Parliament got it right on Syria (for now)

Picture of a man holding a banner saying 'Dear free world, enjoy watching us burn', with a picture of several dead bodies from the recent chemical attacks.Last Thursday, the British Parliament resoundingly defeated a government motion to join military action in Syria in response to the recent chemical weapon attacks in the suburbs of Damascus. Labour were joined in their opposition by a large number of Tory MPs, and it led to David Cameron blaming Tony Blair for “poisoning the well” of public opinion against British involvement in such actions. He may be partly right but as I have said before, British public opinion has supported more recent military action in support of Arab Spring uprisings such as in Libya. Syria is different, both politically and geographically, and this situation has all the warning signs of the kind of costly, long-term military entanglement that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be, which the British public understandably have no appetite for.

Syria is a very different place from Libya: all of Libya’s major population centres are along the Mediterranean coast and within easy reach of British bases in Cyprus and other European NATO countries. Syria has a fairly short Mediterranean coast, but Damascus is inconveniently situated inland, requiring flying across Israel or Lebanon or in an L-shape through northern Syria to avoid either. The Americans have a base in Jordan, giving them better access by air to Damascus than we have. We could not guarantee that Israel would allow British (or even American) use of its airspace, and flying over Lebanon would be foolish given the presence of the pro-regime Hizbullah there. So a chemical attack in Damascus is a bad reason for Britain to get involved; our forces could do more good in the north and west of Syria if we were to get involved at all. There is also the consideration of where the chemical weapons came from; any military base we bomb could contain them and the attack could release them into nearby civilian populations. We risk getting into a conflict with Russia, particularly if we attempt to intercept supplies from Russia to the regime.

Something that is most remarkable about this conflict is the split of Muslim public opinion, often linked to sympathies with populations within Syria or with Iran. Despite high-profile support for the uprising among both major Sunni scholars and laypeople, there is also a body of opinion that this is an ill-advised sporadic uprising of the type which has a long history of failure in the Muslim world, most recently in Syria in the early 80s. There have been Muslim students from western countries studying with scholars in Syria since the 90s and many of them will tell you that despite the widespread propaganda and the prominent secret police, the country was safe and orderly and an easier place to live than some other Muslim countries, like Egypt (which had a slightly freer press, among other things, than Syria, even under Mubarak). On the other hand, there are plenty of Sunnis who regard Assad as an unmitigated tyrant, an image that has grown much stronger since the war started, and want to see him gone, and some do not mind if the USA or UK get involved.

On the other hand, there is still a body of pro-Iranian opinion among Muslims, both in the west and elsewhere - it is less than during the Rushdie affair in the late 1980s but Iran is still seen as a strong and independent Muslim nation which supports Muslim resistance beyond its borders, particularly against Israel, and support for Iran often extends to its allies and translates to suspicion or instinctive opposition to their enemies. Among these people, a western attack on Syria is seen as yet another attack on the integrity of a Muslim country and a bid to install a pro-Western and pro-Israel regime. There are also those who regard it as against Islam to involve non-Muslims in the Muslim world at all, particularly in the “salafi-jihadi” community, although these people are fewer in number than they were before 2001. There will be those who oppose any western military involvement purely on the grounds that it will inevitability lead to unjust civilian casualties because the intervening nations prefer foreign civilian casualties to deaths among their own troops (witness the headline news reporting when even a single soldier dies in action), and conduct their operations accordingly.

Lead story from today's Sun. It reads 'DEATH NOTICE: THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP. Died at home after a sudden illness on Thursday, August 29, 2013, aged 67. Beloved offspring of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dearly loved by Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Regan, John Major, George Bush Snr, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George W Bush. Funeral to be held at the French Embassy, 58 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7JT. No flowers please.'Last week, a message appeared on the Facebook page of Shaikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, one of the leading anti-regime religious scholars and a popular figure among Muslims in the UK, that “It is disgusting to see UK Labour Party supporting Assad in his crimes & blocking the government from taking action against him”. However, the British public do not owe it to Syrians to solve all their problems for them, particularly as Assad was never a British client (despite being educated and pursuing a career in the UK before returning to Syria and becoming President) and Syria, unlike Iraq, never was a British colony. The wars of the last decade were unpopular enough when the economy was healthy; today, budgets are being cut everywhere and the most vulnerable are suffering most, so the public will not accept politicians’ claims that there is plenty of money for another war. We should also not unduly worry ourselves about losing the so-called special relationship, as at least one newspaper has said we have sacrificed, on their front page; it has always been a one-sided affair which benefited only business and politicians and never the ordinary citizen and it has been disastrous for our standing in the world; we had a good reputation in humanitarian intervention before Afghanistan, and it was popular here.

I am personally keen to see Assad fall; now that a rebellion has been attempted, its success is vital as Assad’s return to full control would be vengeful and bloody, as was seen in the aftermath of the Hama uprising. However, the kind of “intervention-lite” that we imagine Britain would make could easily make things worse, particularly if we are aligned to an American invasion or “task force” which is trigger-happy and causes widespread Syrian civilian death. The war must be won by Syrians, and while I do believe the British (and others, including other Muslims) should support the rebels with money and equipment, their military involvement should be kept to a minimum and should be at their direction.

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