by Jonathan Todd
There is much to enjoy and admire in the New Statesman centenary issue. I read of George Orwell taking a bullet through the throat, as he fought in the Spanish civil war. And that John Gray thinks: “For the foreseeable future, no one will rule will world”. The transition from the G7 to the G20 reflected the passing of power to the global south and talk of the G2 denotes the centrality of China and the US but maybe G-zero is more apt in a world without predominant power.
Is the sorrow of Syria a harbinger of a G-zero world that no one, whether reluctantly or otherwise, is willing or able to police? Roosevelt, unlike Hitler and Stalin, was as disinclined to involve his country in the Spanish civil war as Obama has been to date in Syria. Yet Orwell walked towards the bullets. Where are the Orwells of today? If the war in Syria is a war for rights and democracy, why isn’t the International Brigade on the frontline?
The truth is that Syria is sucking in Jihadists who don’t believe in rights and democracy, not liberals prepared to stand up for these values, which is one of various reasons why Syria is not a simple war for rights and democracy. Little is simple in Syria.
Last week Channel 4 showed a documentary by Olly Lambert, who had spent weeks living deep inside Syrian territory – with both government and opposition supporters. Both sides think that the other would exterminate them if they did not fight and that they are opposing the sectarianism of the other. Western liberals, thousands of miles from the frontline, might see their kin in those who have risen up against Assad.
But how confident can the Alawites and other Syrian minorities be that these opposition forces, largely Sunni and increasingly under the influence of Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda, will not extract a bloody revenge as soon as they are able? Why wouldn’t these minorities lay down their arms for a future Syria that respected their rights and gave them the vote if this is what the opposition offer?
If the UK were to arm the opposition then we would be risking these arms being used for the persecution of these minorities. Equally, weaponry from Iran and Russia is being used by the Syrian government to persecute their opposition. While such persecution is utterly repellent, it would be to succumb to Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of superior virtue of the oppressed not to be concerned about the sectarian and extremist motives of the opposition.
It can reasonably be argued that this sectarianism and extremism has been encouraged by the disengagement of western liberals, whether in the form of latter day Orwells or military intervention by their governments. Nonetheless, the durability of the Assad regime suggests both that any such intervention would be unlikely to move swiftly to a conclusion and that peace in a post-Assad Syria would be hard won.
The costs of winning the war and the peace in Syria seem such that no one in our G-zero world can meet them. What would be even less affordable, however, would be “something like an Afghanistan – this time in the Levant”, which is what a recent FT editorial claimed is risked “unless the US and the Europeans openly support those fighting for freedom”. As undesirable as something like Afghanistan would be, it is an oversimplification to contend that it is only for freedom, as the FT would understand it, that the Syrian opposition are fighting.
There are many in Syria who remain loyal to Assad who have more support for FT-style freedom than some of those who have risen up against Assad. Beyond this paradox lurks ancient sectarian divisions, which the great game of the region exacerbates. The best future for Syria would explode this paradox, reach across these divides and be rooted in this shared support for freedom.
Whether such a future can be achieved and how are tremendous imponderables. It is, ultimately, more a political than military challenge: the reconciliation of seemingly conflicting interests. But, of course, military might presently frustrates political progress. If the west somehow intervenes to shift this military calculus, we should also be prepared for the long haul of arriving at a lasting Syrian political settlement, which respects the rights of all.
This would be a task of immense fortitude and patience. All of which, perhaps, our governments exhausted themselves of in the sands of Iraq and Helmand. Just as somewhere between the Spanish civil war and now, people like me stopped joining the International Brigade and started running sponsored half-marathons.
Nothing about Syria is easy. But all of us, from Obama down, have a duty to confront its anguished complexity and to do what we can to reduce its suffering.