Am I the only person who isn’t quite sure what should be done about Syria?
If the true humanitarian measure of our impact is the least number of civilian deaths over time, then it seems to me that it is impossible to judge whether targeted missile and air strikes will make things better or worse.
Of course no-one cares what I think – but I hope in some way I am
representative of the sensible majority, such as it may exist. So if I
am confused about what to do, then I imagine many others are as well. Be
they lawmakers or voters.
I believe that I am a decisive and opinionated person. Very much so. Give me a tricky business situation and with a little exploration I can usually drive to a point of view on what needs to be done. Even if it isn’t a business that I am overly familiar with.
In politics or economics it is usually the same. I knew in my head and heart that invading Afghanistan was right, and invading Iraq was wrong. I know what I think about most economic and social issues, much as I may appreciate that others have genuinely-held but different points of view.
Above all I favor action over dithering. Dithering is not to be confused with doing nothing. Actively deciding to wait and see is often the right thing to do in life.
I don’t know about you – but the situation with Syria has me in a real muddle.
In some ways I envy those who are obviously and passionately clear about our course of action. There are those who say we must immediately and decisively wipe the regime off the map (the ultra-hawks). Those that say the rebels are worse than Assad and don’t believe that the recent and horrific chemical weapons attack in Damascus was carried out by the Assad regime. Finally there is a group who say “it is none of our business, and anyway, we don’t have the money or the political capital to be involved, so let’s ignore it and let it play out as it will.”
The world keeps throwing up these dilemmas – those that are as much about human rights and international justice as they are about geopolitics. Bosnia. Rwanda. Libya. Syria. Even our own little tribal battles in Northern Ireland were worthy of international attention and American help was vital to resolution in the end. However, whilst each one has similarities and can be learned from, they are all absolutely unique.
I think the problem that I, and a lot of others, have with the Syrian issue is that Iraq has poisoned the well. Both in terms of the trigger for action and the appetite for engagement.
With Iraq we had the “evidence of WMD”, the “intelligence briefings to the UN” (poor Colin Powell), the “clear case for action”. What evidence I have seen that Assad gassed 1500 Syrians seems compelling. But there is the niggle in the back of your mind – what if they are lying to us again? Opponents of intervention are able to play on that.
I do think the circumstances are different – shady evidence of possible existence of WMDs in Iraq, backed by dubious intelligence sources are very different from the clear use of WMDs against civilians. The likelihood that rebels, or others, staged the event is low. In this case, I am firmly able to believe that Assad’s regime did this.
The problem doesn’t end there. Even if Assad did do this, there is a tougher question. What do we do about it?
If he is mad enough and bad enough to have committed this atrocity on top of all the others, how mad and bad will he get if we strike at his regime and infrastructure? It will take a huge and sustained amount of aerial bombardment before you could see Assad and his people being deposed. In the meantime, the atrocities will mount and more innocent people will suffer.
A strike will make us feel better and our leaders can talk about how Assad has been punished – but the action will lack legitimacy under international law (no UN mandate). Even if it was the “right thing to do”, democratic bodies such as the UK parliament have said they don’t wish to be involved. Even if it was the right thing to do, we don’t know what the consequences will be of unilateral action.
Ask those who say we must act now with limited strikes: “What next? What if the strikes lead to an escalation in atrocities? What if the attack prompts the regime to release more chemical munitions and claim US bombs mad it happen? Again, tell me what happens next?”
If the true humanitarian measure of our impact is the least number of civilian deaths over time, then it seems to me that it is impossible to judge whether targeted missile and air strikes will make things better or worse. Indeed, the “rapid regime change” option that was exercised in Iraq might actually be the correct solution. But it is a political non-starter. Thanks to our misadventures in Iraq, the people and lawmakers in the West are never going to exercise that option.
And that leaves us at “active neglect” or “hand-wringing” or “standing back and doing nothing”. It means we are admitting that we are powerless to make a positive difference. That we think that letting matters take their course is the one that will minimize casualties. For the poor suffering people of Syria, living there by accident of birth, that is little comfort. For their sake, we all need to reach clarity as soon as we can.