Syria: A Reply to Stephen Tall

Stephen, as an internationalist you should applaud and accept the outcome of the democratic House of Commons last night. Do not be ashamed. Be proud. Do not be dismayed. Be hopeful.

The biggest destroyer of lives and life chances is anarchy. Anarchists work to bringing the whole house down. That is their objective. The rule of law is anathema to them.

I quoted earlier in the week, Gavrilo Princip, whose assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austrian precipitated the loss of 21 million lives and, if you see the Second World War, the Cold War and the dominance of Stalin as a continuation of the First World War, Princip’s action, allied to poor political judgement that followed in Austria, Russia, Germany, France, Britain and Italy and dysfunction in Serbia and Turkey, caused many, many more deaths and the ruination of many, many more lives than even those 21 million.

Then there are those who want to change systems, who deliberately use and sponsor anarchists to do their work second hand. Then there are those whose moral imperatives unintentionally provide oxygen to anarchists.

Disorder and explosives, and yes chemicals and biological weapons, are a lethal mixture, but the necessary environment for carnage is disorder and dysfunction, which are synonyms for liberty in positive and negative terms.

Robert Fisk wrote an important piece for Tuesday’s Independent. A man who knows the Middle East well – illustrating how Al Qaeda and Hamas would be the main beneficiaries of US and UK military intervention in Syria.

The weak President of the US may yet stumble into ordering such action, but last night may actually be a turning point. Congress may now demand their say.

There will be times and circumstances when the international legislators will be able to take action against tyrants and exercise their responsibility to people. But this is not one of them. It requires intervention from the region concerned and from those who see Assad as a client. Our involvement makes that less likely, if not impossible.

Last night the House of Commons and the House of Lords showed a collective wisdom that contributed to the protection of a far greater number of people, both within Syria and in the surrounding states where anarchists and tyrants and religious fanatics are hungry for mayhem, and where America, China and Russia cast their shadows.

The vanity of leaders unwilling to listen to their colleagues (all three of them) was exposed and rejected. A potential diversion from the peace process may just have been avoided.

* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and Parliament.


  • Well said

  • Simon McGrath 30th Aug '13 - 12:21pm

    “There will be times and circumstances when the international legislators will be able to take action against tyrants and exercise their responsibility to people”
    If the death of 100,000 people and the use of nerve gas against civilians isnt the right time, when is ?

  • @Simon McGrath
    “If the death of 100,000 people and the use of nerve gas against civilians isnt the right time, when is ?”

    You’re talking about the past – something we can mostly certain of. The arguments about the effectiveness of military action in Syria were about the future. How many extra deaths from the escalation in the conflict would you have been happy with? 100,000, 500,000, 50,000,000?

    The answer to your question is that the death of 100,000 people and the use of nerve gas against civilians is the right time to intervene provided there is a reasonable chance of the intervention producing the desired outcomes. What outcome do you think would be achieved by lobbing a few cruise missiles in there?

  • Already we have Cameron calling for robust action (in defiance of Stephen Tall, who was earlier claiming that the Commons had voted for inaction) and we have Russia welcoming the decision of the Commons. I’m no fan of Putin, but he is the key to Syria and if we are serious about wanting to improve the situation for civilians on the ground it would be a good idea to work with him in devising a solution. We are closer today to avoiding escalating bloodshed than we were this time yesterday.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Aug '13 - 12:35pm

    When such action won’t lead to even more loss of life and deepening of division, Simon.

  • ‘The biggest destroyer of lives and life chances is anarchy. Anarchists work to bringing the whole house down. That is their objective. The rule of law is anathema to them.’

    What ignorance. Read ‘Demanding the Impossible: A history of Anarchism’ by P. Marshall.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Aug '13 - 12:38pm

    Steve, you are right. In a world of clientism, more often than not the diplomacy is better made towards the ‘Godfather’.

  • Tony Harwood 30th Aug '13 - 1:00pm

    Last night’s debate and vote restored some of my faith in Parliamentary democracy. Sadly, it shattered what little faith I retained in the current Liberal Democrat leadership. The nine honourable Lib Dem MPs who voted against the UK adding further fuel to the fire of this vicious sectarian civil war deserve our everlasting respect.

    My fellow old Maidstonian Robert Fisk’s “My View” feature in today’s Independent is well worth a read (“This is really about Iran, not Syria”).

    Let us hope that the UK Government do not now simply assume a logistical support role for the coming US military onslaught on Syria and step-up their covert involvement, but rather engage positively with the UN on seeking a negotiated peace in the region – without regime-change pre-conditions (some hope!). After all, the UK shares half the guilt for the toxic legacy of Sykes-Picot in the region.

  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '13 - 1:10pm

    Huh! Evil triumphs when no-one tries to stop it. When fear paralyses action. Which is now.

    The idea that a strong man is needed to control locals and prevent anarchy has been around for such a long colonial time! It helped the West support Saddam Hussein before Saddam got too ambitious. It moderated our actions against Gaddafi for a long while. I’ve even heard it in support of Mubarak, and I read in in yesterday’s propaganda letter from Syrian lawmakers to UK lawmakers, where 1914 is also mentioned! I wonder if it also helped Ghengis Khan, Hitler, Stalin?

    Why do people believe this obvious propaganda? Because it’s far away and we like our safety and comforts? How long will that safety and comfort last if we refuse to act?

    Sure, sometimes we cannot predict fully the consequences of actions, but then we cannot predict consequences of inaction either. We cannot predict “When such action won’t lead to even more loss of life and deepening of division, Simon”. In such circumstances, prediction loses its value as a guide, and we need to be guided by something else, something that is happening now.

  • Dave – I’m glad I’m not the only one gaping at Bill’s extraordinary ignorance of anarchist thinking.

    If (and this is a big if) there was a time to intervene in Syria it was right at the beginning of the conflict. We’re too late now and, anyway, does it really matter which abominable means is used to kill people? They’re still dead. It’s not a great deal morr pleasant to be mown down by machine guns…

  • Simon McGrath 30th Aug '13 - 1:50pm

    @Bill – I suppose by the same logic we should not have gone to war in 1939 ?

  • @Simon McGrath
    I love the way you studiously ignore every question I ever ask you.

    That’s an interesting point you make about WWII. Why did we declare war? It certainly wasn’t because of human rights abuses being perpetrated by Hitler, although that is what many people assume by looking from the other end of history. We went to war with Germany to protect British interests. After all, Germany wasn’t the only country to invade Poland on 1st September 1939. Why didn’t we declare war on the USSR as well? Mostly, because the USSR wasn’t a threat to the empire in the same way that Hitler’s expansionary plans were. In 1940, during our supposed moment of greatest peril, Churchill shipped large numbers of tanks to North Africa. Those are the actions of a country protecting its supply and trade routes through the Suez canal to hold on to its foreign outposts. I don’t understand how it is possible to make a comparison between a country declaring war to protect its foreign interests and an campaign of intervention on humanitarian grounds. For the latter, the objective is to minimise the loss of human life and human suffering and an assessment of the likely impact of intervention is required.

    I tend to agree with the Catholic church’s ‘just war’ doctrine:

    The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
    *the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
    *all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
    *there must be serious prospects of success;
    *the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

  • Bill le Breton 30th Aug '13 - 2:45pm

    Simon, no – by the same reasoning we should not have gone to war in 1914.

    And had we not aided and abetted the process that led to that WW1, a smashed Germany would not have become a breeding ground for Nazi fascism.

    Further to this Stewart and Dave, anarchism is obviously not monolithic and a fair-minded reader would understand I am referring to Al Qaeda’s particular brand of jihadism which is adept at exploiting, misappropriating and traducing the liberal impulse of the Arab Spring – just as I see similarities with the operations of Ujedinjenje ili smrt (Unification or Death) and Crna ruka (the Black Hand) in the origins of the First World War.

    The ingredients exist today – as they did not in 1990s Bosnia, Sierra Leone or even Kosova – for a major escalation of violence in the region.

    By removing the UK from the cocktail last night, Parliament has done the region and the world a service.

  • John L Oakes shared a status.
    4 minutes ago
    Lynne Featherstone MP via
    11:29 AM (57 minutes ago)

    Stronger Economy. Fairer Society.

    Thank you to everyone who responded to my request for views on Syria. The responses from constituents were considered and measured. The vast majority were against any direct action on Syria – many of which were against direct action without a UN resolution – a view with which I totally …See more
    Like · · Promote · Share

    John L Oakes I would have been more impressed by Lynne’s letter explaining why she voted for the government on Syria if it had not turned out to be identical to the one Tom Brake MP sent out. Clearly it is a round-robin sop designed by the Whips for Libdem MPs to offer to those of us who wanted them to vote against the motion!

  • ‘Last night the House of Commons and the House of Lords showed a collective wisdom….’

    Hardly, the majority of MPs would vote (at least in principle) for intervention in Syria given certain safeguards such as ‘compelling evidence’. If proposed by the government, the labour admentment would have easily passed. (How many MPs voted against the government and labour amendment?)

    However the outcome was decided by miscalculation (with more than a little incompetence), opportunism from Labour, and going forward what will be pride by Cameron not to revisit the vote. On an issue as serious as this, not what I would call, as some have, parliament at it’s finest!

  • Bill – OK, thank you for the clarification. How you arrive at the conclusion that Al-Qaeda are anarchists of any hue is beyond me, but never mind – that’s probably a failure in my critical thinking.

  • JOhn L Oakes – Lynne’s response is different to Toms in that she says:

    “Because people have asked my position, let me make it clear that, in that second vote, I would have voted against military action unless it was supported by the UN – and indeed resigned from the front bench if necessary. After the government defeat last night, I don’t believe there will be a second vote – but my position remains the same.”

  • The strange thing about the discussions taking place today about Syria is that it has been framed in terms isolationism by various spinners. However, the vast majority of MPs voted for military action in Syria last night – only a handful voted against the motion AND the amendment. However, I disagree with the vast majority of MPs as does the majority of the British public, but the voting last night was not anti-intervention for this specific case and was definitely not anti-intervention for all future cases as Stephen Tall somewhat unbelievably concluded

  • Bill le Breton 30th Aug '13 - 8:24pm

    Stewart, just to catch up with your 3.25 post, perhaps having a look at this link/paper might give you an idea of how I arrived at my conclusion that Al Qaeda are anarchists (and in the late C19th tradition a part of which ignited the 3rd Balkan War/1st World War) – it is my failure to explain this above which was sloppy and certainly not any failure on your part.

  • Richard Dean 30th Aug '13 - 8:45pm

    Articles in academic journals such as “Terrorism and Political Violence” are not necessarily authoritative, though the academics may like to think so. They are opinion pieces. They have no particular authority other than in terms of defining what the author(s) think. This particular opinion piece appears to use a definition of “anarchy” which does not correspond to more common definitions about disorder.

    Some journals allow challenges to be made through discussions that are published in subsequent issues. This particular journal doesn’t appear to allow discussion, which means that discussion eventually surfaces in another form, as an article by another author in a subsequent edition of the same or a different journal in the same academic area.

    Given that Gelvin’s article appeared 5 years ago, it seems likely that it’s now out of date, and that such a challenge has been made somewhere.

  • The Common’s vote is having many repercussions: The US now talking about France being it’s ally of the moment, and Putin’s response, indicates there may be an opportunity for Britain to further re-establish it’s historic links with Russia; times are a changing…

  • tony dawson 1st Sep '13 - 10:06am

    We will never know (not for 50 years, probably) whether the Commons vote had anything to do with Obama’s decision to give Congress a debate on this subject. What we ought to be permitted to know pretty soon is whether all the detailed intelligence information being fed to Congress on this issue which was not available to MPs was (a) withheld from the UK by US intelligence or (b) withheld from Parliament by a cynical Prime Minister (and pals) who wanted to bounce Parliament along on a ‘trust me’ basis. In the former case, that says rather more about the reality of the ‘special relationship’ than anything which Obama has said after our parliament’s vote. If the latter, it should be a Coalition-busting moment – and I say this who has supported the principle of coalition through thick and thin, despite considerable criticism.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Sep '13 - 11:12am

    Roland, in his speech yesterday Obama described Britain ‘as our closest ally’. Significant I would say and a counter to some of the hysterical reaction to the votes on Thursday night.

    Tony is right to seek to look back at what information was shared with HMG before 7 pm on Thursday night. I suggest a commission of inquiry made up of say 3 or 4 PCs.

    But also we Liberal Democrats need to put our combined talents together to analyse what we think may be the consequences of any targeted military action that may yet be launched by the US and others.

    Bearing in mind that, according to the Los Angeles Times (27th), ‘The Russian ships now steaming toward the eastern Mediterranean would be capable of detecting cruise missile firings from Western vessels and of warning Damascus of the incoming munitions. They are also equipped with jamming equipment that could interfere with radar and communications aboard other ships in the region.’

    I still believe the situation has all the makings of significant escalation that tragically could lead to many more victims in the region, adding to rather than limiting the considerable horrors taking place in Syria.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Sep '13 - 7:11pm

    To me, the aftermath of the Iraq invasion was the key issue here. I have read Nick Clegg’s reason why the Syria situation is not like the Iraq situation, but they sound very much like they were made up as we went along. I don’t see much in the way of significant difference between the two situations. Saddam Hussein was also a cruel dictator who had very likely used chemical weapons against his own people.

    There have been many loud voices, including many from our own party, denouncing Tony Blair as a “war criminal” for his taking the lead in this invasion. But it seems to me the justification he had for his action was just as strong as the justification for action on Syria. In some ways he had a better case, as at least there was a clear objective – the overthrow of the dictator and a process to put in place a better government. In the Muslim world, the almost overwhelming response seems to have been that an invasion of a majority Muslim country by the west was an “attack on Islam”. If there are political opponents of Tony Blair on the left who are at least willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept he did what he did because he genuinely thought the overthrow of the dictator would be a good humanitarian thing, I have not heard them, they have remained silent. If there are Muslims who are willing to take a similar line, I have not heard them.

    The willingness of so many people to make cheap attacks of this sort on Blair in order to further their own political or religious agenda was, I feel, shameful. I don’t think Blair did what he did because of a delight in killing, nor do I think did he do what he did conscious and supportive of the many more deaths in conflict that would follow. I believe he was very, very, wrong to suppose the invasion would work as I think he supposed – a quick overthrow, peace restored, and something resembling liberal democracy arising. But believing him to be wrong on this is not the same as holding him to be the sort of evil person his opponents – including many in the Liberal Democrats – have painted him, doing so, which ought to be to their deep shame, for political/religious reasons.

    To me, with both Syria and Iraq, there were good arguments for intervention, there were good arguments against. However, the public response of so many to Iraq which completely dismissed the good arguments for intervention seem to me to have settled the case. If Muslims believe it wrong for non-Muslim nations to intervene in majority Muslim nations, no matter how cruel and dictatorial are their leaders, then so be it. A big share of the guilt for the deaths and horror arising from non-intervention lies with them for making it so clear they would regard it as wrong. Those who were so ready to denounce Blair as a “war criminal” because he did not get official UN backing, and particularly those who benefitted politically from that i.e. the Liberal Democrats, must similarly now share in the guilt for having set a position which it would be hypocritical to reverse.

    It seems to me that those who, viewing the situation in Syria, now think intervention would be right, ought to apologise for Blair if they did not accept his good intentions over Iraq – that would be better than making up spurious reasons as to why the situations are supposedly so different. Note, accepting his intentions were good does not mean accepting what he did was right.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Sep '13 - 7:38pm

    Bill le Breton

    I still believe the situation has all the makings of significant escalation that tragically could lead to many more victims in the region, adding to rather than limiting the considerable horrors taking place in Syria.

    Indeed. The problem is that seeing the situation there, it’s easy to go for the response “something must be done”, and if you have large amounts of military force at your disposal, as the leaders of the UK and USA have, suppose that something must be to use that military force to “make things better”. But if there’s a high possibility that doing something will make things worse, it’s best not to do it – arguing that is NOT the same as saying you somehow excuse the horror being witnessed.

    I feel the solutions to these problems in the Muslim world have to come from within the Muslim world. This whole thing is just so tied up with the sectarian conflicts, and fascination for violence that seem to have grown up recently. Islam does not have to be like this – indeed, the way Syria and Iraq were until recently, with various streams within Islam existing side-by-side along with a substantial Christian minority, shows that, it has roots in a time a few centuries ago when Islam could teach Christianity a lesson in tolerance of diversity of religious opinion.

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