Watching events unfold in Syria in the last few days from the safety of my nice cosy Birmingham home I am reminded that sometimes political questions aren’t as simple as one would like them to be.
Domestically, I know where I stand. The Tories are wankers. But if I was in Syria right now I would be wishing those wankers would do something to help me.
Estimates vary at the scale of violence in Homs over the weekend with both sides probably misrepresenting the figures for their own ends but we could certainly be talking up into the hundreds of dead. The Syrian government seems willing to do anything and kill any number of people to stay in power. As has been pointed out elsewhere, their only apparent objective is to cling on. Something they have thus far managed, although it seems unlikely that the situation can just carry on as it is indefinitely. The tide is turning against the regime, albeit painfully slowly.
The Chinese and Russians have just vetoed a fairly weak resolution at the UN calling for a ‘political transition’. They have acted purely from reasons of self-interest. Russia supplied Bashar-Al-Assad’s regime with their large arsenal of weapons and they, along with the Iranians, are petrified of a pro-Western regime emerging in its place.
All this poses a serious dilemna for those of us of a vaguely leftwing persuasion. Barbaric violence is being perpetrated against the Syrian people. Unquestionably. The opposition Syrian National Council, and their militia, the Syrian Free Army, currently clearly lack the firepower to overthrow an awful, utterly corrupt, vicious and totalitarian mafia-style regime. Does the West stand idly by and let it just happen? Do we accept the casualties and do nothing? But can the West be trusted to act in the interests of the Syrian people? And if a ‘coalition of the willing’ does intervene, could we support it?
With all due respect to both sides of the debate, it isn’t quite that straightforward a question to answer.
I can’t imagine the Americans or the British intervening for altruistic reasons. Whatever may come out of the Libyan conflict, it was an intervention that hardly seemed motivated by a desire to save the Libyans from a bloodbath. The large and lucrative oil contracts that are in the gift of a Libyan government would obviously have motivated Cameron and Sarkozy. There remain concerns over the human rights record of the current Libyan regime and the scale of the deaths involved in Western bombing. In that sense, the Seumas Milnes and John Pilgers of the world are absolutely right.
And lest we forget, it wasn’t so long ago that Tony Blair was chumming up to Gaddafi.
The recent failure to support the democratic opposition in Bahrain was also telling. Successive American regimes hardly have a great track record of supporting genuine democratic movements, do they? I’ve just finished re-reading Christopher Hitchens Trial of Henry Kissinger, which graphically details the cynicism of American foreign policy over the years and the contempt of successive American governments have had for the will of the people in other countries to determine their own leaders. Essential reading for anyone naïve enough to think that the West’s objectives are essentially benign.
Rumours are circulating that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are beginning to funnel resources to the opposition. If that’s the case then the main opposition grouping probably isn’t a great friend of democracy in any case.
But, and it is a massive but, in practical terms a truly horrible regime was overthrown and replaced with something that appears, right now, as a lot less heinous than what preceded it. Gaddafi promised to slaughter his opponents and without the NATO bombing history would suggest he would have been quite willing to follow that threat through.
What happens if the West does intervene, or start openly or discreetly supplying the opposition with arms? If the effect of going in is to prevent the continuation of the killing and giving the Syrian people the means to overthrow their oppressors could we in any conscience call for it to stop? And if the West fails to intervene, won’t they be blamed by the left for sitting on their hands while a slaughter is perpetrated? Many Syrians, like many Libyans last year, are desperate for the Western Powers to come to their aid. Is the left really willing to advocate ignoring those pleas for assistance?
It would take a braver, harder-hearted man than I to tell the Syrian people that their lives are forfeit in the global struggle against Western ‘imperialism’.