Opinion: Syria – I know what’s wrong; working out what’s right is rather harder

It is easy to work out what I disagree with on Syria.

The absurd politics of those on the left who have never lifted the smallest placard in protest again Assad’s wide scale murders but break out a garage-full the moment there is a whiff of US involvement in something.

Or those who talk about Syria with reference to Iraq but without references too to countries such as the Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone, where military intervention worked. Or without reference to countries such as the former Yugoslavia where the problem was not that military intervention took place but that it took so long to be sufficient. Or indeed Darfur, where its absence was followed by such horrific events.

Easy to disagree with too those who express shock that the Liberal Democrats, having opposed war in Iraq, could possibly support intervention in Syria – skipping over the long tradition of the Lib Dems, and before them the Liberals, supporting military intervention to prevent human rights atrocities. Remember not just Ashdown and Yugoslavia, but a succession of calls for forceful intervention over the years.

That’s the easy bit. Yet all that, of course, does not mean military intervention at this time in Syria is bound to be right and effective.

A notable pattern of relatively successful military intervention is that it involves a successful regime change shortly after, helping to bring quickly to an end the need for active military operations. I understand why those thinking seriously about military action in Syria are keen to dismiss talk of regime change, but I really can’t see how it plays out to any sort of half-decent (or, please, better than half-decent) outcome without regime change. Syria is too far entrapped in civil war – and Assad to murderous a tyrant – for no change in regime to work out.

Yet successful regime change is deeply problematic on legal grounds and far harder than simply removing one regime – as Iraq reminds us daily. It would be hopelessly optimistic to think a wonderful democratic society will leap into being even if Assad were to quit tomorrow. Creating stable democracies is a longer and messier business than that.

So there is no simple option that is guaranteed to make Syria a good place. Just messy options that may make it better. (Indeed, it’s such a messy range of options that even 38 Degrees – usually top of the form at making every issue into a simple, strident battle of good versus bad – has emailed supporters saying it’s complicated.)

For me, then, the key factor is that international law is there to protect the weak. The strong must follow international law – but the weak can only get their rightful protection if the strong help out. International law wilfully broken by the powerful is meaningless. But so too is international law where the weak receive no protection when it is broken and they are the ones suffering. That places an onus on those who are strong to use their strength to uphold international law.

That means any military intervention must be legal, must be based on strong evidence, must be properly authorised – but also, if others are breaking the law with impunity, must however reluctantly take place.

Will Syria meet those tests? I don’t know. No-one does. Count me still as undecided.

* Mark Pack is a member of the Federal Board and editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire. He is a candidate for Party President.

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22 Comments

  • “The absurd politics of those on the left who have never lifted the smallest placard in protest again Assad’s wide scale murders but break out a garage-full the moment there is a whiff of US involvement in something.”

    Straw men. Assad is not a member of the British government, so why would anyone lift a placard to complain about him here? If he was being supported by our government (or by any other organisation), then I’m fairly sure there would be plenty of leftie protesters out on the street with placards denouncing the government or whoever. Secondly, has it occurred to you that many of those protesters (who you claim are on the left) might actually be protesting because they think the actions of our government are wrong rather than because our government appears to be in agreement with the US administration?

  • “That means any military intervention must be legal, must be based on strong evidence, must be properly authorised – but also, if others are breaking the law with impunity, must however reluctantly take place.”

    What on earth does that mean – “must be properly authorised – but also … must … take place”?

    If proper authorisation is not forthcoming, then it will either be unauthorised or it won’t take place!

  • @Steve

    “Straw men. Assad is not a member of the British government, so why would anyone lift a placard to complain about him here?”

    A neat way to say “So people are being gassed – but they’re only wogs. It’s not happening here, it’s out in Bongo bongo land. So why care?”

  • Richard Dean 29th Aug '13 - 12:41pm

    Action requires decision. The longer indecision persists, the closer it approximates to a No.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 29th Aug '13 - 12:53pm

    So let me see if if I’ve got this right: the Liberal Democrats said that regime change in Iraq was wrong, even though Hussein gassed the Marsh Arabs, and the invasion of Iraq was wrong and the bombing of its people was wrong because there was no evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction. But that was when the Liberal Democrats were in opposition: now that the Liberal Democrats are the Government they are saying that regime change in Syria is unavoidable and the bombing of Syria and its people is right even though there is no evidence that Assad actually used the poison gas against his own people. How nauseating it is to observe your party’s tortuous distinctions between the situation in Iraq and the situation in Syria. All made necessary by Cameron’s jingoism. I’ll bet you are really grateful to Ed Milliband for getting your party off the hook in the Commons this afternoon.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Aug '13 - 12:55pm

    No think Steve is right about his straw men observation. The British government is selling weapons to Bahrain, Israel and Saudi Arabia and only the left seems to be bothered about it. The west is bombing with drones Pakistan and Yeman, 2 countries we have not declared war against, and only the left seems to be bothered about it.
    Yet we make a fuss about national ID cards in this country. Rightly so, but minor compared to the impact on civil liberties for those who live in other countries that the British government is responsible for.
    What I do not like about the Stop the War movement is that it really is a vehicle for Respect to recruit new members. People like George Galloway simply play to the gallery, whipping up emotions, and are totally unsophisticated in their understanding of international affairs. However in some communites they are remarkably effective in mobilising people who normally have nothing to do with politics.

  • Tony Harwood 29th Aug '13 - 1:00pm

    I have personally never experienced such a yawning gulf between the party leadership and our wider membership (and, indeed, the British public, if the polls are to be believed) than over their beligerent attitude and blind faith in military intervention in Syria. In fact any actions by the UK Government that would further enflame and hasten a collapse into sectarian anarchy in Syria and the wider region appear to be opposed by everybody but the Coalition. As a co-author of the Sykes-Picot agreement, that so fuels sectarian tension in the region, the UK has a particular responsibility to seek a negotiated peace without pre-conditions. Too many people are dying in Syria already without the UK adding to the grim body count.

    I do find myself wondering whether if we had our current party leadership back in 2003 our stance on military intervention in Iraq may have been very different.

  • Iain Sharpe 29th Aug '13 - 1:02pm

    Richard Dean is right that indecision points to a No. The logic must be that if we’re not clear what we are trying to achieve and what are the chances of success, then it is better not to take action. Inevitably there will be differences between this and all past instances of intervention or non-intervention in conflict. As Mark says, regime change does not appear a possibility. Even if it were there is no guarantee that the new regime would be better. Military intervention short of occupation might leave the Assad regime chastened, but might equally rally the support of its international allies and make it more determined to win. It seems to me that the notion of intervention is more a case of conscience-salving by the Western powers combined with a desire not to seem impotent. Those are not good reasons for intervention. It is disappointing to see the Lib Dem leadership going along with Cameron, leaving the role of sceptic to Miliband.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Aug '13 - 1:07pm

    I have a number of problems with military intervention in Syria. I admit that the prospect of destroying chemical weapons in Syria is a very compelling argument to support this intervention, just as overthrowing Saddam Hussein in Iraq was before. But also like Iraq, that is not the only thing that is going to happen.
    Mark says that our authority for intervening is based on us being strong, and only the strong can protect the rights of the weak. However if the strong are intending to enforce UN human rights conventions, then surely the UN has to agree to those actions in the first place? Otherwise the string will have licence to do whatever they like and not bother with the UN?
    Another concern is the impact on the region. In Iran the hard liners were recently defeated in the elections there – a wonderful result for the west. But maybe all for nothing, I cannot think of a bigger incentive for Iran to develop nuclear weapons now. Then there is the question of whether Hezbollah will start bombing Israel to “punish” the west. As night follows day Israel will retaliate and what happens after that is anyone’s guess.
    These are very high stakes, we are dammed whatever we decide, but the least worst option in my view is to stay out.

  • “I admit that the prospect of destroying chemical weapons in Syria is a very compelling argument to support this intervention …”

    Is anyone even claiming that can be done? Even if it was known where they were, would anyone in their right mind set about try to bomb stockpiles of chemical weapons?

  • Maggie_Smith 29th Aug '13 - 1:18pm

    The reason people tend to draw more analogy with Iraq is obvious.

    Just look at the sizes and the type of Intervention required, Iraq was far more comparable to Syria in the size and quality of it’s military (Although obviously at this point Syria is far more up to date than Iraq was at the time). The level of intervention required to “make the point” with Syria would be vastly greater than putting small numbers of troops on the ground.

    Those who want to get a message across should remember that will entail the wholesale destruction of a large part of the military machine in Syria, far more akin to that in Iraq and Libya than a smaller state. Along with that goes the collateral damage, yes the deaths of more civilians.

    I take great exception to being painted as not caring about the plight of the civil population in Syria, I care a lot. But you Cannot blame anyone for looking at the mess of Iraq and Libya and saying, we must be sure and we must be proportionate.

    I am still frankly reeling in stark disbelief that I am seeing the Lib dem leadership taking the view they are on this. They were right to highlight the folly and stupidity of the Iraq war under Tony Blair, they were at that time the only party with the principle to think about the consequence….and now this. What have you become? When you look in a political mirror do you recognise yourselves at all??

  • It is interesting that more people don’t raise the example of Bosnia in 1994, where air strikes were used successfully but did not result in regime change. Let’s not forget that it was Liberal Democrats at the time who were pushing strongly for intervention.

    It does somewhat annoy me that to many it seems Lib Dems had no foreign policy before 2003. Interventionism as a corner-stone of a Liberal ethical foreign policy dates back to Gladstone (or even Palmerston)

  • Bill le Breton 29th Aug '13 - 1:32pm

    Mark, Sierra Leone is really not comparable. It was relatively easy to track the possible consequential paths of intervention. Rebels (RUF) funded and armed by Charles Taylor’s NPFL (from next door) attempted to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government. The International Community just took too long (11 years) to come to the aid of legitimate democratic forces. The belief in democracy in Sierra Leone was deeply engrained. The second general election after the crisis saw a peaceful change of government – very impressive.

    Mark and Phil, Bosnia had some of the complexity, and that is why UN involvement was not plain sailing, but which party in that situation would be the equivalent of Al Qaida? And which country equated to Iran and which to Israel? Milošević backed off.

    Elsewhere on LDV Edis Bevan provided a link to a chart of the alliances and enmities that the players in Syria are part of. It is well worth a look: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/08/26/the-middle-east-explained-in-one-sort-of-terrifying-chart/

    Former US Ambassador to Syria, Ryan Crocker, took part in a rather bizarre US talk show, but brought with him a chart of the ethnic make up of the Levant. I can’t seem to isolate it so you would have to go the TV web page to isolate it. Again it gives an idea of the complexity of the post-Ottoman Empire’s south east section. http://kissingsuzykolber.uproxx.com/2013/08/gruden-talk-jon-and-herm-discuss-syria-with-ryan-crocker.html

    John Simpson seems to think that a few rockets would see the end of it. And that the US will do it alone, next Monday or Tuesday. But what next? How does Obama react to the next atrocity once he has set such a precedent as a reaction? Escalation of the deterrent? Until Iran steps in? Or until Israel preempts Iran stepping in? How attractive to Al Qaeda would such escalation be, and to elements in the Iranian regime?

    There is little alternative to containment as the aim – that is containment in the sense of preventing escalation bringing in the ‘allies’ of various participants. Humanitarian aid, to Syria and for its neighbours. Talk, talk. (Especially with Russia). When/if Russia changes policy the web of consequences shrinks and the International Community can act as law keeper. But until then???

    It has hitherto been thought that there was sufficient deterrents available to the international community against the use of chemical and biological weapons, but that has been shown to be either a fig leaf or a herald of even worse conflict and bloodshed. Let’s admit it’s a fig leaf rather than risk it being shown to be the herald of catastrophe.

  • Iain Sharpe 29th Aug '13 - 1:35pm

    @ Phil – Yes but intervention has by no means always been successful and has sometimes had very negative long-term results. For example Gladstone may be cited as the exemplar of liberal interventionism, but the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 and subsequent occupation of Egypt did not have happy consequences. No two situations are alike, but there is a real danger with Syria that we either engage in a futile gesture of intervention, which will create longer-term resentment, or that we get sucked into a prolonged conflict. Neither of these will be good outcomes.

  • ‘The absurd politics of those on the left who have never lifted the smallest placard in protest again Assad’s wide scale murders but break out a garage-full the moment there is a whiff of US involvement in something.’

    Typical Right wing rant – what about those on the Right who never criticized Apartheid or America’s use of chemical weapons in Iraq and Vietnam – American hypocrisy never fails to amaze me. Those generally on the Right who ignore Israel’s blatant violation of UN resolutions time after time.

    The real agenda of America and her supplicants is to isolate those who have the audacity to criticize America and Israel such as Syria, Iraq or Iran or of course Libya. These countries (independent but hostile to American imperialism) who stand in the way of America get the full force of American military ire and global bullying.

    We need to do what our allies in the EU such as Germany and Spain do i.e. not play poodle to American global expansion.

  • Cllr David Becket 29th Aug '13 - 2:22pm

    We have let Labour take over the mantle of common sense we showed over Iraq, our leader has come out with platitudes and most of our MPs are silent. We have sunk a long way in ten years.

  • Iain Sharpe 29th Aug '13 - 2:46pm

    @ David Orr

    Ah, the joys of whataboutery! So do the undoubted failings of the right in international affairs render the left above criticism? Even assuming (which I don’t think we can) that ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have each had united, monolithic views on all, or indeed any, of the issues you mention.

  • A Social Liberal 29th Aug '13 - 5:53pm

    So many on here are arguing on points they know little about.

    Let me elucidate.
    *There are two types of nerve agent – persistent and non persistent. Persistent agents stay in location (either as liquid or gas) for months if not years – often needing remedial action to break them down. Non persistent agents, as the name suggests, break down readily in the atmosphere, usually between hours and days.
    *Storage of all chemical weapons is tricky, but especially non persistent. For that reason they are not placed in their means of delivery until the last minute.
    *Dissemination of large amounts of chemical weapons is complex. It needs large containers to be delivered into an area and then the agent in that weapon to be pushed out. This cannot be done with conventional explosive munitions as an explosion will be more likely to destroy than disseminate. There are two types of delivery – air and ground dissemination.
    *Syria has stockpiles of one persistent nerve agent (VX), one non persistent agent (sarin) and one blister agent (mustard gas). Sarin is the most likely agent to have been delivered into the Demascus given the symptoms – mustard gas comes with it blindness and blisters, VX being more potent will have caused a higher ratio of fatalities to surviving casualties.

    It is the belief of all the analysts I have read that the rebel forces could not have initiated the atrocity in Damascus because:-

    *They are unable to store large amounts of sarin without it having deteriorated.
    *They are unable to deliver the large amounts of nerve agent used.
    *The delivery vehicles came from outside the area and from areas held by government forces.

  • Joseph Bourke 29th Aug '13 - 7:25pm

    “For me, then, the key factor is that international law is there to protect the weak. The strong must follow international law – but the weak can only get their rightful protection if the strong help out. International law wilfully broken by the powerful is meaningless. But so too is international law where the weak receive no protection when it is broken and they are the ones suffering. That places an onus on those who are strong to use their strength to uphold international law.

    That means any military intervention must be legal, must be based on strong evidence, must be properly authorised – but also, if others are breaking the law with impunity, must however reluctantly take place.”

    In any conflict of this nature, it is well to remember the key phrases from the ancient Greek historian Thucydides ‘Melian Dialogue’. Firstly, “that the strong do as they will; the weak do as they must” and secondly, “Only between equals can there be justice.”

    The Assad regime supported by Russia and Iran will do everthing within its power (legal or not) to maintain its hold over the people and resources of Syria. A just resolution can only be brought about by matching Russian/Iranian conmittment with Western/Arab league backing for the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people in both freeing themselves from the control of a criminal regime and in expelling foreign jihadists from their terrtitory.

    The lead must be taken by the Syrian National Coalition and regional states with the diplomatic,humanitarian and logistical support of the US and European Union.

  • Mark, loved the way you summed up the dilemmas. Thanks for mentioning Cote d’Ivoire as another example of successful intervention … I would also add Mali and even Libya (although clearly it has not yet evolved into the democracy we would like to see). I strongly believe in R2P – I think that should be a centre-point of a Lib Dem defence policy. I do not believe that Britain should retreat to a narrow isolationist self-defence position, and should be prepared to do more than purely humanitarian interventions abroad in the name of R2P. In such circumstances (viz Syria) helping in refugee camps does nothing to resolve the underlying cause. It is like medicine – treating the symptoms or the root cause). The difficult thing here is knowing what is the right medicine, in the right dose, with the right timing, what side effects will there be (and the mitigation thereof) and providing for the necessary convalescence after the medical intervention.

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