So we must have military action in Syria because Assad has allegedly gassed his citizens. Therefore, in accordance with universal humanitarian principles, we need to bomb some airbases. Of course, our universal principles of human rights aren’t in practice all that universal. There are some countries which appear to demand from us an overwhelming moral obligation to intervene. We must intervene in Syria because Assad is a war criminal, responsible for the deaths of thousands of his countrymen. We need to protect the Syrian people from their own government by the timely lobbying of the odd cruise missile or two. Yet curiously we feel no such obligation towards a dozen other benighted third-world nations. The Congolese civil war, which by 2008 had caused the deaths of 5.4 million people, did not trigger a morally ordained military intervention. We have not subsequently felt compelled to intervene in the residual conflicts going on in the eastern part of that country. In the early 1980s, Robert Mugabe’s regime engaged in a brutal ethnic cleansing of the Matabele minority. His deployment of the North Korean-trained fifth brigade against unarmed civilians resulted in the death of around 20,000, while the famines triggered by his expropriation of white farms left millions more facing starvation. The number of deaths caused by Mugabe vastly exceeds the estimated 16,000 deaths during the Bush wars under the much-maligned Ian Smith’s premiership. Yet we never dispatched troops to Harare. The now deposed despot Mugabe will never face trial for his crimes against both the black and the white populations of the former Rhodesia. Nor will the constant cycle of tribal warfare in the highlands of New Guinea (automatic machine guns and grenades replacing clubs and spears) ever elicit the boot print of the British or American soldier or the hum of a Tomahawk. Our greatest deviation in practical terms from human rights rhetoric comes in those countries not to which we have turned a blind eye, but where we have actively facilitated humanitarian crises. The war in Yemen has seen tens of thousands of civilian deaths as a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s blockade, while British manufactured weapons don’t somehow magically avoid Houthi women and children when guided by Saudi pilots. The fifty or so deaths attributed to an Assad regime gas attack seems a small number compared with the millions lost in conflicts in more neglected parts of the world.
But this matters little to neoconservative agitators on both sides of the Atlantic. They argue that there are certain times when we have to fight. But it just so happens that these times always involve countries in the strategic orbit of states such as Russia, and never countries with whom we have close economic ties. There is no moral requirement to act in Syria because the moral principle being invoked — that we must protect civilians from harm — doesn’t apply in most parts of the world. Even putting aside the seeming moral inconsistency of humanitarian interventionism, there are other questions which arise. Why does a chemical weapons attack mandate western intervention when the barrel bombing of cities doesn’t? When Assad levelled rebel-held areas with mortar fire rather than gassing their inhabitants was it particularly less heinous? Why do we do decide now, when the tragedy that is the civil war is finally drawing to an end, that the west must make a military presence felt? If we bomb Syrian bases, putting aside concerns over potential civilian deaths, surely we will be prolonging the conflict by weakening the military strength of what is now clearly the stronger party? The stated aim of humanitarians is the preservation of life, yet this has never been done in the third world by substantial western military intervention. It certainly won’t be accomplished by the cosmetic destruction of a few bases. And it very certainly won’t be accomplished by attempting to engage in liberal social engineering in countries which have no precedence of democratic governance. If we really wanted to save more Syrians we would withdraw all military aid to the rebels and wish a swift victory for Assad. Yet we cringe from such realpolitik as if denying some basic moral principle which must animate our foreign policy. We deride the consequentialism which says that sometimes it is best when murderous but strong dictators hold onto power for the sake of peace. The moral universalism of the liberal which finds practical expression in the airstrike, which nonchalantly dismisses any dead as ‘collateral damage’, is somehow better because it won’t grubby its hands by tolerating, let alone working with a war criminal (oddly the same concerns expressed about Bashar al Assad don’t apply to the Islamist rebels we have happily funded in Syria).
The reality is that at a basic level our foreign policy is directionless. The democracies of the west which lurch from one position to another (first proposing to bomb Assad, then ISIS and other assorted groups, then Assad again, and now Assad again) have no underlying strategic or moral consistency. The people who now so avidly agitate for war have no real long-term plans for Syria. They bully and harangue their opponents as ‘appeasers’ and ‘Russian tools’ yet they urge an intervention which, if initiated, might cause untold suffering and trigger a further exodus of asylum seekers who the beleaguered nations of Europe will inevitably be expected to accommodate. The armchair warriors don’t have a plan for what Syria will look like in five or ten years but they can entreat us to watch the cathartic destruction of several Syrian airbases to somehow show that we really care about the average Syrian. We should stay out of Syria and we should never have got involved in the first place. If the chimeric democratic aspirations of that nation’s liberal middle class had actually been fulfilled in the heydays of the Arab Spring I strongly suspect that today there would be no Christians in Damascus celebrating Easter.
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