Syria – thoughts on intervention

– I seem to be blogging more about politics than I used to. This even though I have a (non political) film out that I want to promote… sigh

If I had any reason to believe that UK, French and US intervention in the Syrian civil war would cause the Civil War to end, atrocities to stop, or any of the obvious desirable outcomes to happen, I would fully support such intervention. However, for whole host of reasons, I have no way of believing that military intervention would be a positive step.

I’m going to give a few of these reasons here, but by no means is this a complete list.

The first reason is the obvious one, Iraq. On the day that the US and the UK announced they were going to consider seriously some kind of intervention, buried at the bottom the front page was very familiar news indeed. This news was that 50 people, I repeat 50 people, were killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad. This is the Baghdad that we liberated from the brutal dictator in the 2003 military intervention. Although our leaders have congratulated themselves that Baghdad today, in 2013, is a better Baghdad than it was five or six years ago, the fact is, it’s much worse Baghdad than it was 12 or 13 years ago. This does not in any way exonerate or excuse the regime of Saddam Hussein. But there is surely a difference between an unpleasant regime and a chaotic ongoing situation where people buying their groceries in a market can be blown up by an armed militia with an agenda that is not only completely unrealizable, but appears to be completely inhuman the same time. We all know that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was, whatever the rights and wrongs of its justifications as an actual fact, as it actually happened, was a total and utter failure. We failed for a great number of reasons. Aside from the countless journalistic reports of this failure which are available, books have been written in recent years. One particularly stands out, which is “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone” – a 2006 book by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.

I don’t support the idea of intervention in Syria, not because I support Assad – or, more properly speaking the faction led (at least in name) by Assad and the Assad family. But the reasons the Assad dynasty are even there are very complex and unfortunately, like a whole host of horrors such as Gen. Pinochet in Chile, and even Saddam Hussein himself, were maneuvered into their roles by those great saviors Britain, France and or United States. There are countless examples around the world of regimes friendly to our Western powers, yet extremely unfriendly to their own citizens, who are tolerated, supported and for the most part what they do is ignored. Heaven forbid however, if those regimes turn against our Western powers or for whatever reason lose their support. Make no mistake, the support has nothing whatsoever to do with the way the regimes treat their citizens. Let me say this again: Western support for regimes around the world has nothing whatsoever to do with the way those regimes treat their own citizens.

I got particularly worried about this proposed intervention. When I saw the so-called socialist leader of France, François Hollande, making a rousing speech in support of intervention. Fresh from his success in Mali, intervening in what was actually a local conflict and not a Civil War, Holland was obviously feeling very confident. It goes without saying that, whatever your position on this intervention, the situation in Mali was completely different to what is going on in Syria. In any case, the point is that France has a terrible history in Syria, and this history is the key to the current structure of the country, and its current system of governance. It begins with one of those lovely European “agreements” – in this case the Sykes–Picot Agreement – to which those who are subject to the agreement have no part. Of course, the population of the territory now knows Syria did not enjoy the so-called French mandate very much and they objected. It’s never mentioned in the news today the violence with which the French imperialist put down these revolts and the way in which they manipulated the different and quite diverse groups within this former territory of the Ottoman Empire, in order to create a situation that would be convenient for the French, though not at all convenient for the Syrians.

To me it is an obscenity see the president of France even imagining a French military return to the Syrian territory. It was only in 1936 that something resembling an independent Syrian state actually came about, to the reluctance of France. That this independent state was problematic puts it, alongside so many other countries constructed by, and damaged by, European imperialism. The idea that having failed to bring about your ideals in this territory once, even if it was over 80 years ago, you think you have what it takes to have another crack at it, is questionable. I’m not saying that France today is the same country, country was in the 1920s, with the same mentality. However, in historical time 80 odd years isn’t really very long.

The the third reason for me is whether something is dreadful as using chemical weapons could even be stopped within this type of context. Sadly, I really don’t think that it can. I wish that it could be. If it could be. I be the first person cheering on Obama, etc. But let’s be honest, do we really think it would work? In any case, it’s really not clear what exactly is going on in Syria right now. We have to be very very careful of the trust that we put in video evidence, and in reportage. It’s not that it’s necessarily lying is just the full picture is not necessarily clear. Until the picture is clear, any foreign military intervention cannot happen – and Iraq surely taught us this, if nothing else. I’m reminded of the Kosovo intervention the late 90s. At the time this appeared to be a very clear-cut case of aggression led by Serbian leader Milosevic against a beleaguered ethnic group. Blair and Clinton’s intervention was seen to be justified, and was popular. However, the bombing of Belgrade had significant civilian targets. Subsequently, both Kosovo and Serb leaders were indicted for horrific human rights violations, war crimes, and so forth. A number of these are still unresolved. Deeper research and study shows that the Albanian claim to Kosovo was quite problematic, and the Serbian position was not really considered by politicians at the time. It is quite probable that having failed to achieve a decent intervention in Bosnia, NATO wanted to finally punish Serbia. Unfortunately, it is very likely that Kosovo will be judged by history as an unjustifiable intervention.

Lastly, we do need to address the mindset that says that the traditional imperial powers, Britain and France, together with their ally in the United States have the capabilities of doing a meaningful intervention. By that, I mean an intervention that doesn’t just make an impressive military show, but can actually put into place the building blocks of a permanent or at least long-term settlement in the area. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that this could happen. An impressive military show, yes, definitely. But life is not a videogame. It’s not about explosions and tactical successes. It’s very human lives.

The news from Syria is  terrible. It’s very clear that there are not “two sides” in this complex conflict. That aren’t good guys and bad guys. There are people suffering. If we can do anything at all, we can provide aid and we can use whatever power we do have to push as hard as possible for a diplomatic settlement. We could for example make much more of an effort to have good relations with the territories around Syria. “Soft” power – as diplomacy is sometimes called – is not powerful just because has threat of violence behind it. Soft power is power because it potentially has the power of persuasion, reason and rationality behind it