There’s more to helping Syria than air strikes

by Lee Butcher

Parliament has spoken. Cameron’s rushed attempt to convince the nation of the need for intervention in Syria has failed. The reason and culprits will be debated for a long time to come yet. Whether intended or not a signal has been sent out to our international partners that if they want our support they are going to have to provide compelling reasons for doing so; in failing to do so Barack Obama and David Cameron have damaged their cause, for that they only have themselves to blame.

While I will not dwell on the possible reasons for the failure of that vote, the issue of chemical weapons is worth briefly addressing if for no other reason but to question the consensus that something must be done because of their use. The talk of the near century old norm to stop their use rests on rather dubious historical ground. A recent and notable example is Britain’s support for Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran between 1980 and 1988, a period which saw him deploy large scale chemical attacks against the Iranians and against civilians in Halabja.

As cynical as that policy was there is little evidence that it was followed by a sudden outburst of chemical weapons use by other powers because we failed to oppose him. On the moral grounds of action, it is worth questioning a morality which regards being killed by a bullet or a bomb (a cause of death responsible for over 100,000 people) as being better than being gassed. This is something which the supporters of this action will have to address themselves. As far as helping potential chemical victims, an alternative suggestion worth considering can be seen in this opinion piece from the New Scientist magazine.

The Labour party ought to now consider where next for engagement with the Syrian crisis and what Plan B from the government we can support. In seeking a limited response to the use of chemical weapons the government have opened up heartfelt moral concerns about the on-going suffering in Syria. Those who have voiced such concerns must realise last week’s vote, even if won, would not have addressed them. Their concerns inevitably widen our view on the crisis.

The government, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander should embrace this new found interest in Syria. Now that military options are limited we should see this as an opportunity to focus our minds on what else can be done for the Syrian people. If that occurs last week’s vote may well have a positive outcome for Syria.

To hear the government’s supporters one would think the only options were military; they will have to answer for themselves why they fail to acknowledge the role of diplomacy in foreign policy. There have been attempts to use diplomacy to solve the crisis in Syria, though some might argue such efforts have so far been half hearted. The background to the stalled talks can be read here. Only an idealist would claim that reviving talks will be easy, but that does not mean they should be abandoned. Since no sensible military plan for ending the conflict has emerged we can logically conclude that our options are either inaction or intensifying diplomatic efforts.

The difficulties to be overcome are substantial but are worth considering. The internal pressures for continuing the violence are strong; each side wants to win and does not want to share power with the other, this is true as much of the rebels as it is Assad. Pressure was taken off of the rebels by America and replaced with a plan to arm them instead; the failure of that policy might be worth viewing as the context within which the new plan to respond to chemical weapons emerged, though such a view may be worthy only of a cynic.

The policy of arming them led to the rebels refusing to attend the talks, buoyed by military aid and hopes of winning outright. Similarly, Russian and Iranian arms have given Assad little reason to talk, though he did agree to send a delegate. If we are to end the bloody stalemate these domestic factors will have to be addressed. Britain will need to call for measures that incentivise negotiation, possibly by applying a blockade on all arms reaching the country.

The problem is not just Syrian domestic politics, it is international. Just as each side in Syria do not consider peace a desirable option, their allies want a winner that will support their interests in the region. Russia has a warm water port in Tartus in Syria; having a warm water port, as any historian of Russia would tell us, has been a critical Russian objective since at least the nineteenth century. Russia is also keen to keep an ally in power in a region where they have few friends. Russia would need to be convinced that any change in regime will not jeopardise this interest.

The recently reported approach to Russia by the Saudis (reported here) demonstrates that Saudi Arabia, a key ally of the rebels, are keen for a solution to be found.  The failure of American and European diplomacy in dealing with Syria may be driving a key ally in the region towards Russia, a development which should alarm Washington and London. There is scope to work with the Saudi’s keenness for a solution while reassuring Russia of the protection of her interests. This may enable significant diplomatic steps in the right direction to be made.

Britain has close relations with Qatar, as evidenced neatly in this 2011 speech by Lord Howells which could be exploited to see them halt their aid to the rebels. Iran is seeking greater co-operation with the west over their nuclear weapons program in order to see sanctions lightened; there is a case to be made that alongside nuclear transparency we should make clear the need for Iran to stop supplying Assad and Hezbollah with arms if relations are to improve. Halting Iranian arms into Syria would have the additional benefit of calming Israeli concerns about future attacks by the militant group using these weapons, possibly winning the support of that country for any talks.

For our own part European and American diplomacy has stalled because we don’t know what we want in Syria. We don’t want Assad, that is for sure, and any prospect of him remaining in power would be considered harmful to our interests.

We may want the rebels to win, but they must be the right rebels. The activities of extremist groups in the opposition are causing significant and understandable jitters in Washington, and even a moderate Islamist regime would be met with unease by America, as we saw with their lukewarm protests over the coup against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

Britain should seek to act as an honest party in this muddle of local and international interests. The moral outrage expressed in the last week is commendable, but those voicing these concerns need to ask how much they are willing to pay to see the violence end. Military strikes are a cheap option, we expend no diplomatic capital in doing so, no concessions nor deals, but it is those on the receiving end in Syria that pay the price, all the while we do something to salve our consciences but make little positive difference on the ground.

If we are serious about doing something the Labour party needs to press the government to roll up their sleeves and start making determined efforts to get the hard diplomatic efforts underway. Aligning the diverging interests of the various actors and countries involved will be a difficult task, but it is becoming clearer than ever that it may be the only task that will stop the killing, ensuring the adults and children of Syria are safe once more. This aim, and the lack of a credible alternative, ought to be reason enough for Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander to throw their weight behind a diplomatic solution and to continue to exercise the leadership they demonstrated last week.

Lee Butcher works for a Labour MP, and he is a postgraduate history student at Birkbeck, University of London. All views presented are his own

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9 Responses to “There’s more to helping Syria than air strikes”

  1. swatantra says:

    As far as I am concerned the Saudis are two faced weasals, as are most of the Gulf States and Emirates. Its the Orthodox Islamists that are the problem; but don’t expect the Moderate Muslims to speak out because they are afraid of putting their heads over the parapet. And yet the solution will eventually lie with the Moderates when they summon the guts to speak out and challenge Islamic Fundamentalism and root out the terrorists in their midst. Britain could start the ball rolling by severing all trade with Saudis, and finding alternative energy sources, maybe invest in Nuclear as a way of marginalising Oil Producers from the ME. Britain has to start challenging Islam as it is at the moment. In order to do this, Britain has to distance itself from Israel, otherwise you can forget about playing the honest broker. The Arabs see Britain in the pockets of the zionists in Jerusalem.

  2. Ray_North says:

    I agree – but sadly, the depressing situation in Syria demonstrates the depressing state of international and domestic politics – we’ve analysed the repercussions from last weeks events in the debate about Syria in the following piece – follow the link:

  3. Ex-labour says:

    You clearly don’t want to “dwell on the reasons” for failure of the vote. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Miliband, in an attempt to appear strong, screwed not only the government, parliamentary protocol and historical norms, he has now screwed the Labour Party by backing them into a corner where they don’t want to be. Numerous Labour politicians are briefing the press on what an idiot Miliband has been and how untenable Labour’s position now is. Whatever your view is on the validity of any international action or its pitfalls, he has effectively nullified any international action.

    What has he achieved for himself and the Labour Party in general? Well, according to the polls he has come out of it worse than Cameron and painted himself and the Labour Party as weak, introverted and insular.

    It’s about time the people who run this blog had less arse licking bag carriers writing for them and had someone from Labour who was honest and open about the ineptitude and dishonesty of Milibean.

  4. Julian Ruck says:

    To Ex-Labour,

    I don’t quite see myself as an arse-licking bag carrier (for Welsh Labour anyway), as the comment threads on my ‘Letters’ clearly illustrate.

    On a more pertinent note, I believe it takes courage to exorcise the demons of appeasement from the Commons chamber not ineptitude.

    Julian Ruck

  5. Lee Butcher says:

    Thank you for your comments.

    Swantantra – while the appearance of more strident forms of Islamic thinking is something of a problem in conflict situations, as extremes of all varieties make compromise less likely and conflict more likely, I don’t share your doom laden view. These developments in some parts of Islamic countries have occurred due to understandable historic pressures; colonialism, secular tyranny, Middle Eastern integration into the world economy, to name a view factors. Because we know that to be the case we can confidently say those involved are rational actors; they have an idea of what works for them and they pursue courses of action that they hope will promote those interests. In that way they are no different from any community or any country anywhere else in the world. Their uncompromising view is problematic but not impossible to compensate for. As my article suggested, if we are concerned about humanitarianism we need to focus our diplomatic efforts on making individual interests align with humanitarian outcomes. That may involve ensuring the safety of Orthodox communities in any new schema in Syria in order lessen the likelihood that fear is governing their actions. There is in every society those determined to commit violence; that is a post-peace policing matter, not a barrier to a settlement (much in the same way that dissident IRA groups were not a blockage to peace in Northern Ireland).

    Ray – thanks for that link, but I do not think that article addresses the details of the diplomatic difficulties and opportunities we are currently facing. The key to understanding the domestic and international politics involved are interests. Everyone involved has an idea of what their interests are and they are pursuing courses of action aimed at maximising those interests. At the moment, despite the moral outrage used in British and American rhetoric, those interests are largely finding a suitable winner that will look after our interests in a new regime. Paradoxically an opportunity arises in that this is exactly what Russia and Iran are also doing. The stalemate that has occurred in Syria is the context within which the current developments should be understood. If that stalemate continues and the hope of an overall victor dims negotiations are much more likely. The tragedy is that while we wait for that situation to emerge the killing goes on. Britain ought to be pressing the Americans, for the sake of humanitarianism, to hurry up their arrival at the conclusion that having a winner is not desirable, but that a political settlement advancing some form of power sharing is better. If Russia also concludes that keeping Assad in and secure is looking unlikely they may too opt for the least worst outcome, their interests secured in a power sharing government. I share concerns that achieving this will be difficult as it is currently in no ones interest to do so, but as my article argues if Britain is serious about the humanitarian impact of the conflict, as we have said we so concerned, we should start pushing for a such a policy without delay.

    Ex-labour – I did not dwell on the issue because it was at the time being given comprehensive coverage elsewhere, and given that my article was addressing the next steps for a substantive policy the party politics of the matter was rather by the by. It is clear you have a particularly view of Ed Miliband, but I don’t think your comment impinges in any substantial way with the contents of my article.

  6. steve says:

    @Ex Labour

    Don’t worry, I’m sure a contribution from someone “honest and open about the ineptitude and dishonesty of Milibean” will be along shortly.

    In the meantime let’s hope that Cameron gets busy at the G20 this week and produces a plan for a negotiated settlement.

    That’s if Obama hasn’t already launched an attack that, according to General Jack Keane, is intended to produce regime change.

  7. Leslie48 says:

    What the writer forgets here is a ‘war crime’ is a war crime and he knows as a scholar that ‘gas’ has rarely been used in war or by states against their own civilians mainly because it is internationally illegal by UN law.

    1. Lets not be naive Lee all the intelligence from Syria be it Syrian, Arabic, Turkish, Nato, American, French and Israeli was showing Assad had ordered the gassing of his own civilians. The Excuse of ‘compelling evidence’ was a weak delaying tactic used by Labour to delay or stop the UK’s response of this war crime. We led from behind.

    3. Your reference to other methods of killing is a diversion from the war crime committed by Assad on August 21 st against 1500 civilians including 426 children.

    4. “New found interest” Rubbish … The Syrian crisis has been going on for over 2 years and there has been many atrocities but where has Labour been? Douglas Alexander has been very passive throughout this growing crisis and this Labour leadership team have tried to keep it off their Labour agenda – no appeal to internationalism or compassion from this socialist team.

    5. So you are telling Labour to get involved; that’s refreshing as they have not over two years – and alone in Europe they have voted ‘against’ actions against Assad. Somehow they think Assad will not do it again.

    6. In the end its where you stand on massacres- this one broke too many world norms and I remained deeply shocked that a party I have defended for decades has sank this low. The last week for the first time in my life I have had to question whether I can remain in a party that voted down the principle of possibly reminding Assad that killing his own people by gas is illegal and beyond the boundaries of our 21st century civilization. Simply put Labour last Thursday voted to ignore a serious slaughter and that I cannot accept of a party I belong to.

  8. Tafia says:

    For all of you that wish Britain had got involved. The FSA will take foreign recruits. Flights to Jordan are pretty cheap right now and so you have no excuse whatsoever to nip over, join the FSA and actually do something as opposed to whine pointlessly about how we should start bombing.

    You will of course need courage.

  9. Ex-labour says:

    @Lee butcher

    I’m not particularly in favour of intervention and yes I agree that a diplomatic, negotiated settlement is preferable. How realistic a possibility this is, I don’t honestly know, but I suspect there is virtually zero possibility at this stage.

    My point was that Miliband came with this “doing politics differently” message. So what’s happened to that then ? There has been several blogs on here in recent days where everyone has avoided Milibands actions and behaviour, which most political commentators agree has gone against parliamentary historical norms.

    I realise that you work for a Labour MP, so criticism of Comrade Ed means you would be collecting your P45 the following morning, so I was left to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

    @julian ruck

    Julian I don’t know you personally nor do I claim to have any real understanding of Welsh politics. I do know that you seem to be public enemy number one when writing your blog pieces here. I’m not sure why you generate such vitriol, but I work on the principal that if you’re attracting such ire then you must be doing something right.

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