Thursday, November 14, 2013

Doing nothing

There are two unlikely political coalitions in foreign affairs. The first is between neo-conservatives and the anti-totalitarian left. Though differing widely on social issues and political economy, they found a commonality in their opposition to tyrannical governments and support for popular demands for democracy. In addition, they saw the rise of far-right, ultra-violent theocracy as a major danger.

The second was also a marriage of convenience. Traditional conservatives wanted stability at any cost. Change, particularly revolutionary change, was an anathema. Foreign entanglements were none of our business. Isolationist tendencies and cautious diplomacy towards limited ends were their hallmark. They found allies on the left too. From anti-militarists to anti-imperialists, their policy mainstay was to avoid war at any cost. Jihadi movements were seen to be either a temporary aberration, a product of western actions, or, horrifyingly, an anti-imperialist ally. And with Syria, it is this coalition that is in the political ascendency.

The first group has been pushed to the margins. This is because the change they advocated through intervention has not proved straightforward, a lack of patience that ignores the gains and highlights the difficulties, and a failure to think about the consequences of non-intervention. Stability sometimes has a terrible price tag for the people it is inflicted on. The interventionist coalition's relegation has led to an abandonment of commitments, a scaling down of involvement and an acceptance of the rule of barbarism abroad, whilst abstaining from any 'quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing'. Yes, we have been here before.

This combination of stability at any cost and the avoidance of war at any cost has produced paralysis in the face of the Syrian tragedy. Ironically, it has also led people who are quick to preach revolution at home to run a mile when confronted with a real one abroad. And Syria is a real revolution. Excuses are trotted out and very strange alliances forged. Amongst all the arguments and speculation we rarely see consideration of the consequences of inaction. What on earth would Iraq be like with Saddam still in power? What horrors would the Taliban still be visiting on the Afghan people? Would this be stability? Would it be peace? In Syria, we now know.

The left/conservative coalition have wriggled out of every commitment and let the Assad regime, armed by Russia and supplied with fighters by Hezbollah, inflict grotesque violence on the Syrian people for the crime of demanding change in an oppressive police state. And at the point when protest turned to uprising, there was a choice. Support the revolution or let it run its course unaided. With UN action blocked by counter-revolutionary states, the west chose the latter with Obama leading from behind once more.

Revolutions are messy affairs. Whatever their early ideals, they can result in unseemly power struggles and the settling of old scores. There can be unintended consequences and they can unleash further repression instead of liberation. To back them is a gamble. But when there is a popular rebellion against such an unambiguously evil regime, how can you refrain from some sort of solidarity when the consequences of standing by were being made perfectly clear by the regime's tanks, planes, torturers and death squads? Yet there was one more twist to the plot. Jihadists have filled the space opened up by non-intervention. Apologists for the Assad regime and the anti-intervention coalition could not believe their luck. They had their reason now, a 'there are no good sides' argument. Incredibly, it takes an essay on a pacifist organisation's web site, The Fellowship of Reconciliation, to point out that this is not true. The good side are the Syrian people and their autonomous self-organisation. They deserve solidarity as they persist in the face of murder.

In the meantime, the FSA, the closest to a secular, democratic opposition force, are begging for support as they face a war on two fronts against a murderous state supported by Hezbollah and mainly foreign militias allied to Al Qaeda. So far, none has been forthcoming. The fear of an islamist victory in Syria is the reason given to deny support to the only non-islamist force.

And the legacy that the abstention of the democratic world is leaving behind is suspicion, hatred and a deep sense of betrayal. The loudest voices calling for intervention are Syrian. But as they are met with mumbled sophistries, Syria slowly dies. And the consequences of inaction are made clear in these two pieces. First, Terry Glavin follows up his four part reportage from the refugee camps in Jordan by concluding that:
From the Mediterranean Sea at Latakia to Anbar province in the Iraqi desert, the vast swath of the Middle East where Syria used to be is now just a patchwork of jihadist mini-emirates, regime-held enclaves, warlord fiefdoms and small pockets of democratic resistance under the control of the Free Syrian Army. This is the “worst-case scenario” we’ve been hearing about for the past two years... 
Syria is gone.
Sara Assaf is more chilling
Today I can't help thinking that if the whole world let us down and if the only way left to stand against Assad is empowering those jihadists, well then yes, what other choice do we really have? Today I understand why many across the Arab world share this same sentiment. Today I grasp why Sunni terrorism is prospering so quickly to fight Shiite terrorism. The atrocious images stemming daily from Syria are simply fueling a sense of injustice stronger sometimes than any voice of reason. The West has in parallel failed to effectively support the moderate forces across this region. Extremism and radicalism are thus gaining momentum over tolerance and moderation. The "guy next door" who suddenly disappears – only for his parents to know days later that he's fighting inside Syria – is becoming more and more of a common story here. The Sunni mainstreamer who used to cheer moderate leader Saad Hariri and who now follows a jihadist sheikh is also a pattern we see more of in Lebanon.  
To the West I say: Expect a whole new breed of terrorists in the decades to come. Because of your inaction, and somewhat complicity, terrorism is blossoming inside Syria and the whole region. And it won't remain "inside" for long.
Seen in this light, the caution of Western foreign policy appears reckless in the extreme.


Bob-B said...

A very good piece.

Shuggy said...

"Sometimes we are not the prisoners of history, but of the stories we tell about it. We take highly specific situations and try and understand them through historical analogies, many of which are neither appropriate or even good history."

"I dislike the use of historical analogies as a substitute for proper analysis. But if you are going to use them, please pick the right one."

"I don't like historical analogies. Events are never analogous and by using an analogy to explain them you can get things badly wrong. Most analogies are rhetorical tools, often used to create guilt by association - nazis, apartheid, etc., etc - without doing anything for our understanding of reality. Except..."

Except when you do it, obviously...

"'quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing'. Yes, we have been here before."

Translation: disagree with me and you are at best Neville Chamberlain. What was that you were saying about creating guilt by association? Please...

The Plump said...


Though the point about a generic coalition of well-meaning, anti-war sentiment and the conservative rejection of foreign entanglement combining into a form of wishful thinking is as true of appeasement as it is of today. And it is the pattern of thought rather than the specific historical circumstances I was referring to. (He said, trying to back out of a corner)

The Plump said...

Which is not to say that there are no other objections to intervention from other perspectives.

The Plump said...

And also, if you were going to complete the quote from my post you could have used what I said after the word except. I was referring to an analogy between the international response to the Syrian and Spanish civil wars in an article that I felt held because, "The specifics are different, but the pattern of behaviour is the same."

Sorry to be a slightly peevish pedant.

Shuggy said...

Ok but one of the things that concerns me about this is there's a sort of inversion of the 'anti-imperialist left' take in some of the commentary. They - the SWP faction, that is - say all the problems in the Arab word are a function of Western intervention. But the notion that the presence of Sunni-Islamist fighters in the opposition to Assad is solely attributable to the absence of Western intervention strikes me as being the flip-side of this self-regarding coin that makes it all about us.

Going with the 'intervention come what may' argument - it strikes me very much like the position taken by Hugh Dalton et al regarding an invasion of Europe. When? Yesterday, they said. Well-meaning but not terribly realistic. What would today's pro-intervention commentariat made of Churchill's and FDR's tardiness? Comparing someone to Dalton is entirely preferable to being compared to Chamberlain - although I hope you agree that it is only in a school-boy history that the latter is understood as a cipher for indolent evil incarnate?