The Syria Vote: Not so easy.

At some point tomorrow the elected members of Britain’s House of Commons will come together and vote on whether or not to take military action in the area that used to be a country called Syria against the extremist group, Daesh, that have been holding territory there for more than the last two years.  In the wake of the Paris attacks for which Daesh claimed responsibility the world’s focus has shifted to this issue with more intensity than ever before, certainly from the Western media narrative’s point of view.  Unfortunately, though, as with any topical issue, social media provides an outlet for a series of increasingly vehement and unthinking expressions of opinion.  It is genuinely saddening to witness the speed with which some are willing to jump to often quite adversarial conclusions, and the paucity of research on which they are willing to base them.  If the seriousness of this situation demands anything of us, surely it should be the most careful and detailed levels of contemplation, the removal of sensationalist rhetoric and the respect of dissenting opinion.  That some of us appear to be failing so miserably is a damning indictment of our collective ability to offer an appropriate level of intellectual honesty.

The reason I take such exception to the recent round of not-debate is that this is an issue I’m passionate about.  It’s one I’ve read endlessly on, invested thousands of hours into learning about.  It’s in a region I care deeply for, it’s a problem I give a shit about and it’s a discussion I’m invested in.  I’m not claiming to be an expert or to have a more innovative solution than anyone else but I am saying I understand the complexities and details of the Syrian conflict, and the regional situation more widely, just about as well as any layman.  And I haven’t got a fucking clue which way I’d vote if I was an MP.  More importantly, 95% of the arguments I’ve seen people make to back up the deliriously strong opinions they seem to have had for the last three and a half minutes on the topic demonstrably fail to tackle the dilemma in any of that complexity and with any understanding of the deeper issues at hand.  My issue isn’t with a divergence of opinion, it’s with such a forceful and disrespectful one seemingly based on so little data gathering.

The vote that will take place this week is one with loud, worthwhile and legitimate arguments on both sides of the line.  That Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour MPs will be allowed a free vote is a commendable action that speaks to this very truth.  Corbyn, it must be said, despite the predictable vitriol of his enemies in old media, has handled the entire situation with a sensitivity and sense of purpose that should be applauded.  His views on the topics at hand are, and have been for some time, quite clear.  Corbyn is as close to a pacifist as you’re likely to get in 21st century politics and it’s hard to envisage a scenario in which he would condone military action.  That this arguably puts him in a category with 1930s Chamberlain is enough fodder for his opponents, but the fact that he has consistently respected the legitimate concerns on both side of this debate and accepted the need to allow his MPs to vote according to their conscience should reflect well on him in the eyes of every serious political observer, regardless of ideological persuasion.  David Cameron’s description tonight of those who oppose the motion as “terrorist sympathisers” is an understandable political ploy designed to shore up his own base.  That he felt content to lower himself to it, though, should do nothing but detract from his own political image and capital.

This is a difficult piece to write for me, largely because it’s hard to write about something you care passionately about and yet have no agenda to push beyond a desire for a deeper understanding and a more nuanced debate.  To that end I’ve attempted to address some of the simplified arguments from both sides of this divide that I’ve seen people I otherwise respect throwing around in recent days.  I don’t come to any conclusions, I don’t pretend to offer any solutions and I certainly don’t claim to cover anywhere near the full picture in any level of detail.  If anything, I’m just rambling, making sense of my own thoughts, and trying to speak to those whose minds were made up too easily.

Those arguing for an immediate and sustained military response to the Daesh attacks in Paris are not necessarily speaking from a position of reactionary short sightedness.  It’s perfectly possible to support a bombing campaign even while understanding its inherent limitations.  Nobody, or at least nobody that should be taken seriously, is arguing that an aerial campaign will achieve what Barack Obama described as the aim of degrading and ultimately destroying Daesh.  But similarly the arguments that a bombing campaign is somehow a useless military tool are demonstrably false.  Aerial assaults have played a large role in restricting Daesh’s sphere of influence in both Syria and Iraq over the previous year and this point is often lost by the “what do bombs achieve?” brigade.  If it wasn’t for Western bombing campaigns it is arguable that Daesh would have hit Baghdad from their Anbar base some time ago.  Simply put – the argument that airstrikes alone will not achieve the stated aim is valid and legitimate, but so is the argument that they may contribute decisively towards those aims in conjunction with other approaches; military, political and economic.

Nor should we dismiss the argument that such a response is worthwhile, in part, because it has been requested of us by our allies – including our strongest ally, the US, and France, who endured such a horrific recent attack.  Critics, such as SNP MP Richard Arkless are entirely justified in saying that such solidarity shouldn’t be unquestioning, nor should it be the exclusive or even the primary justification for making this heaviest of decisions, but neither should the importance of it as a consideration be dismissed.  Alliances have kept the world safe and peaceful where we might otherwise have deteriorated towards chaos and there is something to be said for recognising other nations that share the same values of human rights, equality and democratic freedom and standing firmly with them when they are threatened.  That we have been too slow, historically, to recognise those traits in countries that aren’t predominantly white reflects poorly on us, but shouldn’t be an excuse to fail the fraternal responsibilities we do have.

The argument of radicalisation is often thrown around by those that seek to avoid an increase in anti-Western sentiment in the Islamic world – this is an understandable argument that says that our involvement in someone else’s war may only serve to foster resentment and hatred and where such stirring of opinion is avoidable, it should be avoided.  The principle here is laudable, but the logic is deeply flawed.  This intellectual approach is one that taken to its logical conclusion promotes a kind of disconnected isolationism that should by now have been condemned to the dustbin of history.  There are no “other people’s wars” anymore.  We have grown closer and more interconnected over the last three and a half decades and though this progress has been imperfect it has overall had a positive effect.  We must embrace our connected humanity.  The radicalisation of disenfranchised, miseducated young people, not just Muslims but from all countries and all religions is not aided by military involvement in anything but the extremists own rhetoric.  That they seek to use such falsified motivations as justification for their deeds should not influence our ability to act in the best interests of those threatened by their violence.

Many have returned to the past to drag up the spectre of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.  It’s an understandable reaction.  In the intervening decade the Western world has become increasingly cautious on the topic of intervention.  In my opinion this trend is amongst the darkest consequences of that regrettable and potentially illegal military disaster.  One would be equally well served, while we’re casting our minds back in an attempt to learn lessons from recent history, to journey back a further decade, to Kigali in 1994, and consider the consequences of the absence of action just as profoundly as we remember the mistakes of Iraq. It should be remembered, as the volume builds, that what is being proposed here is not a war, in the traditional sense.  This one key distinction more than any other should render the countless comparisons with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 limp and partially irrelevant.  We are not proposing to go to war with another state.  In truth, there is no state in Syria and hasn’t been for some years.  In a quagmire of a bloody and multi-polar civil war all that is being proposed is the targeting of one specific actor.  Arguably, such a small remit is a position against intervention in and of itself.

The desired outcome here is not regime change, then, but a minor intervention into the Syrian civil war, which leads us to the inevitable question of what the Syrian people themselves want.  For obvious reasons polling in Syria is nigh on impossible at the moment.  For one thing over 50% of the country have been displaced during the civil war, for another communication is often impossible with those still trapped in the nightmare of the ongoing conflict.  Despite these difficulties the attempts that have been made seem to show a clear divide, with many Syrians welcoming airstrikes.  Similarly, those inside Daesh controlled areas have been reported to express a wholly logical fear of increased bombing raids.  This is an understandable and a legitimate concern and links to an even more daunting one;  this military action, like any military action, will inevitably and unavoidably create civilian casualties.  For some this is enough to oppose such action.  It’s a view I can empathise, though not necessarily identify with.  For some, the inadvertent loss of one non-combatant life is a price too high for any wider victory or larger reduction of suffering.  That those wider victories are far from guaranteed in this instance intensifies the doubt.

For all these reasons and a thousand more this is a complex issue which is why I say that there is too much gravity to this debate for simplistic caricaturisation of opposing viewpoints.  Those in support of the campaign are, in all likelihood, not despicable warmongers, eager to spread chaos and death for their own benefit and those that oppose it are equally unlikely to represent a naïve pacifism or to be apologists for evil, unwilling to confront one of the most regressive regimes in the world today.  In fact a more realistic and respectful picture would show a nation grappling with the scale of terror being inflicted by Daesh, empathising with the Syrian people whose lives have been ripped apart and attempting to decide how best to confront the situation.  The only real difference between us is, having thoughtfully reflected on this particular solution, we have collectively come to opposing conclusions on its potential effectiveness.

Despite my declared uncertainty, there are things that I’m clear on:  I believe a military component to any reasonable solution this mess is almost inevitable.  What shape that military component takes is debateable and depends on your evaluation of the strength of the various forces on the ground, their ability to be long term partners (Ahrar al-sham, for example, who the US categorise as moderates, are willing to accept some kind of pluralism but also preach a form of regressive Sharia based civil code that many in the West would be unable to distinguish from Daesh).  Ruling out ground forces, as the parliamentary motion does, seems unwise and short sighted militarily but unavoidable politically.

I also believe no external actor should ethically be able to countenance the prospect of a political solution in which the Assad regime maintains power.  On this the world should be willing to eyeball Putin, Khameini and Nasrallah all the way, any other conclusion is unacceptable.  If we seek to build a world where international norms and a common understanding of civility mean anything we need to make many changes, not least within the Western political system and the way it views international law, but allowing the continued reign of Assad would, and should, destroy any notion that we are a community of nations.  The Vienna talks, more promising than the previous Geneva negotiations, can only progress on this basis.  It is absolutely true to say that the future of Syria must be left to the Syrian people but that future cannot begin with Assad in even a transitional role.  To accede to that demand would be to betray his countless victims for the sake of political expediency

Further, I believe that every politician, analyst and commentator that tries to redraw the focus of this debate to the question “What comes next?” is to be commended.  It’s the lack of convincing answer to this question that has persuaded so many that military involvement is unlikely to be productive and it is incumbent upon the side that wins the parliamentary vote to answer it.  Should we commence a bombing campaign those in favour of it should be obliged to offer an answer.  What comes next? If we are successful in defeating Daesh what do we do about the power vacuum, what do we do about the remaining actors in the civil war, what do we do about the remaining Salafist ideology that will be driven underground? (Though this remains an important question it should be noted that the very act of denying the ideology the arena it now commands with its faux-caliphate could well be considered a victory even if the defeat of an idea is a longer, generational process).  Conversely, were the motion to be defeated the victorious group of MPs would be presented with a similar set of questions.  What comes next if we do nothing?  What comes next when Vienna fails?  What comes next as Daesh continue to maintain territory and inflict a stone-age barbarism where human beings are sold into slavery, LGBT people are executed and women have to endure a level of abuse that sees them forbidden from sitting in chairs.

In any eventuality the work on imagining a future Syria is a complex and long term task.  A democratic Syria might seem an ideal but the reality is unlikely to look very pretty.  In the same way al-Maliki and the Dawa party saw their electoral majority as a chance to rebalance what they viewed as historical oppression by the Sunni minority in Iraq, so sectarian tensions could play an even more magnified role in the future Syria.  What would its neighbours make of a democratic Syria with a Sunni majority? How long before they intervened? A democratic Syria, after the last 4 years, might have a job preventing a genocide of Alawites as the first role of the new state.

These complexities only add to the difficulty, in my mind, of coming to a definitive conclusion on the relative strengths of the arguments surrounding tomorrow’s vote.  There is no doubt in my mind that the vast majority of MPs understand the gravity of what is being asked of them and will shoulder the responsibility with the dignity and consideration we are justified in demanding of our representatives.  Some will have studied the evidence in great detail and with careful analysis have decided that they cannot justifiably claim that the case for war has been definitively made and so with all the courage of an individual standing up to prevent an injustice whatever the consequence they will walk through one doorway.  Others will conclude that they cannot refrain from acting in the face of a tangible threat to the values they hold dear and so with the boldness of an individual determined to take action in the face of terror they will step through a separate doorway.  All of them will have my respect.

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One thought on “The Syria Vote: Not so easy.”

  1. As ever Ben a well written and thought provoking piece.
    However the cynic in me wonders how many of the MP’s voting actually have any grasp of the situation or have taken into consideration the views of their constituents.

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