Syria: The price of inaction


Despite what people have said to me in recent weeks, I am not a ‘hawk’. Like most people I know, I instinctively recoil at the thought of war. Of death and destruction, of families torn apart, of lives irrevocably damaged. Of the two major conflicts in this century, I supported one (Afghanistan) and opposed another (Iraq).

Yet, as the world community continues to try and put together a coherent response to Bashar al-Assad‘s alleged chemical attack, I can’t help but think how much longer we can allow ourselves to walk on by on the other side, not wanting to get involved, not thinking it is any of our business.

Those who oppose military action often underline their arguments by talking of the ‘price’ of war, specifically the human price. But if there is a price to pay for action, then what of the price for inaction? In the two years since the beginning of the uprising in Syria over 100,000 people have died, including 7,000 children. 2million have fled the country, millions more are internally displaced, unable to go home for fear of persecution or death. Could earlier intervention actually have saved life?

I have argued for intervention in Syria from the earliest days of the conflict, and there is much to suggest that it would have been a lot simpler then than now. Indifference from the international community has encouraged others to fill the vacuum in support of the rebels. There seems little doubt that Assad’s inevitable overthrow will be just beginning of a longer struggle for peace. But the task being difficult cannot be reason enough to turn a blind eye to such suffering.

Cameron’s mishandling of the Syria debate in the UK Parliament last week (not helped by Ed Miliband playing a calculating party political game) has ensured that Britain will not be a part of any immediate political action. However, Barak Obama is starting to piece together a coalition, both within the US and beyond, that will support limited military action to protect Syrians from the fear of any future chemical attacks. This should be the start point for more decisive action that weakens the Assad regime and strengthens elements of the rebels. At the same time plans needs to be put in place for a new post-conflict Syria. What support will be required? For how long? How do we learn the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans?

In 1999, a then youthful Tony Blair made what was perhaps the speech of his entire premiership to the Chicago Economic Club. In what become known as ‘The Blair Doctrine‘, he outlined how globalisation was not just about economics, but was a political, security and humanitarian phenomena. Globalisation, he argued, meant the end to isolationist policies, from trade-tariffs to human-rights. Events, from 9/11 to the Iraq War and the global economic crisis, have all served to spook countries into looking inwards once again. The response to the situation in Syria has just been the latest symptom of this.

But Blair’s speech is as right today as it was then, as the following extract shows:

“No one in the West who has seen what is happening in Kosovo can doubt military action is justified. Bismarck famously said the Balkans were not worth the bones of one Pomeranian Grenadier. Anyone who has seen the tear stained faces of the hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across the border, heard their heart-rending tales of cruelty or contemplated the unknown fates of those left behind, knows that Bismarck was wrong.

This is a just war, based not on any territorial ambitions but on values. We have learned twice before in this century that appeasement does not work. If we let an evil dictator range unchallenged, we will have to spill infinitely more blood and treasure to stop him later.”

In many ways the Middle East is today’s Balkans and those hundreds of thousands of tear-stained refugees are Syrian. Just as we had a responsibility to intervene then, the same responsibility lies with us now. The only question that remains is how high a price Syrians will have to pay before we do.


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