I live near Forbury Gardens in Reading where the Maiwand Lion statue was erected in 1886 to commemorate the loss of 280 soldiers from the 66th Royal Berkshire Regiment at the Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan on 27th July 1880. There is talk of a memorial for our brave soldiers who fought and have lost their lives in the current campaign in Helmand. In my opinion, when the Americans and the British leave, Karzai won’t be too far behind and Mullah Omar will be reinstated as leader. In recent years we also have the experience of the war in Iraq which has left the country a wreck. There is condemnation and polarisation of opinion towards the west among Muslims for little gain. What was it all for?
Currently, the real issue in the Middle East is the fight between the Shia and Sunni Muslims for regional dominance. Syria is a case in point – Sunnis (backed by Sunni Saudi) are being ruled by a minority Shia Alawites (backed by Shia Iran). This is a proxy war being fought at the expense of Syrian people.
After the recent chemical weapons attack, likely perpetrated by the Assad regime, the moral case for any attack on Syria seems clear. A limited, quick and surgical attack on military targets to achieve a very specific objective will appeal to many. But how many times have we heard that?
Syria is not like Libya. Syria is a significant military power that has access to a sophisticated military arsenal and more available from Iran and Russia. We may well be surprised when we attack from the air that this time we are attacked back. Imagine if they launch an attack on our bases in Cyprus (100 miles away) or to an aircraft carrier leading the air strikes and they are successful. Where does that leave the western allies other than to escalate this skirmish to effectively a war. Syria isn’t as weak as Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya and they have strong backers who are willing to support them.
We cannot isolate a specific or short term attack on Syria no matter how abhorrent the actions of the regime. It should be clear from the lessons of Helmand and Iraq that there is no such thing as a limited strike. There are long term repercussions which often lead these countries to lean towards extremism rather than pluralist democracy.
As a conscientious objector I cannot advocate a limited strike. I also cannot abide the pain that Syrian people are experiencing. Geopolitics today gives alternatives to countries from America and Europe to Russia, China and other economically strong non-aligned countries.
We have to learn that military action should really be the actual last resort – not a talked up last resort. We can help the Syrian people by isolating parts of the country to offer them genuine refuge (this is where a strong military guard action maybe required); work with Turkey to secure the tent cities that are growing and ensure people in them are safe; use the EC and American economic power to significantly impede trade with countries who support Syria (trifling punitive sanctions have been used in the past but rarely have we in the west applied comprehensive widespread economic sanctions); confiscate and freeze the funds and investments held by senior Syrian leaders in the west; if another chemical attack is used expel Syria from international institutions so they are truly isolated and blockade their ability to trade. That will hurt Syrian people too but it’s a better alternative than military action.
There are other alternatives to a limited strike that will lead, in my opinion, to a larger involvement. We can make a stand; we can help the people of Syria and we can do that without using a military strike.
* Cllr Tahir Maher is vice chair of South Central Liberal Democrats