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Syria: the path to hell

TOPSHOTS-SYRIA-CONFLICTThe path to hell is paved with good intentions. And to take most people at face value who favour military intervention in Syria, they appear to sincerely favour “doing something” – anything – for the best of reasons. The chemical attack on a rebel-held suburb of Damascus is utterly reprehensible, no doubt about that. After repeated massacres of civilians by all sidesand the infamous flesh-eating episode that went viral, this signals a new, barbarous low. Not even the Nazis used biological or chemical weapons on the battlefield – that was something reserved solely for helpless inmates in the death camps. But put in historical and geographic context, Assad’s regime, if it does turn out to be responsible for the atrocity, is in the august company of the late and very much unlamented Saddam Hussein. More surprisingly, it’s a stable shared with Israel and NATO too, who, in Gaza and Afghanistan respectively, have used white phosphorous. But as it just sits on the legal side of international law, that chemical weapon “doesn’t count”.

I’m not a pacifist. I am a socialist. There are just and unjust wars, and even the most morally right of wars are, at best, brutal and regrettable necessities. An Anglo-French-American attack on Syria would definitely be brutal and regrettable, but necessary? No.

In James Bloodsworth’s argument on Left Foot Forward, suggesting a cruise missile putsch would hand all or large swathes of the country to Islamists is essentially a “conservative position with a leftwing twist”. After all, that’s the argument put about by the Syrian government and the Kremlin. And the portrayal of dictatorships as bastions against the rising tide of Islamist extremism suits the interests of certain Middle Eastern gentlemen. However, James’s is a position that does not survive first contact with the balance of forces on the ground. The choice immediately facing is not Assad or a liberal democracy, it is Assad or a country fractured into warring Islamist fiefdoms.

Of course, there is a third choice. While regime change isn’t on the table, we saw mission creep in Libya. It hard to see how the situation in Syria, where the conflict is more complex, messy, and intractable, won’t suck the Western powers in once the sorties are launched and the targets attacked. This third option sees the replacement of Assad by some nice, liberal-sounding chap who promises new elections. But the price for this liberty would be less eternal vigilance and more perpetual counter insurgency. Think Iraq at its worst. Think Afghanistan, its endless conflict, and the indifferent, unthinking consequences of Obama’s drone war. This is what a “humanitarian” military adventure will mean. This is the language of good intentions in bombs and bullets.

Sunny says we shouldn’t talk about full intervention of the sort described above, because no one of consequence is arguing for it. Okay then, what does limited intervention mean? If, as Sunny’s piece admits, Assad has a huge military advantage over his Islamist enemies (I’m not convinced, it seems stalemated to me) and that airstrikes or what have you will have little effect, then what is the point? What appears to be on the cards and what Sunny is prepared to back is the geopolitical equivalent of a punishment beating. The thinking goes dictators in the future won’t unleash their stores of chemical weaponry because they fear of retaliatory strikes. It sounds naive if you ask me. The fates of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and the sticky ends other dictatorships have met have hardly acted as warnings from history to those who would follow them. Put plainly, despite being well meant, this is bombing for bombing’s sake.

There are good reasons. And there are real reasons. Britain, France and the USA are, how shall we say, “inconsistent” when it comes to applying humanitarian principles to their statecraft. So why now? As appalling as last week’s chemical attacks were, Syria has been a charnel house for going on two years. It has only been eclipsed once, and that was for a single day during Egypt’s day of terror a fortnight ago. Since then the grisly daily toll continues to climb. No, what guides the Western powers – as always – are their projected geopolitical interests for the region.

For the Middle East, the US is only interested in regional stability under its hegemony. Britain and France are happy to go along with this as long as crumbs continue to fall into their oil companies’ coffers. Ba’athist Syria under the Assads has long been “unhelpful”. The derailed Syrian revolution and now the civil war presents the State Department an opportunity to remove a geopolitical obstacle once and for all and with it, possibly, Hezbollah in Lebanon too. The second objective is containing Russia. The Cold War is done, but international rivalry remains. The “Saudi Arabia with trees”, as Russia was once summarily dismissed as, is using the vast funds from oil and mineral exploration to assert itself in its near-abroad. If Assad can be knocked out, it’s one less ally Putin can call upon in a region where they’re very thin on the ground. A foreign policy reversal for Russia now may mean a Russia less likely to play diplomatic hardball in future crises, whether in the Middle East or elsewhere. The question the international relations wonks are now wrestling with is whether the price of mission creep and permanent war is one worth paying to achieve two immediate geopolitical objectives.

This is no justification for us to wage war on Syria. In the mouths of Hague and Kerry, B52 humanitarianism is but a pretext. The well-meaning people who want “intervention” are different. Principled, different, and wrong. History does tell us things so we don’t have to rinse and repeat every single time.

We meant them well, but we gave them hell. That, I’m afraid, is the outcome any attack will most likely bring.


  1. P Spence says:

    NATO has form. This is about regime change. Syria is seen as a post Soviet relic and this is the moment the USA has planned and waited for, to knock down another obstacle to control of the ME by western imperialism, and therby subordinate potential opponents: Russia and China.

  2. James Martin says:

    Yes, NATO has form. You only have to look at one of the non-negotiatable conditions that formed the surrender treaty for Serbia – the break up of the planned economy – to see some of what lies beneath the looming attack on one of the only planned economies left in this region. That and the fact that the Syrian government has long supported the socialist leaning Popular Front faction within the PLO and is now just about the only country with a still pro-PLO stand post ‘arab spring’ (given even the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt closed more tunnels bring food and supplies to Gaza than Mubarak did).

  3. Gary Elsby says:

    NATO does have form and it also has the right reasons for a military response, regardless of the UN.

    Syria downed a Turkish fighter plane and the rules say, ‘all for one and one for all’.

    That is a legitimate and perfectly legal opportunity to by-pass any UN vetoes.

    The moral case is 100 years of world commitment to use no chemical weapons.

  4. P SPENCE says:

    How did we get here? The rebels with western backing refused to negotiate with the Syrian government and turned to violence, and civil and proxy war. The government- which by the way has a broad base of support in Syria- resisted in the face of a clear existential threat.

    CWs and our all too easily whipped up moral outrage are the pretext for a long planned destruction of a sovereign state. As with Libya, anxious progressives and leftist who support intervention prove to be useful idiots for imperial design, betraying an ignorance of what is really going here.

  5. James Martin says:

    “The moral case is 100 years of world commitment to use no chemical weapons.”

    Gary, perhaps you should be actively lobbying for a retaliation strike against the USA then. They used something even worse, nuclear weapons against civilian targets. Twice.

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