Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Syria: when the West sits on its hands

It’s harrowing to watch the news footage from Syria. A warplane turns gracefully in the sky, taking its time to choose a target before it glides in and bombs another house, killing some more children, a family, some old people, occasionally a rebel or two. On the ground men and women scream and cry and plead for help from the West. 
Syrian warplane gracefully killing women and children in Aleppo

Of course they call on us: in their position my anger at the wealthy and powerful nations who are sitting on their hands would be exactly the same.

‘Why don’t you intervene?’ I would scream, ‘Why don’t you help? Is it because we don’t have oil? After all what’s happening here is just what you set out to prevent in Libya.’

But that’s just the point at which natural sympathy for a people being massacred by a vile government has to pause a moment and take stock.

Because how well did that go in Libya? Did our military intervention there usher in a new era of peace and democracy? With the US Ambassador, Chris Stevens, killed there a week ago, is that even a question worth asking?

There are no doubt people in Libya keen to build a new nation conceived in liberty. But there seem to be many looking for something quite different. Perhaps a theocratic autocracy. Perhaps an opportunity to settle scores with another tribe. Perhaps just the perpetuation of a low-intensity conflict which serves them well.

The idea of perpetual conflict is hardly unrealistic. The fighting shows no sign of ending in Afghanistan. Today we learned that NATO has decided to suspend joint patrolling with Afghan forces in small units, since there have been so many occasions when Afghan soldiers have rounded on their supposed colleagues in NATO and killed them: 36 attacks this year costing 51 lives.

And what about the longest-standing of the Western attempts to force enlightenment on the Arab-speaking world? In a burst of optimism, Iraq brought in a power-sharing regime in 2005. Tareq al-Hashemi served as Vice President under a Shia President. Last December he fled for his life, a decision he presumably regards as one of his more judicious, since last week he was sentenced to death in his absence. Only on Monday, he accused his former colleagues in government of helping Iran pass weapons through to the Syrian government, rather confirming the widespread view that if there was a victor in the Iraq War, it was the Tehran regime which hugely extended its influence in the country.

Coincidentally, Monday was also the occasion of the latest in the unbroken series of bombings that have rocked Iraq ever since Dubya Bush declared his ‘mission accomplished’. The latest left at least seven dead in Baghdad and 24 injured.

The West has proved itself good at taking military action but lamentable at building a legacy behind it. At least, not the kind of legacy anybody would honour.

Meanwhile, back in Syria itself, a report issued on Monday by Human Rights Watch suggests that there are elements of the rebel army whose behaviour is no more commendable than the government’s: they have been torturing and killing their opponents just as the regime tortures and kills its own. Perhaps we are beginning to discover, in time on this occasion, what we discovered far too late in Libya: just opposing Basher al-Assad or Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t necessarily make you a nice guy.

Supporting disreputable characters wouldn’t be new in the history of Western intervention in the region. Let’s not forget that the West spent a long time supporting and arming the Taliban against the Soviets in Afghanistan before we decided these erstwhile friends were a pretty nasty bunch too. If you haven’t seen Charlie Wilson’s War make a point of watching it now (and not just for the lesson: the script’s by Aaron Sorkin, of West Wing fame).

That news footage from Syria is as harrowing as ever. But, though my heart goes out to them, when I hear the persecuted civilians on the ground calling out for Western help, my inclination now is to say ‘be careful what you wish for.’ We’re good at delivering poisoned chalices but they’re not good presents.

It sounds heartless to say it, but bad though things are, I firmly believe that the West should hold to its present attitude and stay sitting on its hands. The alternative could be a lot worse. And last a lot longer.

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