Our Fence sitting is Fatal for Syrians

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: September 24, 2014 Last modified: September 24, 2014
Relativity was Einstein’s great contribution to our understanding of the universe. Looking at the horrors of Syria, relativity helps us to understand what is happening, but does little to help us motivate a solution.We are being asked to support intervention because of the brutal beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers. I am going to be callous here. The West’s biggest ally, Saudi Arabia, has been  beheading its own people, and visitors, for some time, but has had the sense to refrain from decapitating foreigners. The United States’ record in botching executions  makes beheading seem relatively civilised, while China’s execution rate (a public pistol to the back of the skull) should make an invasion almost mandatory.
Maybe it is because journalists were involved our leaders feel impelled to action? However, the fatality rate for reporters in Pakistan and Mexico, even Russia, could involve an invasion. The death rate of journalists in Gaza is even higher, but not many calls to bomb Israel come from Westminster or Washington.
Of course, the sectarian nature of the Islamic regime straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border is repugnant, persecuting Yezidis and some of the most ancient Christian groups in the world, and various Shi’ite groups – not to mention drinkers and similar sinners. But then again, you would have to look hard to find a Christian church in Saudi Arabia. let alone find Shi’a represented in the higher echelons of any of the Sunni-governed Gulf States.
But enough relativity. The excuses our rulers make to incite support for action almost look reasonable when compared with the outrage from some opponents of “intervention”. Some “peace-loving” people have an inhuman tolerance for inhumanity when practiced by favoured groups. We owe a collective duty of care to people suffering, even if it is because of “a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”. In fact, we no longer have that excuse. Technology ensures that we know as much as we care to know about the results of such quarrels. International law now accepts the principle that the “Responsibility to Protect” over-rides the idea of national sovereignty, but oddly many former proponents of proletarian internationalism are now convinced of the untouchable virtues of sovereignty.
The people of Syria have been suffering for years now, from a regime that bombs and gases them, from religious lunatics, and from some more secular predatory types that have been taking advantage of the chaos. There is an inescapable argument for intervention: to take food and protection to the millions driven from their homes, to stop the murderers and bring them to justice and to help the survivors rebuild. And in realpolitik to stop war and instability spreading. There is a legitimate argument about what form the intervention should take. Ideally it should be legitimised by the United Nations, but sadly geopolitics stands in the way. Those who are demonstrating against “US intervention” should have the integrity to demonstrate against Russia and China for giving the aid and comfort to Bashar al-Assad that has encouraged him to carry on killing his own citizens with impunity.
The idea that the rest of the world should unite with Assad to defeat the Islamic State begs many ethical questions. He has murdered far more Syrians, and now Iraqis, than the Islamists, even if he does it with machine guns and gas rather than knives and swords. There is a responsibility to rebuild as well as to rescue and protect.
The country best equipped to intervene militarily, the US, is the worst equipped ethically and methodologically to do it. Its interventions in the region have been disastrous and its reliance on technology at no matter what cost to the civilians being “rescued” suggest serious problems. In the desert, air intervention against Islamic units and convoys is feasible and even desirable. But in no way should they be let near any conurbations like Fallujah – or Gaza. Sadly , such relativity leaves us impaled on the fence. Authorising action by committee is a necessary exercise. Running things by committee is ineffective and dangerous. There are no perfect solutions. Now Recep Tayyip Erdogan is re-elected one cannot help wondering if the world should not entrust the job to the Turks – with international back-up. He might even get the Russians on board for it.

About Ian Williams
Ian Williams is Tribune's UN correspondent