In the summer of last year, a great evil was perpetrated. After atrocities were committed, and credible evidence of chemical weapon use arose from the increasingly murky Syrian civil war, Britain teetered on the brink: between isolationism and action – intervention and international bystanderism. To call the resultant hysteria a ‘debate’ would denigrate the term. To suggest that the demagogic actions of petty arch-nationalists like Nigel Farage (described eloquently in Progress magazine by James Bloodworth) were anything other than cynical political manoeuvres would be tremendous naiveté. Cheap points were scored and cheap sentiment was exploited. All the while, the world watched.
Parliament, brought back from recess to decide the issue, voted against the government’s proposals. The direct result of Parliament’s short-termist and un-internationalist action was the decision of President Obama to give on up his own attempts to get Congress to sanction action. After that, no one was left to take up the mantle of humanitarian action. The West appeared to simply shrug its shoulders at Syrian suffering. And the great horror – now one in which the West was morally complicit – continued.
Syria lies broken, bloodied, but not quite dead. Faint flickers of national life before the civil war remain, but these are fast being snuffed out; victims of territorial conflict, over which existing democracy and the soothing voice of international arbitration can exert no influence.
What are we left with? Starvation used as a weapon, vastly increased militarisation of the population, and a nightmare scenario in which the only participants are swiftly becoming the autocrats and the Islamists.
To those who didn’t want intervention, I have one question: is this what you thought would happen when you thought or acted in the way you did? One would have had to have thought in a conspicuously different direction to many opponents to military action to answer yes. To say that the current situation in Syria is far from the desired result would be dark understatement. And to think: opponents of western intervention were presented as the proponents of peace. It is the stuff of grotesque irony.
Two words: ‘Red Line’. To my mind this has been President Obama’s greatest foreign policy failure. But not just that; it also represented a collective capitulation, worldwide, to dictatorship and tyranny. Our inability to follow through on the threat of intervention – even after use of the most disgusting weaponry known to man, condemned by international treaties, international statesmen and all manner of agreements – demonstrates the truly provincial nature of all Western, and especially Britain’s, foreign policy.
To clarify: I am not suggesting that intervention would have solved all of the problems in Syria. Not by a long shot. But it is foolish and dogmatic to maintain, as the terrors of war continue to descend on the people of that benighted nation, that the forcible adoption of a policy of non-intervention – as obscure and parochial and internationally small-minded as it is – was undoubtedly the right thing to do.
Instead, it seems to me, the correct reaction from non-interventionists to these developments should not be disinterest or mere acknowledgement. The only worthy response is contrition.
The myopia of the House of Commons in rejecting intervention was utterly staggering, and yet, with casualty numbers continuing their ever-upward climb, Members of Parliament seem to be preoccupied on other things. Syrian refugees, fleeing their country in the millions, are treated as goods for import – carefully weighted up and valued. It seems Parliament is unwilling to look the victims of its timidity in the face.
A Telegraph leader this week strongly advocated for the moral duty to ‘get in harm’s way’, and when the case was made that Britain ‘should stand up for smaller nations bullied by larger ones’, the subtext was clear. After all, another direct consequence of the moral weakness which overtook NATO in the summer of 2013 was the Sudetenland on the Black Sea drama now wracking Ukraine.
The geopolitical ramifications of non-intervention are clear enough: Putin, seeing the ease with which his minion could escape international reckoning for his crimes, has developed his own thinking. After all, America and its allies are this unwilling to punish mass murder in the Middle East, who’s going to mind a bit of neighbourly annexation? Hence the terrifying spectre of unacknowledged occupation, and an illegal referendum on a flimsy pretext, in Crimea: Putin and his strategists saw Western unwillingness to act, and pounced.
Aside from the existence of another exotic location for news cameras to congregate, the situation in Syria remains. It is less reported on, that is true, than more exciting and newer international crises, but that does not detract from its vital importance in political terms – and also in those of moral credibility. Western nations look weak in the face of domestic (and I mean the word pejoratively) opposition. Ethical foreign policy was sidestepped for the partisan conflict of the home front, and that does not reflect positively on anyone.
The catastrophe befalling the Middle East continues, and ought to worry everyone who reads these words, but this, while important, does not mask the sad truth: that the current state of affairs in Syria need not have occurred if Assad would have been opposed in August.
We should have intervened in Syria. It seems that the only people who can disagree – after seeing the results of not doing so – are either fools, the cold-hearted or those hungrily seeking election.
James Snell is Contributing Editor for The Libertarian