“The hard heart of the world is no-longer my business”
Even though I remain opposed to a significant Western military intervention in the civil war in Syria, I think that last week’s decision by the House of Commons regarding that country was a seriously mistaken one. Fortunately, it will not prove as historic as Parliament’s appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s, but it is all the less justifiable because inflicting limited punishment on the Assads was never going to cost much or drag Britain into any kind of war. Nor was it going to weaken that regime or strengthen its opponents significantly. The war will drag on – even after an expected missile strike by America – as long as Russia and Iran continue supplying Damascus with arms and money and ‘volunteer Hezbollah fighters’.
Conservative rebels, who feel their leader’s other policies have made their seats vulnerable to UKIP at the next election, decided to play to the gallery of their emotional constituents and, in the process, told the likes of Syria’s Assad, Sudan’s Bashir and Iran’s Khamenei that, “in those far-away countries we don’t know much about”, they can turn cheap nerve agents into routine instruments of war once more, that they can deal with their unhappy peoples or troublesome minorities with the poor man’s weapon.
As a man of Kurdish upbringing, I know that chemical arms are primarily a weapon of terror, causing more refugees than deaths. But who will eventually pick up the cost of even more refugees, in humanitarian aid and in asylum seekers and immigrants? Guess.
Last week’s diluted, tentative motion by the government was not primarily about Syria. In the words of Boris Pasternak, it was a new Britain saying: “The hard heart of the world is no-longer my business”. And so, a moderating voice in America’s ear has been removed and a well-meaning figure on the world’s stage that, in Douglas Hurd’s words, ‘punched above its weight’, has been diminished. It was a sad day. I was so terribly disappointed in the quality of reasoning of some of the opposing MPS, on both sides of the House. At least two of them wanted Britain to appeal to the mullahs in Tehran to intercede with Mr Assad to be nicer to his people, and earlier, on a BBC radio station, I had had to debate with a Labour MP who was convinced throwing a few missiles at the Ministry of Defence in Damascus would be the start of “the Third World War”.
We must still push for a negotiated settlement in Syria. There is no acceptable military solution to the civil war there. If Assad and his minority sect, the Alawites, win, the tyranny over the majority Sunnis will continue. In addition, there will be several million more refugees in neighbouring countries that the West will have to feed, possibly for decades. On the other hand, if the uprising of the Sunnis triumphs, there will be huge massacres of the Alawites, causing many of the remainder to seek refuge elsewhere. In either case – because the war would continue for at least another two years – what has not already been destroyed, will be so. Many more irreplaceable ancient monuments will disappear.
For all these reasons, I hope that the American strikes will be more than a little painful for the Assads. We need the strikes to weaken the regime’s recent confidence that it can win on the battlefield. We need to force Damascus to come to negotiate seriously with the opposition. We need a transitional government to allow for passions to subside before a longer-term settlement might become feasible. At present I fear that President Obama, a dithering politician, will opt for a pin-prick retribution that will actually embolden the Assads. This is the mistake that President Clinton committed in the late 1990s when he used cruise missiles against an Al Qaedah training camp in Afghanistan in retaliation for the demolition of two American embassies in Africa. The result was 9/11.