The Road to Damascus

It’s been a few months now since I’ve written anything on this blog. And what a tumultuous few months they’ve been, in what’s usually the so-called ‘silly season’ when governments go on their hols.

We’ve seen a (in my view) brave man expose the extent to which the US and UK governments are sliding towards full-on totalitarianism, all in the name of ‘security’; revelations for which he’s now on the run, ironically having to seek refuge in nations whose claim to totalitarianism is rarely in doubt.

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We’ve also seen the UK government abusing (not for the first time) its ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation in what appears to be an attempt to intimidate Edward Snowden’s journalistic voice, Glenn Greenwald, by baselessly detaining his partner for nine hours at an airport (not even on British soil, technically) without legal representation.

And now, I’m moved to put fingers to keyboard again by the rattling of sabres and the pounding of war drums, as the US and its obedient servant the British government seem to be gearing up for yet another ill-though-through attempt to unilaterally act as arbiters of the moral high ground. A high ground that, thanks to what we know from Edward Snowden, they have absolutely no right to occupy. I’m talking, of course, of what appears to be imminent military action to intervene in the civil war in Syria.

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What is it with British and American politicians? I’ve heard the old adage that those who can’t remember history are condemned to repeat it, but for crying out loud, Afghanistan and Iraq were only invaded 12 and 10 years ago respectively. Are they suffering from some kind of dementia, or have the corporate spliffs of arms dealer money and oil availability wiped out their short term memories?

It certainly reinforces the impression we all now have that voting changes nothing and all politicians are cut from the same cloth. Barack Obama, who once seemed to promise so much hope for change, has become a worse threat to world peace than his Republican predecessor, with his continued failure to close the concentration camp that is Guantanamo Bay, his drone-led executions of foreign citizenry without due process and the accompanying innocent victims, and comprehensive surveillance (via our own beloved GCHQ) of his own citizenry.

And in the UK, Labour might have been replaced with Conservative (and a little Lib Dem), but David Cameron is starting to look uncannily like Tony Blair in his impassioned (and politically suicidal) call for action now, dammit! Apparently not even possessed of a basic knowledge of the complexities of the Middle East’s history and politics, he’s recalled Parliament at a moment’s notice to ‘debate’ what action can be taken. A ‘debate’ that, doubtless, will end with him ignoring any vote that goes against him, courtesy of his Royal Prerogative to initiate military action all by himself.

So what’s prompted this frantic rush to a war that, if Cameron and his cronies have been telling us the truth for the last few years, we should be in no position to afford? Well, it seems that the forces of embattled dictator Bashar Al-Assad have started deploying chemical weapons against the rebels who’ve been fighting to depose him for the last two years. And chemical weapons, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry, are the ‘red line’ that cannot be crossed without invoking the wrath of the world’s self-proclaimed policemen.

Starting to sound familiar, isn’t it? An evil dictator, possessed of Weapons of Mass Destruction, must be stopped right now. Because that turned out to be so true in the case of Iraq, and it’s become a paradise on earth since the US and the UK led the charge in favour of the plucky rebels against the Evil Empire…

Oh wait, no it hasn’t. Because anyone with even a schoolboy knowledge of the region’s history could have told you the result – topple a secular dictator, get a vicious, no-holds-barred sectarian civil war in his place. Replace, in effect, Hitler with Ayatollah Khomeini.

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This simplistic narrative that American and British leaders try to sell us, of the Big Bad who must be stopped for the Good of All, is underpinned by a far more complex reality of global economics and powerplay. Russia sells arms to the Assad regime, therefore Russia will oppose any military intervention on the part of the West. China is, notionally, allied with Russia, and will follow where Putin leads.

Meanwhile, other (non-chemical) atrocities continue daily in Egypt as the military forces that staged a coup against the democratically elected government brutally repress their opposition. The US is strangely silent on this, perhaps because they arm and fund the Egyptian military to the tune of millions.

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Let’s be clear on this – Bashar Al-Assad is, by our terms, a monster who appears to be committing atrocities against his own people (though perhaps we should wait for some actual proof of that before sending the gunboats). But the forces opposing him are not Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. The Syrian rebels are apparently fanatical jihadists who have publicly declared their allegiance to Al Qaeda – the organisation we’re so busy dismantling our civil liberties to combat. Cameron may be promising no intention of regime change, but surely by attacking the regime, he’s implicitly siding the UK with the very forces he thinks we need constant surveillance to defend ourselves against?

The phrase ‘civil war’ has always seemed fraught with irony to me – few conflicts are less civil. History is littered with proof that, in most civil wars, both sides are guilty of atrocities. Assad’s forces had killed thousands already – but it’s chemical weapons that prompt us to storm in, while clinging ferociously to our own right to hold one of the world’s few stockpiles of nuclear weapons?

Yes, the use of nerve gas is (and should be) considered a war crime. But indiscriminate mass murder isn’t? Both sides have been guilty of that already, along with displacing thousands of their own people. As ever in such a conflict, the vast majority of Syria’s populace are not combatants for either side, yet they’re the ones being killed and driven from their homes. Does anyone honestly think our intervention on either side will stop that? Because it worked so well in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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You’d think we might have learned by now that, where the Middle East is concerned, we reap what we sow. As my friend Richard correctly points out on his Millennium Dome blog, the borders currently being so viciously fought over were largely put in place by Britain and France in the aftermath of World War I. The establishment of the State of Israel hardly helped; yes, arguably the Jewish people are entitled to a homeland, but not entitled to treat their Palestinian neighbours in a manner reminiscent of their own Nazi persecutors in World War 2 (with the US government’s unquestioning support).

And it goes back further than that even – the region’s inhabitants have never forgotten the series of Crusades launched in 1096 that spanned the next few centuries, as the West fought bloodily for control of the region ostensibly in the name of Christianity. So what makes us think that, after nearly a thousand years of screwing up the region’s balance of power and causing millions of casualties, we have any moral right to cack-handedly interfere again?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there isn’t a case for intervention to stop the bloodshed. “The world cannot stand idly by!”, Mr Cameron impassionedly declares. In a sense, he’s right. The world shouldn’t. What he seems to be forgetting is that the ‘world’ is not constituted solely of the US and the UK. The comparison has been drawn with the similarly vicious sectarian bloodbath of the Balkans in the 90s; but the peacekeeping taskforce sent there was from the United Nations as a whole, and as such had far greater right to describe itself as ‘the world’.

Trouble is, of course, that Russia and China both have the power of veto on the UN Security Council, and as it stands would automatically block any military action. The task before us should not be to charge in regardless, but to persuade them action is necessary to safeguard both sides. That’s a lengthy process though, and far less satisfying than firing off a few cruise missiles.

But it would be the right way to do it. The US and the UK taking action alone is blatantly wrong. It’s wrong strategically – both countries’ military forces are already mired in ongoing, seemingly endless wars already, and should perhaps learn the lessons Hitler and Napoleon never did about fighting wars on two fronts. Not to mention that, with so many cutbacks recently, the UK military no longer possesses any aircraft carriers, among other military assets. What is the desired effect, can it even be achieved, and how can you avoid getting drawn in for years on end? Even the Balkans wasn’t solved overnight.

It’s also wrong economically. Unless the Coalition have been lying to us for the last few years (perish the thought), the UK can’t even afford to keep huge swathes of its population above the poverty line. How exactly do they propose to finance another potential multi-billion dollar conflict? The US, while doing slightly better, is still not exactly flush with money, what with the Republicans stubbornly resisting any more government spending and repeatedly trying to block the rise of the debt ceiling.

It’s wrong politically. The population of the United Kingdom have no appetite for yet another protracted conflict in the Middle East for nebulous reasons that do not directly affect them. Look at the comments threads on those polar opposites of journalism, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, and you’ll find right and left united in their fervent disapproval of this action. The right don’t want ‘our boys’ put in more danger for Johnny Foreigner, while the left wring their hands at the thought of yet more imperialist aggression from the capitalist West. Two polar opposite motives, but the same end result. If Cameron wants to lose the next election, he’s going the right way about it (assuming he hasn’t managed that already).

Most importantly, though, it’s wrong morally. Any moral credibility the US and the UK had in the region went out the window in the aftermath of Afghanistan and Iraq. And it’s been further torpedoed by the Snowden revelations and both countries’ reactions to them. You can’t act as the World Police if you’re as corrupt as the colleagues of Serpico.

For all these reasons, our so-called elected representatives should not be allowed to get away with doing this in our name again. I can’t help but think that Cameron’s frenzied rush to recall Parliament is an attempt to avoid the groundswell of opposition and protest that preceded the Iraq War. The Coalition has done enough to curtail what we laughingly call ‘democracy’ as it is.

If we have to intervene, let’s build an international consensus, and try actually listening to those who understand the politics and culture of the region. In the words of Sir Humphrey Appleby, “if you must do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way!”