Some lessons from recent history
Back in 2003 I was one of about a million people who marched in London against the then looming war in Iraq. My reasons for doing so were straight-forward: Hans Blix and the UN weapons’ inspectors were still undertaking their inspections and as yet had not uncovered the significant stockpiles that Blair claimed in Parliament could be deployed in 45 minutes. Secondly, it was not clear that the US and UK had done much in the way of post-war planning. Basically it was as if Blair had this going through his head.
Blair’s premise for going to war was purely on weapons of mass destruction. At least Condolezza Rice, then US National Security Adviser (and later Secretary of State) stated long before the conflict that US foreign policy was ‘regime change’ in Iraq. Blair repeatedly reasserted under cross-examination in the Commons that UK’s primary policy was about neutralising the WMDs, not getting rid of the regime.
More distant history
This is not to say the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein was a nice regime. It wasn’t. The long historical context in all of this is the toxic mix of Cold War realpolitik with the shockwave sent around the Middle East following the fall of another Western-backed dictatorship, the Shah of Iran in 1979. The almost decade-long Iran-Iraq war (see here) that dominated the 1980s (in the same way that the Afghanistan conflict did too), meant that the West’s two key adversaries – the Soviet Union (remember that?) and Iran were kept more than occupied by proxy wars. But at what human cost? As we now know, the cost of Western meddling in that part of the world in the post-WWII years led to the state of affairs we currently see today. Only recently have declassified documents revealed more of the role the CIA had in Iran in 1953 (see here). It’s also worth recalling what was lost too. Simple internet searches reveal glimpses of what societies in Iran (see here) and Afghanistan (see here) were like before death and destruction rained down. Yes, those photographs tend to show the more affluent – you don’t see the poor rural areas in those photographs.
What does history tell us on how to resolve Syria?
This is one of the reasons why history is ever so important. It gives a perspective from a ‘beyond strategic level’ to a scale that goes beyond the political lifetimes of today’s actors. (You could argue that many of them today are male and are actors rather than politicians!)
But my point being is that both Russia and China are not going to forget what happened in 2003 in a hurry – even though both Bush and Blair are now but a distant memory. Except when Blair advocates military action (see here) that he’d rather not pay the full financial price for – see his ‘complex’ tax arrangements here. Given the state of public finances, the UK has to have a very good reason to undertake foreign military adventures. Given Blair’s history along with the above…exactly.
Isn’t a chemical weapons attack a good enough reason?
First of all, all weapons that involve something blowing up are ‘chemical’. What makes what happened in Syria is the use of weapons that inflict a particularly grizzly, painful and torturous death on their victims. Such weapons don’t discriminate. It’s like the term ‘friendly fire’ – which former US General Norman Schwarzkopf said he didn’t like because when a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, it’s friendly to no one.
So, yes, the use of such weapons is a good enough reason for intervention in principle, but the much much harder questions are around what form that intervention should take. Seeking to bring Saddam Hussein to account for being a cruel and evil dictator responsible for the human rights abuses of millions was a good enough reason for intervention – but that wasn’t the reason the UK went to war with Iraq, despite Blair trying to rewrite history saying that it was. If the UK were to have gone to war with Iraq specifically on human rights issues, the list of countries the UK would have then been challenged to go after on the same grounds would have been huge. North Korea anyone?
What form should intervention take?
That is the big problem. The international community is split down the middle. Russia has military interests in Syria in the same way the US and the UK have in other countries. Russia has a naval base in Syria in the same way the UK has a long-standing military outpost in Cyprus. Russia too has been a long-standing ally of both the current and former dictators of Syria – the latter being an important customer of arms sales. (Just as Iran was to the UK and the USA prior to the 1979 revolution).
This basically means that the UN Security Council is split – thus the talk of military action without a specific UN resolution. Is history about to repeat itself?
On the other hand, if it is subsequently proved that weapons of mass destruction were used by the regime against civilians, then arguably some sort of intervention is justified – dare I say it even required under a UN flag. If the United Nations cannot respond robustly to the use of WMDs against a civilian population, what is the point of the UN?
Why is the UK being so ‘hawkish’ about Syria?
I’ve never quite understood why the UK took such a firm line on Syria. Historically, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Syria became a French mandate under the old League of Nations. (The UN’s predecessor). Hence the French foreign policy interests in both Syria and Lebanon have remained strong over the decades. Much of the rest of the Middle Eastern peninsular became a UK mandate, with pro-Western puppet monarchs put in place until independence.
Despite Iraq, in recent years the UK and France have seen much more eye-to-eye on Non-EU foreign policy issues. Especially those that involve the military. The lack of aircraft carriers and aircraft to fly off them is a significant problem for the UK, meaning that there is a much greater level of military interdependence than perhaps in years gone by. Hence the UK’s involvement in Mali – a former French colony not so long ago.
The other important regional powers regarding Syria here are Turkey and Iran. Turkey is the former colonial power with a long land border with Syria, and has been taking on refugees fleeing the conflict – as has Iraq and Jordan. The size of the influx is massive. See here for the scale. As far as the countries that border Syria, the current situation is not sustainable. Something needs to be done. Iran, like Russia has also been a long standing ally of Syria. Whatever happens, neither of those two countries will want to lose the influence they have in Syria. Finally, on the doorstep of Syria’s capital on the other side of the Golan Heights is Israel. One of the first things Saddam Hussein did in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was to target Israel with scud missiles in an effort to split the US-Saudi coalition. Should there be a similar coalition to intervene in Syria – with or without a UN mandate, I imagine Israel and the USA will be on their guard to prevent a repeat of the same thing.
How will this situation be resolved?
I genuinely do not know.
Various commentators in the media are speculating a wave of cruise missile and drone strikes, followed by manned airstrikes and action by special forces. But then what?
What we don’t have any detail of is what the post-airstrikes plan is. Will air strikes be enough to subdue the regime’s military forces? Do the opposition forces make a credible alternative government? How will such military forces go about apprehending those responsible for possible war crimes trials? What will the processes be for both helping refugees return home, and for any post-war reconstruction? Because the damage that has been done to towns and cities across the country has been catastrophic as it is. And that is without Western air strikes.
“So…do you back military interventions or not?”
Well, it isn’t a simple yes/no question. The problem when such questions are posed is that politicians especially then go on to use that as a blank cheque to do whatever they want. Military intervention should always be a last resort. This means that a whole series of conditions need to be met before such intervention is even considered. I’m not going into a detailed list, but conditions might include:
- Have all diplomatic options been exhausted?
- Are aid-workers on the ground being significantly inhibited in their ability to carry out their work?
- Is there evidence of war crimes that under the UN charter would sanction the use of military force?
- Is there a robust and flexible post-war plan to minimise the inevitable post-war chaos that inevitably happens following the fall of a dictatorship
Another take on the conditions is here.
I agree with the extreme caution a number of MPs have tweeted – hence the recall of Parliament. It is up to MPs now to secure the undertakings from ministers that their predecessors failed to do in 2002 with Tony Blair. Accordingly, Parliament has been recalled for 29 August for this very purpose.
[Updated to add].
As things stand prior to the debate on 29 August, it feels that there are far too many unknowns to justify military action – not least the post-air campaign and exit strategy issues. The other point a number of people have pointed out is that The West should have nothing to do with what’s going on – either leaving it to resolve itself and/or that it should be countries directly dealing with the fallout (eg hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees) that should be intervening. Hence human rights issues aside, it’s difficult to see what the UK interests are to the citizen on the street.