Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Beating the Bully Boy Assad

In the macho world of global politics appeasement is the dirtiest of all words.  Failure to stand-up to the bully, whether in the play-ground or at the United Nations is, for most Westerners, a cardinal sin.  The moral maze is simple to navigate when the bully turns his attention to neighbouring states, we should be free to step in to protect the interest and sovereignty of a defending nation – so with Kuwait in the first Gulf War – but when the violence is contained within the Bully’s own borders the maze becomes exponentially more complex.  Accordingly, politicians who turn their military might on their own people are amongst the most reviled of men, but calibrating the correct response is problematic in the extreme.

So to Syria!  There is no doubt that Assad is a particularly unpleasant bully, who’s only interested in being the captain of the ship not the safety of its passengers.  He has systematically oppressed and brutalised his own people and the death toll over the last three years has been mind boggling, his violence has been, within a sectarian framework, both brutal and indiscriminate.  This brutality has culminated in the indiscriminate gassing (still to be proven) of many hundreds of people with a deadly nerve agent.  
The aftermath of the 'Gas Attack'
This is a step too far for the politicians who lead the West, our own David Cameron (flushed with his success in Libya) and Obama (ashamed of his efforts in Libya) have both come to the same conclusion – something must be done.  It’s is now clear that armed intervention is the most likely outcome of their deliberations and one can hardly blame them for coming to this dreadful conclusion, my only hope is that in weighing their options they have covered all the ground. 

The complexity in determining the right course of action requires us to weighed a number of factors simultaneously.  Firstly and most obviously, we do have some moral duty to support the people of Syria many of whom now wish that the original peaceful civilian demonstrations, which were part of the Arab Spring, had never happened.  We must be sure that any decision we make has the Syrian people’s best interests at heart.  Materially, we have a duty to minimise death and misery.  It’s not clear to me that adding more firepower to an already over-militarised situation would be in their best interests – either in the long or short term.
Secondly, we must have clarity on our interest in Syria and its future.  Without a clear set of objectives for intervention we would be setting ourselves up to fail.  These ‘interests’ must be real and not imagined.  In Libya it was simple to see what our interests should be; they were aligned to the oil under the Sahara Desert.  It’s not so easy to understand where our interest lie in a Syrian regime change.
Thirdly, we need to be sure that there is some legal framework for our decision both internationally and domestically.  We must be absolutely sure that our decision is ratified by the UN and our own House of Commons – unlike the second Gulf War.  Finally, we must be certain that we are not taking action simply because we can – playing God is a very dangerous game and will almost always end up badly.
If any rational person were to look at these four issues there would be no doubt that the case for military intervention in Syria is weak at best and immoral at worst.  Clearly, we cannot sit idly by, something must be done; but the question is what and by whom?  Politics (and this is what this is) is all about power and influence and in a situation where Assad has absolutely nothing to lose we need to recognise who can pull the strings, and the unfortunate answer to this is Iran and Russia.  These are the only two sovereign states that can influence what Assad might do and we should be trying to look at intervention from their point of view and then try to manage outcomes accordingly.  At first sight the outlook is not promising, Russia under Putin is, now Berlusconi is gone, the laughing stock of the G8 and the recent Snowdon debacle hasn’t made matters any better.  In Iran we have the long running problems of nuclear proliferation and state sponsorship of Hezbollah, both of which are running sores in the US and UK. But looking beyond the obvious problems with Russia and Iran they both need help from the West and the key to saving lives in Syrian must be through them rather than direct intervention.  
Basic teacher training tells us that the way to deal with a bully is to isolate him by enlisting his friends to the just and right cause and to get them to bring influence on the offender.  This all might seem elementary but I am deeply skeptical that the voices in Cameron ear are suggesting such a course of action.

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