Syria's crisis: a crisis for us all

20 Sep 2016

The civil war in Syria seems never ending.


It was a bleak winter evening in February 2011 when my attention was first drawn to the Arab Spring. One felt as if history in the making was flashing across our television screens. Great movements of liberation, from Tunisia and Bahrain to Jordan and Yemen, sought a redistribution of power and greater civil liberties.


Woodrow Wilson’s principle of Self Determination could not have been more purely expressed – the voice of the people took to the streets. For those who view democracy as a western construct these events flew in the face of conventional wisdom. Even prior to coalition intervention in Libya, these movements were almost proto-nationalist.


Nobody had forced such sentiment upon these populations. The anger, dismay and disbelief were genuine, and the determination for regime change pure. Despite the relative success of democratisation in Tunisia, the light of the revolution has faded. Yemen has descended into chaos. Libya is stateless. But Syria is the most tragic of all.


From protests demanding the release of political prisoners on 15 March 2011, the country has descended into a multi-sided blood bath – what John Jenkins labels a world war. At present around 400,000 have been killed, whilst thousands more have been internally and externally displaced – more than half of the population. In a hollowed out state a multitude of interests and parties are now at play – from the Assad – Russian backed engine, the infamous ISIL to Jabhat-al-Nusra and of course the Free Syrian army itself. The situation appears untenable, at best.


This piece is somewhat out of my comfort zone. A quick glance at my commentator page will reveal my obsession for social and economic policy. But I care passionately about justice. And justice is not being delivered in Syria.


The debate for far too long has been eschewed in the paradigm of international relations. From the classic “We can’t act because of Russian support for Assad” to the unbelievable “An Assad dictatorship is worse than IS”, the true suffering of thousands has been eclipsed.


Moreover, the response of the United Kingdom to this crisis reveals the ugly side of British politics. One only has to compare Angela Merkel and David Cameron. The former has unwaveringly demonstrated the compassionate humanitarianism required in an increasingly globalised world, the latter’s decision to take 200,000 refugees over a five year period embodies the sentiments of a Brexit Britain.


May’s commitment to taking in only 3,000 vulnerable children should be viewed as a European disgrace. Every bone in my body aches as a read the Telegraph state 'resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees in Britain will cost nearly two billion pounds', as if you can put a price on delivering human dignity.


Never mind grammar schools or ‘the deficit’, there is a clear moral deficiency in Britain. What is the Labour Party’s official stance on Syria? Where are the Conservatives? Tim Farron and his liberals, along with a number of compassionate members of parliament, are leading the way – in a direction we all have an interest in joining.


Britain has voted, despite the cries of the Leave campaign, to turn its back on the world institutionally. The unfounded fears of immigration are present in the debate on Syria. There is a shameful silence amongst the mainstream media – until an Aylan Kurdi is washed up on a beach or a rubble strewn Omran Daqneesh is photographed in the back of an ambulance. I mean – it’s a story, right? These snap-shots in time briefly remind us that we are all human – that we all have a responsibility for the lives of citizens around the world. But this is quickly side-tracked by our own national and household concerns. To suggest large sections of our government and population are ambivalent to these horrors at best is not a wild accusation.


The truth is Syria has become a tangled mess because we have allowed it to become so.


Syria appears to be an unmovable object against an unmovable force because our inaction has directly facilitated this situation. The past has shaped the present. Deep fears over military intervention against Assad, drawn from past experiences in Iraq and Libya, have allowed a vacuum within which this highly unstable situation could become a possibility.


In an almost paradoxical fashion, sitting back and doing nothing has replicated the failures of the previous regime change. Labour and the left have a proud history of internationalism; but this has recently been displaced by a strident defence of ‘ humanitarian peace social justice et al’ over ‘Blairite war-mongering’; but tell me - what justice has been achieved by this other than the rise of an introverted self-righteousness? Sitting around coffee tables and lamenting the failures of conflict has done nothing to improve the lives of those cowering in the bombed-out shacks of Aleppo.


Of course, indiscriminate bombing is in no way an acceptable answer. However simply negating intervention on humanitarian grounds is counterfactual; have red cross parcels made Syrian citizens safer from chlorine gas attacks? In the words of Immanuel Kant’s Doctrine of the Right ‘it is true that the state of nature need not, just because it is natural, be a state of injustice.’


The time for action was 2013. Obama’s ‘Red Line’, however, failed to materialise. The very fact that the United Nations has yet to resolve this conflict with any degree of substance is indicative of the sclerosis within our post-war international institutions. Russia has become a player of centrality in this narrative because the West have allowed it.


Literature such as General Sir Richard Shirrif’s 2017 War With Russia only add to what The Economist call the delusion of Russia’s great power status. Putin’s personality cult is built on a house of cards. His prime focus is a restoration of national pride. Helping Assad has become Crimea mark-two in carving out spheres of influence. But it is not an end game in itself. A bilateral agreement between the U.S and his regime, centred around the wavering of sanctions and allowing the extension of Russian influence in Russian-speaking parts of Eastern Ukraine such as Donetsk, would more than certainly change the ball game. As we have seen this week collaboration between the two great powers is essential in resolving this crisis. If we can past the fabricated exaggeration of the threat of Russia, then maybe progress could be made.


I am not standing here offering a solution to this increasingly complex crisis. Nor am I looking at Syria through what Edward Said called a western gaze. Ultimately those who are suffering most, the people of Syria and those refugees, have become increasingly eclipsed by the larger geopolitics of the civil war. They have become viewed as mere chips on the bargaining table.


Despite the occasional news story, we sit back in our ambivalence. Of course, you and I cannot change the trajectory of these events. But we can at least hold these people in our thoughts. Because at the end of all of this - they are just like us. Children without mothers. Parents without grandparents. Children bereft of a childhood and a decent education. We can pressure our government to do its fair share. To not turn it’s back on those suffering. The west has a moral obligation, especially after creating the framework for most of these crises post Versailles 1918. We should all sleep uneasily in the knowledge that such atrocities are not only being committed by Assad and IS, but that they are becoming tacitly legitimised by our non-action. We all lose.




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