of people, and displacing millions. Its effects ripple through to Europe and the rest of the world. The fall of Aleppo to the Assad regime shows the collapse of liberal intervention, led by President Barack Obama, and the triumph of the evil methods of Bashar Assad, supported by Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Iran’s hardliners. It seems that there is nothing we can do to stop the spread of evil without crossing the red lines that liberals have drawn – about the ethical use of force, and intervention on purely humanitarian grounds. We must kill innocent people and ruthlessly pursue national interests in order to achieve anything, it seems.

2016 (so far) has been an excellent year for Vladimir Putin. Earlier in the year I drafted a post comparing him to Napoleon, and urging the rest of the world to emulate his Nemeses of the Russian Prince Kutuzov and the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg in undermining him and destroying him. (I do not rate Waterloo as the decisive event in the fall of Napoleon – had he won that battle he would have been beaten soon after). For some reason I never posted it; I would have looked foolish if I had.  Russia has not become bogged down in Syria, as I was forecasting. Mr Putin proved too clever for that. The Russian military has developed tactics for dealing with insurgencies that are economical and effective. They include the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and the targeting of schools, hospitals and anybody who seeks to aid the suffering. These are tactics that liberal democracies find unethical – but we will not intervene to stop their use. Our doctrines of non-intervention make our actions predictable, and that has been exploited by the chess-playing Russian regime. The political left, so critical of much milder tactics when used by the US, stay silent. The right try to divert people’s attention to the lesser evil of the Islamic State terrorist network, pretending that it is an existential threat, and that we should ally ourselves with Assad, the Russians and Iran to suppress it – not caring about any innocent lives destroyed by this pursuit of national interest.

The worst of Syria is that all approaches look hopeless. I have been advocating non-intervention by the West, leaving it to regional actors to sort the problem out. But that simply leaves the door open for other actors, like Russia, to intervene on the side of evil, while the interminable suffering continues. Humanitarian intervention? This is treated as a political act and prevented or attacked by the Assad regime and the Russians so that those interventions tilt the balance in their favour. And yet military intervention would have led to a quagmire that would not have made things obviously better. Our allies would quite likely have turned out to be just as nasty as everybody else. We can, with some justice, shrug and blame others for the problem -there are no shortage of culpable suspects) – but that won’t stop the suffering.

So there seems to be not much more that we can do that watch, helping refugees where we can. Russia will no doubt seek an exit – though its campaign looks to have been quite economical, it will still cause stress to that country for no obvious tangible benefit. The new Trump regime will be left with the puzzle of how it continues the campaign against IS without goving succour to Iranian hardliners, whom it loathes. Maybe some kind of political settlement will be achieved which leaves Assan in place, but allows other factions space.

But the outlook is dismal. The era of liberal intervention, which started in the 1990s with Tony Blair in the van, is well and truly over. The Middle East has proved too big a task for it. But the policy’s virulent left wing critics cannot claim victory – they have been exposed as vacuous complainers with no interest in any alternative strategy for alleviating suffering. The western liberal democracies are diminished. That may not be a bad thing of itself, but we must hope that other powers come forward, able to look beyond narrow self-interest. They must understand that creating a stable and prosperous world is in everybody’s interest, but that it cannot be delegated to just the US and its allies. That is slim hope indeed.

Syria represents the worst of an awful year.

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2 thoughts on “Syria is the biggest blot on an awful year”

  1. The era of liberal intervention, which started in the 1990s with Tony Blair in the van, is well and truly over.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t all Lib Dem MPs vote against the 2003 invasion of Iraq? Don’t they count as “liberal”?

    I believe they were right to oppose that invasion. There’s always arguments both for intervention, and non intervention in the civil wars and internal disputes of foreign countries. Countries like the USA and the UK are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

    I would argue that for any intervention to be successful requires a good understanding of the internal politics of the country involved and the setting of achievable and desirable goals. That understanding clearly wasn’t there in the Iraq 2003 invasion nor in the 2011 Libyan intervention. There was a complex mix of politics, and religious and ethnic differences driving internal conflicts, which I don’t fully understand, and I doubt if those who made the crucial decisions did either.

    It was never a case of just helping the good guys to depose the bad guys. Qaddafi and Sadam Hussein may have fitted the bill for being the bad guys but just who has replaced them? Are they any better. It’s the same story in Syria too. Whatever we think of Assad he is at least a person we can do a deal with. Sure, we could have helped depose him but what then?

    The mistake the west has made has been to force him into an alliance with the Russians by dithering about what needed to be done in Syria. I had the feeling that the hawks in government wanted to bomb someone in Syria last year but they couldn’t agree on which side to bomb!

    It all just goes to show that, again, there was insufficient understanding of what was happening in Syria. In those circumstances, intervening to depose a regime, even one as bad as Assad’s, can only be a reckless option.

    1. I would agree with pretty much everything you are saying Peter. The Lib Dems do not have a monopoly on liberalism, and many self-described liberals supported the Iraq invasion of 2003. Whether it was a true liberal intervention is another matter: that label can more easily be applied to Kosovo and Sierra Leone. I would not describe many of the US supporters of Iraq 2003 as liberals either – they seem to look on it as a way of advancing US interests, especially the US oil industry. Whether Iraq might have ended up like Syria, and a total mess anyway, without the invasion is at least arguable though.

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