Opinion: Syria – We still have a responsibility to protect

Several speakers inThursday’s House of Commons debate on possible intervention in Syria referred to the developing concept within International Law of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Basically that means that when a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people from humanitarian disaster then the international community has an obligation to intervene. Since R2P’s endorsement at the UN in 2005, it has generally been assumed that any such international intervention should have the backing of a UN Security Council resolution, which in Syria’s case would have been impossible, given that Russia and maybe also China would have vetoed it. Hence the possibility raised by some MPs of an advisory vote in the UN General Assembly, which would have been quite likely to deliver a majority and would not have been subject to vetoes.

Given the Government’s defeat on Thursday, these considerations might now seem redundant. On the contrary, our moral Responsibility to Protect has not gone away just because the military option is off the table, at least so far as Britain is concerned. Indeed, within the R2P doctrine it is accepted that a military option is a last resort, and should only be attempted if there is a realistic chance of success (always doubtful in Syria’s case, given the resilience of the Assad government’s forces). So what are the other options? Diplomacy is the most obvious and pressing one. It is clear that the disparate rebel forces in Syria are not going to win a military victory, so it would be foolish to sit around and wait for one. Instead, we should be engaging proactively with Russia and Iran, in particular, to see what sort of negotiated settlement could be thrashed out at a new Geneva Conference. This might lead to some kind of power-sharing agreement, but most importantly it needs to involve a cessation of the fighting.

In the meantime, a key element of the international community’s Responsibility to Protect is to help Syria’s neighbours – Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey – shoulder the huge burden of refugees from the conflict. The humanitarian need is immense and if even a fraction of the sums that might have been spent on an international war were devoted to relief efforts that would be of great assistance.

Of course it would be wonderful if one day the al-Assad clique – which involves a key group of people, not just the figurehead Bashar – could be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face charges of crimes against humanity, including the use of chemical weapons. But we have to accept, reluctantly, that that would not have happened had Britain gone down a road that could have led to missile strikes against key military targets. I understand the frustration of those who feel that Britain has let down the people of Syria, but we will let them down much worse if we now just turn our backs and walk away.

* Jonathan Fryer is Chair of the Federal International Relations Committee.

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54 Comments

  • Bill le Breton 31st Aug '13 - 9:25am

    Jonathan writes with much wisdom, as ever. He is right to chart the way forward.

    But before leaving the events of Thursday I believe the Party and the rest of the nation would do well to see what was also happening in Parliament that day, because it is crucial to the question as to whether in the days of regional tension that lie ahead, Nick Clegg is the right person not just to lead our Party but to hold the office of Deputy Prime Minister.

    Please allow me to explain.

    What has been exposed in the last few days is that our party leader was actually willing to sacrifice what he believed was the best for the people of Syria in order to embarrass and do down Milliband and the Labour Party.

    Clegg argued rightly that the Labour amendment was indistinguishable from the Government’s motion, but spent Thursday telling Labour to support the Government motion in the mistaken confidence that in doing so his ‘side’ would win the vote *and* skewer his political opponents both outside and within the Party. Thus he gambled.

    Dare I say it, a Wilson or a Callaghan and possibly even a Major, certainly a Clark would have accepted the amendment and so got what they wanted (re Syria) if not what they also wanted (re Milliband)’, isolating opponents of their strategy (re Syria) into a Commons minority. But he and the Coaltion managers were, to the very end, confident that they could get both their objectives by winning both votes.

    Now that to me was playing politics (gambling) with the lives of the ordinary people of Syria.

    So, in his Parliamentary tactic Clegg betrayed his arrogance, political inexperience, isolation from the collective wisdom of his Party and his continuing record of ruthlessness in pursuit of political gain.

    This is why he is unfit to be both our Leader and the DPM of our country.

  • Andrew Suffield 31st Aug '13 - 9:59am

    So what are the other options?

    This is a question which people haven’t been paying enough attention to. Charlie Stross came up with a good idea recently. Chemical weapons might not be the only problem in Syria, but they’re a major one – and what they have stockpiled is ancient junk like Sarin, which is actually just a jacked up insecticide and something that we have an antidote for. It doesn’t even cost very much – neostigmine, atropine, and diazepam are cheap generic drugs. It’s not perfect but it’ll save most of the people.

    So there is one unambiguously good thing that we could do to largely neutralise the threat of chemical weapons in Syria. We could distribute gas masks, field decontamination showers, and antidote kits to everybody in the conflict zone. In one swoop that would largely neutralise the chemical weapons stockpiles because they just wouldn’t be very effective any more, it would harm nobody, and it would tilt the balance of power in favour of whoever isn’t using the vile things. And it would cost a tiny fraction of what we would have spent on the proposed military intervention.

    Why not?

  • Gareth Jones 31st Aug '13 - 11:18am

    @ Bill Le Breton – I’m sorry but I feel you are criticising the wrong leader(s). I have never been a fan of Clegg but if there has been any gambling it has been by Cameron by rushing the vote and Miliband by playing party politics – the Government motion was changed repeatedly to accomodate Milibands concerns; as mentioned, the motions were virtually the same so why didn’t Ed support the Government motion?

    @ Andrew Suffield – an excellent idea.

  • @Andrew Suffield
    Unfortunately, gas masks on their own may not be enough, Sarin released as a liquid (e.g. as a spray) can also be absorbed through the skin – and it can still kill you before you get to a shower. You would need full NBC clothing to provide a good level of protection. It should also be remembered that it is odorless, colourless, tasteless and evaporates very quickly, so you may not know you’ve been exposed until you start feeling the symptoms. But the symptoms are not unique to Sarin, so in the event of a suspected attack you could end up with large numbers of people with atropine poisoning (which may also kill) as no one was actually exposed.

    I think a far simpler solution would be to set up gas alarms at strategic points and leaflet the population with instructions to get away as soon as possible if they sound (but again, people may get killed/injured if there is widespread panic – something possible in either scenario obviously).

  • Richard Dean 31st Aug '13 - 12:21pm

    My impression is that, if the government had accepted the Labour amendment, Labour would have either produced a new amendment, or voted against their own amendment.

  • Bill le Breton 31st Aug '13 - 12:42pm

    Richard, not if it had been done at the end of the winding up speech – it would have split Labour assunder. If Milliband had reacted by accepting at least 100 Labour MPs would have pressed ahead, see my reasoning below in answer to Gareth. Clegg could have said on behalf of the Coaltion, “We have listen carefully to the debate. We want a consensus on this principle, we have therefore decided to …” “Up-roar”

    Gareth, I have criticised all three leaders elsewhere., in my firm belief that the motion and the amendment were totally misguided – see my piece in response to Stephen yesterday.

    Yes, I do think that Milliband was putting his own career above the interests of the ordinary people of Syria. It seems clear that his original undertaking was to back the Coalition, but actually Labour’s greater experience in Parliamentary management meant that the whips quickly realised that the leader of the Opposition couldn’t carry that in his own Party.

    This is often the problem when ‘events’ arise when the House is in recess – the whips don’t have a feel for the backbench position. For instance, I believe that only half an hour was set aside for a Parly Meeting. That is a piece of attempted suppression, rather than a piece of party demcocracy to allow full expression by our representatives in both Houses.

    Labour were quicker to sense the mood. Both LD and Tory whips clearly missed what was going on right up until the return of the tellers.

    I cannot criticise the Conservatives – that is their business. I can criticise my own leadership, who were again, flat footed, inexperienced and over confident. Their hubris led to their defeat (for which I am thankful).

  • Richard Dean 31st Aug '13 - 12:51pm

    No, it would not have split Labour asunder, they’d all be in on the trick!

    I think you need to start criticising the Conservatives, and to stop using every issue as a vehicle for criticising Nick Clegg!

  • George Kendall 31st Aug '13 - 3:27pm

    @Jonathan Fryer “I understand the frustration of those who feel that Britain has let down the people of Syria, but we will let them down much worse if we now just turn our backs and walk away.”

    Thank you for a thoughtful and principled article. It’s refreshing to read someone who is respectful of those they disagree with, rather than use this crisis to make political attacks.

  • The problem with “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” with respect to Syria (and other countries that have in recent times had internal conflict) , is answering the question whether the government really is unable or unwilling to protect its own people from humanitarian disaster or whether it is unwilling or unable to protect certain ‘small’ groups of it’s people at all times and whether the actions it does take against certain groups aren’t being undertaken to protect other groups of it’s people.

    The fundamental question is how much do we want other countries to respect OUR sovereignty? Once we have an answer to that question we can begin to answer the challenges around disregarding other countries sovereignty and intervening/interferring in their internal affairs.

  • An article in New Scientist suggests how that there are ways of treating sarin gas and limiting the damage it does. See http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21929321.500-syria-drop-medicines-not-bombs.html

  • Jonathan, whilst I appreciate your thumbnail of the Assad family, it is a “matter of judgement” whether it has and is failing “to protect its own people from humanitarian disaster”. I also note that your thumbnail could be applied to many regimes past and present. The point I’m making is that as this a concept of law, we should apply the law as it would normally be implemented and argued by a good legal team… (we only need to look at the use and abuse of the Human Rights Act, to see just how far legal teams have been able to distort the original purpose of a law to their own purposes).

  • A Social Liberal 31st Aug '13 - 9:39pm

    Kath

    What the New Scientist article forgets to say is that the atropine/pralidoxime antidote will only work if the sarin dose is low AND if you have time to inject.

  • The article makes it clear that the antidote won’t save everybody but the nature of sarin means that some get lower doses than others so can be saved. Moreover it’s worth noting that sarin is more likely to be fatal to people in cellars than people in attics. When you can’t save everybody it’s still usual and humane to try to save those who can be saved.

  • Sorry, Jonathan, whilst I respect your viewpoint and do not disagree with the evidence you present, we should remember that “the law” can and does at times take differing views to what we perceive as overwhelming evidence of a “humanitarian disaster”.

    However, I totally agree with your points “we should be engaging proactively with Russia and Iran” and other key players in the region and “to help Syria’s neighbours … shoulder the huge burden of refugees from the conflict.”.

    I would be interested in you response to the question I raised concerning sovereignty with respect to R2P…

  • Peter Davies 1st Sep '13 - 7:35am

    @Roland
    Sovereignty should lie with the people. The people of Syria have no way of expressing their will other than violence.

  • Michael Parsons 1st Sep '13 - 2:56pm

    Sorry: but there is absolutely no “responsibility to protect” in international law. It is a delusion of the Blair type like the ‘humanitarian war’ and the dodgy dossier. If you don’t believe that, read Alex Green’s excellent article in Social Justice First blog.see:
    http://socialjusticefirst.com/2013/08/30/team-america-should-it-airstrike-again/

  • The best and most constructive article I’ve seen about Syria on this site. (That bar is quite low, though… 🙂 )

  • Meral Hussein Ece 1st Sep '13 - 6:33pm

    Jonathan, very well put, and you highlight how the R2P, which was hardly discussed in the debate, and since then., is an avenue that needs to be firmly explored by the UN. There are no easy answers, perhaps no solutions, but we can’t simply wash our hands of these atrocities.

  • ” Too lengthy to talk about properly here, but do please look at what the Canadians researched and wrote about this, and what the UN accepted in 2005.”

    What the UN accepted in 2005 related specifically to actions by the UN Security Council, did it not?

  • @ Michael Parsons – there clearly *is* a doctrine of R2P, since the UN has discussed and endorsed it. International law is an evolving body of sometimes contradictory concepts. I wish that some warhorses in our leadership (and the government of the UK and US ) would pay more attention to law courts (the ICC, in particular) than to military force. It might well be more effective in keeping the peace in the long run, and increasing trade.

  • Michael Parsons 5th Sep '13 - 9:10am

    @ Johnathan Fryer
    @ Teery G

    Green is I think a leading expert in the field and he writes:

    Presumably, we can all agree on extreme cases: if a lunatic tyrant is indisputably and imminently about to blow half of his population to smithereens, military intervention to prevent that from happening would almost certainly be legal, even without the permission of the Security Council. Hypothetical cases of genuine and otherwise unavoidable emergencies make compelling thought experiments.

    However, it is doubtful that there has ever been such a case, or that there ever will be. The situation in Syria is certainly nothing of the sort. Instead, Syria is a paradigmatic example of the more usual conditions of uncertainty, both as to the extent of the violation of individual rights and of the responsibility of the parties involved. Under such conditions, we need a more measured approach than permitting individual States going in guns blazing, potentially adding to the death-toll without any guarantee of solving the problem cited as the reason for intervention. We all know what happens when this need for subtlety is ignored.

    International law provides the answer in quite uncontroversial terms. UN inspectors with an objective mandate must go and verify any allegations. They must then present their findings to the Security Council, who should pass a resolution requiring member States to take action proportionate to the risk that further violations of individual rights will occur. (This answers “How?”) Then and only then can military action be taken. (This answers “When?”)

    The reason that we must rely on the UN for a coordinated solution is implicit in the nature of statehood. Because all States must be treated as political communities worthy of equal respect, until it is publicly demonstrated that their governments are behaving in ways that prevent this from holding true, it would violate equal respect for other States to take unilateral action. Allowing intervention decisions to take place behind the closed doors of (potentially selfishly motivated) foreign governments would allow their judgement to determine the destiny of a political community from which they are totally disconnected. Requiring the Security Council to make a public decision, after a fully disclosed investigation, enhances transparency and focuses upon the rights of the population concerned.

    I reckon that settles itdon’t you? Warmongers abound, and seem dete mined to ignore the appalling results and injustices of air-strike democracy etc. along with warnings from our own leadingmilitary, as to unintended consequences (among which I suggest would be the final elimination of Christianity from the Middle East).
    Take it up witb Alex Green on the site – he will almost cetainly explain fuurther and is a remarkably lucid writer.

    One note: it is not my cynicism, but yours.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 9:37am

    The UN was created when there was no internet and no cellphone, when communications came only by word of mouth or letter, or through news outlets with agendas including political and business ones. Things have moved on, and the UN, governments, decision makers, and commentators need to move too.

    It is absolutely clear from the evidence available on the internet that the Syrian government has behaved in ways that do not deserve our respect, not only in their incompetent handling of the peaceful protests a couple of years ago, not only in their cruel conduct of this civil war, but in their everyday conduct as a government that denies basic human rights to its citizens, and thinks of the process of governing as similar to prison guards governing an open prison.

    We like to have “local” democracy. So why are we insisting that world government can only take place through a monolithic and unique central authority – the UN? In the modern internet-enabled, cell-phone-enabled age, should we not instead be pressing for much more de-centralized decision-making? Why should local national populations and their representatives be prevented by the monolith from defending human rights?

  • “We like to have “local” democracy. So why are we insisting that world government can only take place through a monolithic and unique central authority – the UN? In the modern internet-enabled, cell-phone-enabled age, should we not instead be pressing for much more de-centralized decision-making?”

    Obviously the point of setting a high threshold for the justification of intervention by third parties is to protect the sovereignty of individual states – in other words “de-centralized decision-making”.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 11:37am

    The UN is arguing for the sole right to decide on the world’s reaction to Assad’s August 21 atrocity. In what way is that “de-centralized decision-making”?

  • Michael Parsons 5th Sep '13 - 11:44am

    @Richard Dean
    We’ve had the telegraph system since at least the 1870’s, and wireless communication since the early 1900’s!!
    But what does that matter for this question? Politicians at home could now interfere (often disastrously) in military operations, more than before, agreed.Would you argue that the invention of the automatic rifle replacing muskets meant we could now fire at will? Does “can” mean “ought” should ‘move with the times’ as you so quaintly put it? I hardly’t think so.

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 11:57am

    Richard, this is descending into farce. Everybody making up their own minds about what they need to do about how to force their neighbours to conform to their own standards of behaviour isn’t “de-centralized decision-making”, it’s anarchy, and not the cuddly kind. If you really mean you’re in favour of de-centralized decision-making and not just making mischief, then what have you got to complain about? Britain has, in a very globally de-centralized way, decided not to intervene militarily in the Syrian tragedy. Or wait — do you think every town in Britain should vote on whether to send its own soldiers/planes/missiles? Perhaps it should just be an individual decision … you know, like those jihadis from London and Birmingham etc. who keep turning up in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting for one side in a civil war?

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 12:01pm

    @Michael Parsons.

    None of that. The internet and cell-phone technology enable huge numbers of people to understand what is going on, and to make their own decisions about who is telling the truth and which suggestions are best to make things better. Whole populations can know whether their government is making a supportable decision or not.

    This means that the degree of accountability available nowadays is becoming adequate to allow decision making at levels which, relative to the monolithic UN, are “local”. As has been shown by the UK, French, and US activities, governments are no longer able to make decisions of this nature without their populations knowing,

    A logical result of this increased accountability is that we should be relying less on the monolith for our individual national decisions. A country ought to be able to legally make its own decision about what to do about Syria and Assad’s atrocities.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 12:06pm

    @Malcolm Todd.
    Your argument sounds like you would prefer an Assad-like dictatorship in the UK!

    Local democracy implies, precisely, that a central authority does not have control over local decisions. In that sense, relative to central control, yes, local democracy may seem like anarchy.

    But I would not normally expect a liberal democrat to argue against local democracy on that basis!

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 12:30pm

    @Richard — “Local democracy implies, precisely, that a central authority does not have control over local decisions.”

    Exactly.

    Choosing whether to launch a military attack on another country thousands of miles away is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a local decision.

    Most of us believe that decisions, for example, about whether to intervene in a case of child neglect or abuse should be taken at an appropriately local level rather than by central government. However, that doesn’t mean that I should have the right to march into my neighbour’s house and remove their children by force just because I think that they are being mistreated; and it certainly doesn’t mean that someone from another city should be allowed to march into my neighbour’s house and do it, even if I secretly want them to.

    I’I would be sorry if I thought you really couldn’t tell the difference between appropriately constituted, democratically accountable authority and an “Assad-like dictatorship”. (And no, the UN ain’t democratic; but if you’re going to insist on complete parallelism for an analogy to work, then your whole argument about “decentralized decision-making” goes up the spout anyway, doesn’t it?)

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 12:43pm

    @Malcolm

    Local is relative. A town is local compared to a nation. A nation is local compared to a world.

  • While I don’t support strikes on Syria, I can’t agree with people who are effectively saying the Russia and China, which by their political philosophies see repression of dissent and desires for self-determination as a purely internal matter for individual states, can ever be relied on as any kind of guardians of the right and wrong time to intervene.

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 1:19pm

    Richard — are you genuinely missing the point every time, or just yanking my chain? This has got nothing to do with the size of the area, but whether there is a definable area at all.

    “Local democracy” could be used to argue that Syria is entitled to look after itself and do what it likes within its own borders — indeed, that is usually the principle that the world operates on. It could be used to argue that a larger but still sub-global group of nations to which Syria belonged should take the initiative rather than the UN. It cannot be used to argue that a completely separate nation, to which Syria has no ties other than global, has a right to lay down the law independently of the existing (however imperfect) global authority, to which both Syria and the UK belong. There may be other, non legal/constitutionally based arguments for it; but the argument about local democracy doesn’t hold any water. Can you see that? Or if not, can you tell me where you think my argument breaks down?

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 1:20pm

    Sorry, to be clear my last comment was addressed to Richard Dean, not Richard S, who slipped in whilst I was composing my reply!

  • 🙂 One of the disadvantages of having a common name, there are advantages too.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 1:50pm

    @Malcolm Todd.

    I see but do not agree with your argument – you assume that local democracy means that local decisions can only be applied to the locality where they are made. That is nonsense, of course, because local decisions always affect neighbours. If I decide that HS2 will not come through here, it affects there as well. If Henley dams the Thames, it affects Greenwich. If Balcombe allows fracking, other areas might find their resistance weakened too. Shall we disallow all the protesters than came from somewhere else?

    Internet and cellphones make ever country in the world a neighbour of every other one. Syria’s decisions affect, not only its immediate neighbours through spillover fights and refugees, but everyone through the potential for escalation, the Chemical Weapons convention, and simply how we feel seeing people gassed.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 1:54pm

    @Richard S. That’s a very cryptic comment!

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 2:32pm

    “If Henley dams the Thames, it affects Greenwich.” — which is precisely why Henley doesn’t have the right to dam the Thames, of course. (In fact, where major rivers cross international borders they can be a serious source of conflict, but that’s a whole other issue. ) Nor do you have the right to decide that HS2 won’t come through your area — you have a right to object, to campaign, etc., but not to stop it. As for “If Balcombe allows fracking, other areas might find their resistance weakened too.” — you’ve gone beyond doing things which happen to affect your neighbours to confusing doing things which might just influence how other people act with imposing your will on others without their consent or even the consent of a wider community to which you both belong. Can you not see that these are entirely different things? Even if we weren’t talking about something as serious as blowing people up?

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 2:56pm

    I’m afraid that I do not accept that what a government does to its people is a purely internal matter. I am a human being, and I do not care one hoot for any principles that say otherwise.

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 3:32pm

    @Richard Dean — so now you’re saying you don’t believe in local democracy?

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 3:49pm

    @Malcolm Todd.
    I think you may have missed a trick here. Perhaps you are like me, so old that parts of the brain switch off in the middle of the day? If what a government does is a purely internal matter, why is the UN involved in all of this?

  • Malcolm Todd 5th Sep '13 - 4:01pm

    @Richard
    I wasn’t the one who suggested it was purely an internal affair in the first place. You’re the one who started banging on about local democracy. I’m trying to point out why your argument doesn’t hold water.

    You’re quite entitled to argue that the UN shouldn’t be involved because it’s an internal matter to Syria – that’s not and never has been my argument and it’s only your argument when it suits you, it seems.
    You’re also entitled to argue that there is a greater responsibility that overrides local autonomy and entitles the wider community to intervene in the affairs of others.
    But you can’t in all logic argue that local autonomy means that people far away from the country concerned are entitled to intervene, without reference to any body that has any sort of authority over that country.

    Argue for intervention all you wish — though probably you may as well do that somewhere else, as I’m sure everyone else is completely fed up with our angelpin argument here and has gubbered off by now. But the particular argument, based on local democracy or decentralized decision-making, that you have attempted to raise here, doesn’t work.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 4:13pm

    It works for me, Malcolm! 🙂

  • I think a good metaphor for a country in this way would be a family. Now the government/parents should normally be left on their own to run their country/family – but in cases of major abuse then there needs to be an intervention of some type from outside.

    Now in the case of a family in the modern world, the police, courts and family services can fill that role, so it is inappropriate for someone who lives at the other side of town to carry out the intervention off their own bat. The position with countries is more like that of a family living in the wild west, where the ordinary citizens still don’t do things off their own bat, but have to try to form a posse and sort things out but under the authority of the Sheriff(or UN in the case of countries). But what happens if the sheriff is also an abuser (as is the case with Russia and China who have a veto at the UN), does that mean the citizens should do nothing? The answer would be in my opinion that they have to do things with as wide a group of people as possible, and crucially that are going to actually work to acheive their aims. I think both of those last two things are missing from the Syria proposal.

    By the way Richard Dean, it’s not that cryptic – as I see it one of the main advantages of having a relatively common name like Richard is that it doesn’t of itself make you foreign to members of any particular social class or region, whereas some other names do.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 5:13pm

    On the other hand, if the person from the other side of town happens to see someone from this side beating a defenceless person with a machete, shouldn’t that person intervene? In my experience the police can take an awful long time to arrive, and in some countries they make things worse when they do.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 5:14pm

    intervene, if they can

  • @Richard Dean,

    To extend the metaphor even further. I would say that assuming one has the necessary kung fu skills to intervene and remove the machete then one should. The government’s proposal however was to do this by throwing pebbles from what they hope is a safe distance which is difficult to see the grounds to support. However something like happening in broad daylight would be most likely inter-family rather than parent-child, so within the metaphor is more equivalent for example to an international situation like with Kuwait in 1990.

  • Richard Dean 5th Sep '13 - 6:48pm

    @Richard S.

    I’ve intervened in several knife fights, one in the UK and the rest in slum areas abroad. They were all about husband-wife relationships, some with a third man too. My experience is that you don’t need kung-fu, nor even to be armed. Just being there, as an unknown quantity with no side, can be sufficient to create a pause that is long enough to allow tempers to cool enough to stop the fight.

    But what is happening in Syria is something else. The argument is not about transient passion, but money and power, and it’s likely that a whole intellectual framework has been developed to create what people don’t realise is ingrained hate. The previous UN-brokered cease-fires were breached very quickly, apparently by both sides. People treated pauses as opportunities, not to calm down, but to recover enough to continue fighting some more.

    The family analogy has uses but also has limits, and I suspect the Syrian situation goes beyond them.

  • Michael Parsons 6th Sep '13 - 3:34pm

    @Richard Dean
    What makes you think that being on the end of a cell phone lets you “as a human being” have some special evidence? as the Sarin gas used was of the ‘home-made’ variety and not based on the Syrian government’s supply – appalling as it is that such a supply exists, why go in for regime chage (and the extra dreadful sufering that would cause)on the grounds of its use?

    More important, if as you say all this electronic communication lets the mass of people understand issues, why not as a democrat accept that that they have got it right, since the majorioty reject armed intevention? Democracy means losing votes, as well as winnng them. After all, your individual right hasnot been infringed, you are free to sign up as a human shield or a suicide bomber for the religious insurgents if you will, roles available at any age.

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