Home Features Syria: Police? Superpower? Bulldog? The UK must redefine its international role

Syria: Police? Superpower? Bulldog? The UK must redefine its international role

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Image credits: FreedomHouse
Image credits: FreedomHouse

Despite the atrocities witnessed in Syria, Sophie Trotman debates the UK’s role on the international stage and its involvement in Syria.

The newsreader warns you that ‘you may find the following images disturbing’ but you look anyway. Rows of bodies, splattered with blood, grieving mothers clutching at the air and a final shot of a dead child, cradled like a broken puppet in the arms of an inconsolable parent. You’ve seen it before, on the news, in the paper, but each time the same potent cocktail of outrage, disgust and hideous pity is overwhelming.

This is the Syrian Crisis. A bloody civil war located in the heart of the Levant, between President Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’Ath government and several other forces (including the Free Syrian Army) seeking to oust the regime.

It’s important to stress that this conflict is not new; the Syrian Uprising has its roots in the wider Arab Spring and has been ongoing for over two and a half years. And like most other of the Arab Spring uprisings, media coverage began to wane as the public lost interest.

Yet this week, Syria has been at the forefront of the news once again, with two of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, the UK and US issuing increasingly bellicose rhetoric regarding the issue.

So what has changed to precipitate this international response?

On August 21, at least 355 people were reported to have died in a suspected chemical attack in the Ghouta area, close to the Syrian capital, Damascus. This alleged use of chemical weapons, purportedly by the Assad government, appears to have weighted national stances regarding the crisis and provoked threatening rhetoric from key statesmen such as Foreign Secretary William Hague who on Wednesday said, “…we can’t allow the idea… that chemical weapons can be used with impunity”.

Whilst many are in no doubt as to the perpetrators of this blow against human rights (with US Vice-President Joe Biden describing al-Assad’s usage of chemical weapons as “undeniable”) the lack of definitive proof has been pointed out by the Russians. Yet despite this lack of absolute certainty, the incontrovertible evidence that thousands of Syrians continue to suffer agonizing deaths remains sufficient impetus for talks of military action.

So it may come as a surprise that I am arguing against intervention.

The crux of the argument for no intervention is built around the three issues; the misplaced paternalism of the West and our own democratic considerations and most importantly, the hypocrisy and weakness of the most likely form of attack, a missile strike.

According to Hague, diplomatic pressure on Syria has failed. The UN death toll estimate of 100,000 dead condones his words. Diplomacy has indeed failed in solving the conflict of the civil war. Yet it seems naive to expect UN mediated peace talks to have any effect; against the bloody realities of civil unrest and repression, the words of the international community must serve as little more than superfluous soundbites.

Furthermore how is a civil war ‘solved’? Our hopeful cultural relativism suggests democracy – the pinnacle of liberal achievement born from the Western Enlightenment. But the US’s and the UK’s blithe paternalism has already misfired; the portentous example of Iraq demonstrates how cack-handedly our ‘gift’ of democracy has been fostered upon a Middle Eastern nation, precariously cemented by millions of pounds and the blood of thousands. So what then? The stabilizing of the oppressive Assad regime? Or the supporting of a divided and dangerous secular rebel army? Both solutions are unpalatable and neither would not ease the suffering of the Syrian people.

The nature of a civil war is that it is internal. We must not foist our Western values upon a divided nation that is at war with itself. Post Cold War the US’s

role as ‘policemen of the world’ is inappropriate and outdated – proved by the mistakes of Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Afghanistan.

This paternalism and expectation for the US and UK to take action (especially following their threatening rhetoric) has been manifested in the most likely form of intervention; a missile strike, a comparatively low cost, low risk form of action.  Done remotely, a missile strike would essentially let the US and UK off the hook; they would have ‘done something’, limiting the damage to their reputation on the world stage following the excessive bellicose rhetoric issued by both nations.

Essentially the US and the UK have verbally committed themselves to some kind of action, and despite Cameron’s humiliating defeat in Parliament, President Obama and France’s Hollande still appear to be willing to use a strike.

It is imperative that this form of action is avoided. Firstly, if chemical weapons storage were targeted, it may not be that they are wholly eliminated or even made safe, and instead could release some chemicals; an ironically macabre gesture. According to Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, “If you drop a conventional munition on a storage facility containing unknown chemical agents… some [of those agents] will be spread… a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease”. Nor would the strike be Obama’s intended “shot across the bows”. The consequences of the strike would be very limited and a feeble demonstration of tepid Western intervention, if you like ‘US JUSTICE LITE’. It’s already apparent that the deaths of the Syrian people do not perturb Assad, and it would be the ‘liberators’ of the West who are instead adding more Syrians to the 100,000+ death toll.

And to the civil war? It will not make any difference to the outcome.

This results in a more worrying conclusion.  Despite the US’s position as policeman of the world waning, it remains influential and is still turned to in a crisis. To send a missile strike thinly preserves this illusion of US-meted justice. Therefore a missile strike would be the height of immorality, an ineffectual move done not simply for the sake of ‘doing something’ but more worryingly, to save face on the international stage.

The legality of action is another factor against intervention. The UN’s own divisions would weaken any possible action, and have wider negative repercussions for international relations. Russia and China, also permanent members of the UN Security Council, have stressed the importance of UN procedure and remain opposed to intervention, with Russia stating that any military action without a mandate from the Security Council as a “grave violation of international law”. To intervene in Syria would further inflame our antagonistic relationship, a secondary concern, yet senseless in an air strike primarily engineered to maintain the US and UK’s political standing in the world.

Furthermore the UN inspectors, present in the country until Saturday morning, are not there to allocate blame. The results of their report must be heeded; the Ba’Ath government has not yet been found unequivocally guilty of using chemical weapons.

Image credits: FreedomHouse
Image credits: FreedomHouse

At home, the lingering spectre of Iraq has left the British people wary of armed intervention, especially in the political and religious hotbed that is the Middle East. Reports in the media reflect this; according to a survey by YouGov for the Sun, the public was against air missile strikes by a ratio of 2:1. This has been compounded by the recent vote in Parliament, if anything a success for UK democracy, as conceded by the PM, “It’s clear to me that the British parliament and the British people do not wish to see military action… I will act accordingly.”

The images, reports and video footage of the many many victims of the Syrian Crisis have provoked an intense moral outrage. It is understandable, even commendable for key figures in US, UK and French politics to attempt to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. To do something. To help. But this is an emotional response, and the outrages committed cannot and do not legitimize a military response, no matter how well intentioned. Our ‘good intentions’ in Iraq, in Afghanistan, have continued to haunt Britain, as demonstrated by the defeated Commons Bill on Thursday. The US and to a lesser extent the UK’s role as policeman of the world is paternalistic, outdated and [at the time of writing – without the approval of the UN] illegal. To preserve a facade of US judicial dominance via a punitive missile strike is a shockingly weak move that serves only to maintain the crumbling reputation of the US as a liberating power, Bush’s “beacon of democracy”. The Syrian people cannot be used as a human collateral, a human capital with which the West uses to bargain with the al-Assad regime.

In the face of this complicated and morally repulsive civil war, the US, UK and France must accept that intervention is, at best a quack’s panacea to a problem we cannot solve, and at worst, a display of Western ‘justice’ which will only compound the critical humanitarian crisis taking place in Syria.

Sophie Trotman

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