A progressive case for intervention in Syria

by Sam Fowles

Few enough things unite the left of British politics. Indeed, much of our internal debate makes the Gallagher brothers look positively fraternal. But you can’t get a cigarette paper between us on Syria: Keep out. In this we’re joined by the Lib Dems, Tory backbenchers and, of course, Boris. A motley coalition to be sure, but certainly a wide ranging one.

It’s with some trepidation then, that I’m going to say: they’re all wrong (and David Cameron is right – I’m currently bracing myself for the inevitable implications on the British summer as hell freezes over).

The left should back intervention in Syria, even if this only means arming the opposition, for both practical and moral reasons. Practically, it’s the best way to limit the influence of al-Qaeda and bring the sides to the negotiating table. Morally, the West, and more particularly the left, needs to decide what we stand for and, and then protect those who are oppressed for standing up for the same thing.

The practical case against intervention is founded on “what ifs”; “What if it escalates?” “What if al-Qaeda get hold of the weapons?” Good policy makers must always consider the repercussions. But they must also take into account the situation as it stands. The fact is that the conflict has already escalated, al-Qaeda are already gaining a foothold and this is because of our failure to intervene, not in spite of it.

The death toll in Syria is estimated at 93 000. It’s no longer a matter of keeping the lid on the powder keg, it’s about what we do now that lid has been quite dramatically blown off. Introducing more powerful weapons into the conflict initially may have caused escalation but that’s already happened. Russia and Iran have already given Assad’s forces powerful weapons and the conflict has escalated accordingly, mostly at the expense of innocent civilians or opposition fighters.

While al-Qaeda’s Syrian ally, al-Nusra, is gaining strength, this is because they are the best equipped of the opposition factions. They can complete the mission and protect their civilians in a way the other factions cannot. al-Nusra’s backers are prepared to put skin in the game while the moderates’ allies seem loath to commit. While we continue to stand on the sidelines, the hearts and minds of the Syrian opposition are already turning to those less reticent.

Finally, while everyone agrees that a negotiated solution is best, you don’t go to the negotiating table half way through a war you think you can win outright. With a recent string of victories and reinforcements pouring in from Hezbollah and Iran, Assad has every reason to believe the tide has turned in his favour. Thus he has little motivation to negotiate and still less to make concessions.

But all that is secondary. We have a moral duty to intervene: not because we have agreed to or are bound to but because we can.

First we need to get over the idea that non intervention is a neutral act. This isn’t 1900: splendid isolation is no longer a legitimate foreign policy. The UK intervenes in one way or another across the world. All the time. We sign trade deals, we give different levels of aid and we sell guns. British companies tear up villages in search of raw materials and British “crowd control” weapons were used to crush opposition in Bahrain. When we will work with anyone to further our economic aims but become squeamish about our allies when it comes to the defence of our core values. Or when the world knows that we could intervene but choose not to, our absence of action becomes an ethical and political act in itself.

This should be the particular concern of the left because social democracy is, at its core, based on the belief that we have an innate obligation to help our fellow man. In the 21st century, it’s no longer enough to limit this duty to our domestic community. If we believe in an international community, those with the means to do so must be the first to act like it is. Every time we demur it becomes harder to act in the future. Every time the rule of law or human rights are violated it gives succour to those who would also violate them, because they know they may do so with impunity; Ignoring repression may beget a genocide, tolerating the subversion of an election may beget a civil war.

While imposing our values may undermine those values themselves, defending them is a moral obligation. Syria is not Afganistan. The Syrian people have risen up of their own accord to demand democracy and all that it entails. That they have, thus far, been stymied is not because  those values are alien to their culture. It is because their despotic government’s international allies have given their pet regime the means of repression and, despite an almost worldwide consensus, prevented those states who share the values of the Syrian opposition from giving them the help they have begged for.

Russia and Iran have thrown down a gauntlet in Syria. They have decreed that international conservatism will prevail, not because it is right, but because they say so.  Those who would say otherwise have failed to act. We must, in turn, in turn ask ourselves; For what do we stand? Because, if we are to truly embody the values at the heart of our society, we must be prepared to defend those who stand for those same values beyond our borders.

Sam Fowles is a researcher in International Law and Politics at Queen Mary, University of London


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20 Responses to “A progressive case for intervention in Syria”

  1. bob says:

    Sam: when it’s your children who may have to go into that place and try to separate the factions and try to bring peace, then I may but only may agree with you. I am heartily sick and tired of the ‘we must do something’ faction on all sides. This is not our problem, look what happened after the debacles in Libya and Egypt mostly anarchy and instability. Do you not realise yet that sometimes a country needs a ‘strongman’ with a foot on the throat of the population to allow the population to live in peace together. Look what happened when Yugoslavia broke up and slaughter took place both on racial and religious lines, the same has happened in Iraq.

    The rhetoric states that chemical weapons have been deployed, hmmm just like WMDs inn Iraq giving Causeus Belli for intervention. How would anyone enter Syria overland from jordan or Turkey, I don’t think their governments would allow that. The Russians who need a Mediterranean warm water port, the Iranians who need to keep their supply routes to Lebanon and China, for access to the oil and gas off the coast and also trade. Israel will just sit behind their borders and tell everyone to stay clear or suffer the consequences.

    Again, until it’s your children, that you want sent into a potentially contaminated area in particular with nerve agents, try living in a NBC suit for a couple of days in the winter, imagine what its like in a desert summer. Don’t ask other families to send theirs, if you are not willing to send your own children or even siblings, we have had enough of foreign adventurism after the years of Blair and Brown.

    Many advocates of intervention will do so from the sidelines but will not get their hands ‘dirty’.

  2. swatantra says:

    If its a Peoples War, then the People have right on their side, and the People will prevail, without any help from us. If the People then at some future date turn on us outsiders for any reason, then we have the right to hit back and take them apart.

  3. Terry Casey says:

    I disagree strongly in intervention of any kind, we saw it in Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, and through the UN in the Balkans, what happened? we made the situation worse or as in the Balkans to little effect.
    We have lost hundreds of soldiers and none of those countries are safe for their inhabitants, the countries themselves have lost more people than were killed under their dictators.
    We need to keep our nose out and allow those countries to set their own agendas, OK if we feel bad about the way they are run boycott them completely, that sadly won’t happen because capitalism seems to be behind all our interventions with companies scrambling to do deals with new despots, even down to vice President Cheney’s companies pushing for contracts in rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure that he was instrumental in destroying, you couldn’t make it up,

  4. Paul Mitchell says:

    Superb and long overdue. I never cease to be surprised by the take on this by some on the left. Surely we should be supporting democrats who are fighting for similar values as our own. Yes that will involve some differentiation between the various opposition groups but that should not be insurmountable. Surely arguing that this is too expensive, not our problem or too complicated is a right wing response comparable to the arguments made in the 30s. Most of the rights gained or defended by the left in this country have needed to be fought for, sometimes literally.

  5. Bob says:

    Paul Mitchell: When you and your family are first in the front line, I may follow, not until then. Please read mine and others previous comments.

  6. John reid says:

    Intervention doesn’t just mean either troops or sending weapons, ,we can go as advisors, and what ever we do,we can’t just stand back watch and let it escalate

  7. bob says:

    John Reid: is that the same comment made when the Paras went to Afghanistan ‘I hope that not a shot is fired’. They used something like 30 years of ammunition peacetime allocation during their tour of duty.

    Staying out is the only option, you do not get between two fighting lions. Are your children going to advise them, thought not, but it’s good enough for other peoples children. I suggest sending Will Straw, Euan Blair and Owen Jones as lead elements.

  8. Alasdair says:

    This article draws a false dichotomy between military intervention on the one hand, and doing nothing on the other. I agree that we should ‘do something’ about the conflict in Syria, but I’m sceptical that sending weapons to the rebels is the best way of intervening, or likely to make the situation better rather than worse. What about putting renewed pressure into an international effort to reach a peaceful solution, and bring all sides to the negotiating table? OK, that probably wouldn’t succeed, but at least if it fails no one else will die as a result.

  9. steve says:

    Well said Sam. This is what I like about Labouruncut, one can visit this site and find the voice of common sense speaking loud and clear.

    Let’s build on previous success, it worked well in Iraq and Libya and we shouldn’t let the faint hearts prevent further success in Syria.

    The first step must be to target Assad’s air fields – this is the quickest way neutralise Assad’s air force, after this has been done we should pour in heavy weaponry – not so much as to achieve a balance of forces on the ground but in such quantity as ensure overwhelming superiority – let’s say sufficient to produce an effect of shock and awe.

    No need to worry that a rebel commander has reported that 70% of population of Aleppo support Assad – if they want to become part of the problem then they’ll have to deal with the consequences. And let’s not worry that the majority of Christians and secularists support Assad, not out of conviction but because they are doubtful if they will be allowed to survive a jihadist onslaught.

    And let’s not worry that aides to Brigadier Salim Idris, chief of staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army admit to only being able to issue orders to 10% of the insurgent brigades – if that 10% are well armed they can turn their guns on the other 90% once Assad is out the way. Defeat of Assad’s forces must quickly follow – though this may require further intervention as the uncontrolled 90% (which includes Al Qaeda affiliates) may inherit much of Assad’s armoury, including chemical weapons.

    Most disappointing of all has been opposition by those arguing from a so called ‘humantarian’ position. Only last week the BBC gave air time to a lady from a major charity – she argued that supplying arms will only produce more dead children, refugees, instability and disaster. My guess is that she spends too much time in Church.

    Let us prepare for victory, and, if ever afflicted by a moment of doubt, always remember – their is only one way to achieve peace: war.

  10. John Reid says:

    I s Owen jones. A soldier, advisor!

  11. bob says:

    John Reid: No just a member of the left wing ‘we must do something’ clique. If your child was leaving Brize Norton or Marchwood, would you be so happy, or worse repatriated to Brize being returned to the John Radcliffe Hospital and a Coroners deliberations.

    Steve: I am sure your being very sarcastic, if so i like it but if you are serious, please pick your rifle and kit from the stores prior to deployment.

    Alasdair says: Far to many vested interests and religious factions to sit around a peace table.

    Paul Mitchell says: As with Steve your rifle and kit are waiting for you in the stores.

    We have to stay out of this, in all forms except around a table, no arms no intell support nothing. If its a humanitarian problem leave it to the Red Cross, Red Crescent or people like MSF wh we can fund as NGOs.

  12. David Talbot says:

    My Gid Steve, you’ve outdone yourself this time – an apologist for Assad no less!

  13. Leslie48 says:

    Agreed Sam, there are those of us in Labour who believe in the values of brotherhood, democracy and humanity. Approaching 100,000 killed ( including 6000 children) and the UN having reported major crimes against humanity and we have people sitting on their hands. If these were European families or Israeli families the world would have acted already.

    It is not beyond the air superiority of the US, Europe & other UN members to solve this problem as we did in Libya. We did not lose our people in Libya. The civilized world remains civilized when it helps, supports and rescues the vulnerable and in this case civilians fighting for human and democratic rights against a dictator using jets and armies; moreover this is close to so many hot spots we cannot allow this nightmare to go on and on.

  14. John Reid says:

    I hardly think Jones is part of a left wing interventionist clique , his brand of far left seems the opposite, if he has said something good luck to him, regarding if you had a brother comment, if they’re soldiers ,they’re doing their job,

  15. McCurry says:

    Bob,
    Can you engage in a discussion without being obsessed about people’s children. No one is suggesting a repeat of Iraq. It’s just a question of whether we arm the rebels.

  16. The idea seems to be that there are two games in town: 1=intervene to assist the wascally webels or 2=do nowt because of Iraq and Afghanistan. But both are Variations on a Theme of Leave it so that Utter Bastards on either side can impose their own favoured Reign of Terror on the people of Syria.

    This situation has been caused by the Assad (nearly well-named) regime, there are those who genuinely want peace and freedom for all, but between said Assad and some of the opposition they don’t appear to have ANY prospect soon of getting this.

    It’s not just Russia, though KGB boss Putin plays true to his barely-hidden Russia-first reputation (regardless of ideology). The Saudis are in there, the Iranians, the French, ourselves, the US … and we see daily the descent stage-by-stage into total collapse of civilised behaviour. This is a proxy war as well as a civil uprising, it has no prospect very soon of ending. And the repercussions of victory for either side appear pretty appalling.

    It does surely represent a threat to peace, it has all the marks of spreading and of drawing in other states even head-on. Normally, that should be the signal for Chapter 7 action by the UN Security Council. We have never lived in normal times since the UN was founded …. That unanimity of purpose in the UN Charter was, and is, supposed to be the ultimate basis for keeping the peace, and it overrides national sovereignty even within borders.

    Syria is not the first time we have seen craven disregard for international obligations in such situations but there is one device that could be used if (and I say if) we wanted to see an international intervention to try to bring about cessation of violence and order restored so that negotiations might have some chance, or even a referendum organised by the UN.

    The device we owe to the Americans as far back as Korea and they got a UN General Assembly majority to back the idea that the framers of the Charter never envisaged the lack of action by the Security Council (where 5 nations each hold a veto which all have used whenever it suited them) as meaning the UN was absolved of its duty to act to keep the peace. The Uniting for Peace Resolution was used not only in Korea but in other UN interventions. The Soviets always denounced it as illegal but they have been in the minority and the veto doesn’t work in the GA, so there.

    Use of this needs 2/3rds of the membership of the General Assembly to invoke it at a Special Meeting. The advantage is that the comprising UN Force should not include any party with a vested interest, so goodbye Russia, UK, France, USA, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Saudis and Gulf states but OK India, Sweden, Japan, Canada, South Africa and quite a lot of others.

    Daunting prospect? Yes. Full of pitfalls? Yes. Could go wrong? Yes. But we should be careful of excusing ourselves from clear moral and humane obligations and international law just because other interventions have failed. That suggests a convenient world-weary shrug of shoulders from the safety of the armchair and condemns fellow human beings to a long litany of slaughter, deprivation, suffering and oppression.

    Socialism is about the Rule of Law. Lawlessness is being committed on all sides and by all parties at every level. Doing nothing is also not acceptable anymore than the Russian support for ‘stable’ Assad or Saudi and others for some elements of the opposition.

    What I suggest is not likely I suppose to happen – because the membership of the UN has long allowed it to become useless in keeping the peace. As my eldest son says “It’s a cluster-F**k” But it is an alternative, and even threat of its being invoked might just bring parties to the table, as their super-power backers draw back from opposing so many member states.

    Any other shows in town one wonders? The longer it’s left the harder and worse it all becomes. As ever the kids suffer the worst, and there we have the compelling imperative to act.

  17. steve says:

    David Talbot: “Steve … an apologist for Assad no less!”

    Well, David, the smear is unworthy of you – I hope your not picking up bad habits and surely, perhaps following a period of quiet reflection (now that is a good habit!) you could manage a much better response.

    Certainly I’m going to be very disappointed if you turn out to be one of those utopians (they’re found on both the Left and Right) who think violence can somehow improve the human condition.

    But anyway, here’s a link that may be of interest – and let’s hope you don’t also call Col. (now Professor) Bacevich an “apologist for Assad” for sharing the same position as myself:

    http://www.bu.edu/today/2013/why-the-united-states-should-stay-out-of-syria/

  18. bob says:

    McCurry says: No we don’t arm the rebels, let them sort it out themselves. We should not in any circumstances interfere, if the rebels win, they will eventually hate us, if Assad wins he will hate us. It’s a no-win situation.

  19. Mike Homfray says:

    No. We can’t afford it and its nothing to do with us. Full stop

  20. maggieatlas says:

    compare benefits to people of privatised govt valuable assets before and after then push for effective govt able to deliver services push for maintaining INCOME GENERATING ASSETS. Resist transfering the wealth of govt citizens representative to the corporations. Corps enjoy the profits and citizens just keep paying is the service improved I doubt but the prices keep improving depend it you are enjoying profits or the source of the profits

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