Three years, five months, two weeks and one day ago, President Obama said that “the future of Syria must be determined by its people – but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way. His calls for dialogue and reform have rung hollow while he is imprisoning, torturing and slaughtering his own people. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” David Cameron agreed, saying it was unthinkable that Assad would play any role in Syria’s future and according to the United Nations over 190,000 people have died in Syria during that time. And yet al-Assad remains in control.
You don't know how it ends
Sitting on the sidelines is a betrayal of Britain's values
Back home, I despair at the twisted logic we’ve got ourselves into over Britain's role in the world - or more specifically in the Middle East. We’ve been paralysed by public opinion, we’re haunted by the past and we’re abdicating our responsibility to bring an end to slaughter and sustained murder in the world. Call it a ‘humanitarian disaster’ if you wish to label it as something, but the desperate situation in Syria is no ‘disaster’ – it is an outrageous scandal where we have decided to sit back and hope that others will lead; and that the world will become a better place just, well – because.
Syria is an ongoing conflict that started as an uprising. The world watched, waited; anticipating Syria’s al-Assad would be the next domino to fall in a year of dramatic change in the Middle East. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. One by one, day by day the Arab Spring dominated the headlines as people rose up against men they said did not represent them, that did not lead them. Many had said they were open to 'change' and ‘reform’ but ultimately could never, and would never deliver it. The time had come, ‘freedom’, whatever that may be – looked promising. And so people followed the example of their neighbours, they saw hope, they wanted change, they took to the streets and over 13,000 Syrians were arrested whilst thousands were killed.
Let it be said that al-Assad was not going.
“We have to make a judgement about our role in the world and duty to others. Where there is just cause, where there is reasonable action that can be taken and international consent, do we say we’re a country that stands by and does nothing?” That was Ed Miliband just seven days following the start of the Syrian ‘civil war’ - then in agreement with the then Foreign Secretary William Hague who said; “This is the world saying that the people of Libya should be allowed to express their views without their government setting out to slaughter them.”
The test of ‘reasonable action’ and ‘international consent’ that Miliband set out for his new ‘foreign policy’ was ‘passed’ and it’s quickly reduced some three years on to becoming the first on his tick-list article in the Independent today. “If we learn anything from the events of the past decade” (read, ‘Iraq’), “it is that we must proceed with clarity about our objectives and the means to achieve them.” It is here therefore where Miliband separates the situation in Libya from that in Syria. “That is what Labour has done in this Parliament, supporting military strikes in Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster, but opposing a rush to war in Syria last summer.”
Clarity he says. Objectives he wants.
But it’s this pride of so-called ‘principle’ for Miliband that I find difficult to swallow. Because let’s remind ourselves that by the time the British Parliament voted on Syria last September, some 120,000 had died in Syria during the two year assault – including those killed in numerous chemical weapons attacks. Some 600 were slaughtered in nerve gas attacks on August 21st. The so called ‘red line’ that had been set a year before when reports of military readiness of chemical weapons in Syria had come to light. And yet, time and time again agreement for even international condemnation for the actions of al-Assad’s use of force and chemical weapons was inconceivable, let alone talk of intervention. China and Russia had made it clear they never intended to move on their position and it is therefore the case that Miliband set a test of ‘international consent’ that was never going to be met.
He claims he supported ‘military strikes’ in Libya to prevent a humanitarian disaster, whilst prevented rushing to ‘war’ in Syria. I have to ask why Miliband seeks to use the language of the anti-intervention Labour populist left to defend his position of inaction on Syria. Because there are some seven million Syrian’s who find themselves without a home, with millions living in dire conditions with no water or food with the Syrian air force bombing what is left of their towns. Rival sectarian groups and minorities find themselves at risk of mass murder from the increasingly aggressive and dominant radical insurgents in the form of ISIL and Al-Nusra. We support US airstrikes in Iraq for the same reason yet, I ask, is there no ‘humanitarian disaster’ in Syria?
Miliband finally speaks of the dire situations in Jordan where refugees, from Syria, are pushing the authorities to breaking point. But he does so just a few lines from his claim that on the one hand there was a humanitarian disaster in Libya, and a ‘rush to war’ in Syria – when there simply was not. There were calls for targeted military strikes as retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, alongside long-running debate and countless agonising over whether to provide equipment for rebel forces such as the Free Syrian Army who were fighting against al-Assad. A dictator who’s time was ‘up’ two years previously. I simply struggle to find anything ‘principled’ in the idea that Miliband can find comfort for his reasoning on the differences between Libya and Syria on the basis of the United Nations – an institution proving itself as ineffective as the governments’ of the Middle East.
There are no easy options or obvious answers
For two years we were told the risks were too great. That ‘Western’ intervention in Syria and the subsequent removal of Assad would result in greater instability in the region and offer a “launch pad for jihadists” who would fill the gap left by his departure. Obama’s preferred choice for US Secretary of State, Susan Rice, was more concerned that an intervention in Syria would ‘consume the entirety’ of an Obama second term. As the world dithered, al-Assad’s forces were retaking ground originally won by rebel forces. They were bombing, as well as repeatedly using chemical weapons, against civilians as 100,000 refugees fled into Jordan. The world’s all-talk and no-trousers support for the moderate forces in Syria brought morale crushing to a low as al-Assad looked stronger than ever. A dictator who at the same time as using chemical weapons against civilians, was supporting radical jihadists, releasing them from jail, buying their oil and using them as cover to stop the United States arming rebels. These radicalised forces became ‘increasingly dominant in ungoverned territories’ – all whilst the world got distracted by a Russian deal to take chemical weapons out of Syria, which al-Assad regarded as an ‘easy trade’ for ‘saving’ Syria from US airstrikes.
Yet two years on, we find ourselves in exactly the situation we were warned intervention would create – and yet we did nothing. We stood idly by as moderate forces asked for protection and defensive technology that could have helped them hold territories that ultimately fell into the hands of ISIS under the watch of al-Assad. We told the people we apparently supported that they needed a ‘political situation’ as Iran funnelled cash, arms, trained militias and supported Hezbollah into Syria to fight against them. And now we seem surprised that the situation has spread to other countries in the region? And the apparent solution? ‘Alliances and discussion’ with regional players like, Iran who only seek to inflame sectarian differences and a conference that Miliband wants convened under ‘auspices of the United Nations’ – an organisation paralysed by its own membership.
And so, now, three years on, a strengthened Assad may well take his place as the only ‘legitimate’ force to counter ISIS in Syria – an organisation he has always had the power to defeat, but chose not to and actively collaborated in its rise.
We rejected a no-fly zone to stop Syria bombing moderate rebel forces into retreat when they accounted for the majority of the anti-Assad forces. America finally trained only a tiny number of forces in Jordan to support moderate rebels, but only after a u-turn from Susan Rice and Obama after months of inaction following the withdrawal of support from Britain for retaliation to al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. An attack which we completely failed to respond to and now wonder why the idea of a biological attack from ISIS isn’t so far-fetched.
Our threat level is now at 'severe' and we’re distracted by revoking passports to some 250 jihadists who now could present a challenge to our own security and Ed Miliband wants to “tackle the root causes of support for ISIS” let alone calling for ‘mandatory programmes of deradicalisation’ that sound horrifically terrifying enough to sound ‘tough on terrorism’ without promising ‘war’ or having to explain why he prevented action on the increasingly desperate situation in Syria that has aided ISIS’ rise.
I’m not a warmonger. I don’t believe killing people is a solution to our problems, but we have to be brutally honest that the United Nations and some words of condemnation is not going to bring about the end of mass murder and slaughter that over 3 years has killed 200,000 people.
Packing up, talking about international solutions and claiming our aid will make the difference will do nothing for the millions of people who are without a home.
We will not make the world a safer or more stable place by failing to confront vicious dictators who kill 600 people in one attack with chemical weapons and just tell them they can’t do it again with a slap on the wrist.
This is a region held together with a ticking time bomb in the middle – and yes, we did help create it. Not in 2001, not in 2003. But decades ago when we sliced through parts of a region we’d controlled; but let’s be very clear – that is no excuse for walking away or claiming we don’t have a role to play.
But if you think there is a difference between a ‘humanitarian disaster’ in Libya and a slaughter in Syria that you want to throw around as a political football, then maybe I am a hawk.
Maybe I am cynical because I think there are evil people in the world with countries that do not share our beliefs and do not want war to end and there being little logic to their reason for doing so.
Maybe I am wrong for thinking that even when all the options are bad or uncertain it doesn’t mean you don’t have to make a decision.
Maybe Putin and Xi will change their minds. Maybe they are nice guys after all.
Maybe Hillary Clinton had clear intentions when she wanted to ‘reset’ relations with Russia.
But I know for sure that I can’t sit here in the privilege of the UK and cheer on a guy who seems to use preventing a response to a chemical weapons attack as some sort of doctrine of ‘values driven foreign policy’.
I don’t think that’s the foreign policy I want for the future of Britain.
I do not subscribe to Ron Paul and his son’s doctrine in the United States.
I don’t think it resembles our values – it doesn’t speak to a generation of people who want to take charge of their own futures in the middle east but are held back by dictators who can get away with killing thousands of people as we sit back and watch. I can’t sit and share photos of children killed in Gaza and then congratulate someone on abdicating Britain’s responsibility in the world.
You can’t always be sure, but sometimes you have to try
The rapid spread of ISIS from Syria into Iraq should be a warning sign to each and every person who claims that all would be well if we had never been in Iraq, that things would be fine if we hadn’t ‘inflamed’ the situation by taking action in Libya, that intervention will only make things worse.
Well I’m sorry, the world doesn’t work like that – and that’s clearer than ever. Doing nothing has not brought calm, it has not made the situation more stable and it has not made the world a safer place – it has brought the rise of a deeply aggressive and radical organisation as well as strengthened the position of a dictator who has openly used chemical weapons.
“In the end the fundamental test will be this: as we think about the men, women and children who have been subjected to this terrible atrocity, and we think about the prospects for other citizens in Syria, can the international community act in a lawful and legitimate way that will help them, that will prevent further suffering?”
I don’t think the international community will,
So will Britain, Mr Miliband?
“I know too it has not always been easy though it has been rewarding to speak for those who otherwise do not have a voice. The religious dissident in China, the democracy advocate in Venezuela, the political prisoner in Iran. It has been hard to muster the resources to support fledgling democracies and to intervene on behalf of the most desperate. The AIDS orphans in Uganda, the refugee fleeing Zimbabwe, the young woman who has been trafficked into the sex trade in Southeast Asia. It has been hard, yet this assistance together with the compassionate work of charities, people of conscience and people of faith, has shown the soul of our country. And I know too – I know too there is wariness. I know that it feels as if we have carried these burns long enough. But we can only know that there is no choice, because one of two things will happen if we don’t lead. Either no one will lead and there will be chaos, or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values.”
Condoleezza Rice in 2012.