Syria and the cost of doing nothing

June 15, 2013 at 7:17 pm (fascism, Guardian, history, internationalism, iraq war, Jim D, New Statesman, Stop The War, Syria, tragedy, war, wireless)

Above: Charles Lindbergh puts the Stop The War case for non-intervention in WW2

BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ is a pretty reliable barometer of middle-England, middle class opinion. These days, anyone on the panel who denounces intervention of any kind in overseas conflicts, can be guaranteed a big round of applause, regardless of whether the speaker is from the isolationist right or the ‘anti-imperialist’ left.

This week’s programme, inevitably, included a question about Syria, and the panel was unanimous in opposing the idea of arming the opposition, to the obvious approval of the audience. Right wing Tory isolationist Daniel Hannan put the non-intervention case most succinctly when he said “It’s not our business… in Syria we have no connections …we have no particular interest.”

Smug, shallow leftist commentator Mehdi Hasan (New Statesman and Huffington Post) chimed in with his familiar, sanctimonious riff along the lines of one sides’s as bad as the other … both sides have been accused of using chemical weapons … sending the rebels weapons or imposing a no-fly zone will just make matters worse…etc. etc…

Hannon, who made it clear that he agreed with Hasan’s isolationist conclusions, was honest enough to chip in with the following:

“A one-sided arms embargo is a form of intervention, as it was in Bosnia, as it was in the Spanish Civil War. If you’re allowing one side free access to global weaponry and denying the other [weapons] then you are in practice intervening.” 

An important point, that the isolationist movement of both left and right rarely acknowledge. The assumption, all too often, is that only military intervention costs lives, while staying out of it saves lives. Patent nonsense, once you think about it, but that’s the presumption upon which people like the so-called Stop The War Coalition and their media stooges, expect us to accept their case.

Hopi Sen puts the contrary view very well in a recent piece on the cost of non-intervention in Syria:

The last decade has been a steady retreat from intervention.

We know why. We saw the terrible costs of intervention first hand, while the deaths of the Marsh Arabs, the repression of the Kurds, the brutality of Saddam’s regime (and yes, our real-politik driven complicity in that regime) were somehow forgotten.  We even managed to forget that the cost of containment was a society trapped by sanctions, a price worth paying for the containment of a regime we did not wish to overthrow.

Yet now, in Syria, we also see the price of inaction.

I make the following comparison not to compare the loss, or the war, or the justice of either, but to compare our reaction to each.

The rate of violent death in Syria is already more than double that in the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. Around 170,000 have died in Iraq in the decade since the war. More than half that are dead in Syria already, and the violent deaths are increasing rapidly. Where is the outrage of the humanitarian left? Where are the marches and the vigils? The petitions and the disbelief? Where are the Anti-War Marches?

Further, doing nothing has increased regional instability. Already Hizbollah are killing Syrian rebels, with who knows what consequences for Lebanon. Israel is both nervous of Islamism and of an unstable Syrian government. Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan are having to cope with some one and a half million refugees.

These are the results of the policy we chose.

Would things have been better if we had intervened directly? Would the slaughter have been less with a No Fly zone, or airstrikes on Syrian forces mounting aggression, or if we had supported secular, moderate rebels early? Would things have been better if we had even made it clear to Russia that there was some action that we would not tolerate?

That I can’t know, just as I cannot know what would have happened in Iraq this past decade if Saddam had been left to imprison and murder his people under a sanctions regime  that killed innocent civilians in order to constrain their torturers.

No-one can really know “what if“.

The awful truth is that inaction and intervention both have terrible costs, and those who decide between them cannot ever truly know what will result. Some forgot that in the last decade, choosing to believe that only intervention could have a terrible price. I don’t forget the reverse now.

Just because the policy we have pursued has become a catastrophe does not mean the policy was undoubtedly and obviously wrong.

But by God, I wish we felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria.

(Read the full article here)

2 Comments

  1. Mike Killingworth said,

    Harold Wilson kept us out of Vietnam (this matters to me, anyway – I was just the right age to be conscripted and killed there) – was he wrong? As Hopi Sen says “the awful truth is that inaction and intervention both have terrible costs” and I suspect whatever we do (or omit to do) next will make matters worse. Or will be said to do, by those who wish he hadn’t (or had).

    National foreign policy should be based on interest: we have the UN and suchlike for ethics. I notice that you don’t argue against Hannon, only call him names.

  2. Jim Denham said,

    Of course, it’s a difficult and complex situation. The main post (above) was not intended to deny that. Just to make a point about the hypocrisy of people like Mehdi Hasan, who think interventionists are responsible for all ills, while isolationists have clean hands.

    But Prof Norm points out just how fiendishly difficult the Syrian situation has become:
    *********************************************************************************

    No longer dithering over Syria

    A month ago I drew attention to Michael Walzer’s view that for President Obama to be dithering over Syria was no bad thing in the circumstances. According to a report in the Times of Israel, Michael’s thinking has evidently changed over the last few weeks:

    [Walzer] said that his position on Syria gradually shifted from skepticism about US military intervention in the early days of the uprising to staunch opposition to it today.

    “Now you have jihadi fighters on the one hand and Hezbollah on the other, and it really doesn’t look like there’s much to choose between… It’s almost impossible to describe a desirable outcome in this civil war, and if you don’t have a desirable outcome – you can’t intervene.”

    See here for the conditions he specifies for feasible intervention in Syria now:

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/us-should-stay-out-of-syria-american-expert-warns/

    In view of the misunderstanding created by my last ‘dithering’ post, I had maybe better say that it can be true that non-intervention in a crisis of this sort has enormous costs even if the benefits of intervention are in doubt. One isn’t bound to think one knows what should be done.

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