‘Military force has to be an option’ in Syria

We rightly slam generals who are always fighting the last war, but I wonder if today’s peace movement is guilty of the same crime. The thought was prompted by a hasty glance at an email from the Stop the War Coalition.

I saw the words “rally”, “Syria” and “embassy” and assumed they were organising a demo outside the Syrian embassy to protest at the truly shocking slaughter now conducted by the Assad regime against its own people. After all, Stop the War do not confine themselves to opposing military action involving British troops (they recently co-organised a demo outside the Israeli embassy to mark the anniversary of the offensive against Gaza). All credit to them for taking a stand against the Syrian tyrant, I thought.

But I had read too fast. Stop the War were, in fact, calling for a rally outside the American embassy, urging the US to stay out of Syria and its neighbour Iran. Its slogans were directed not at the butchers of Damascus, but against the planners in Washington.

There’s a one-word explanation for how anti-war activists find themselves more exercised by the prospect of intervention to stop murderous violence than by the murderous violence itself. That word is Iraq. The 2003 invasion of Iraq has tainted for a generation the idea once known as “liberal interventionism”.

After Iraq, the response to any talk of Western action is deep cynicism. Anyone proposing it is assumed to be lying: to be exaggerating a non-existent threat in order to hide the more sinister, “true” purpose [usually oil]; and to be blithely ignoring the certainty that any action will only make things worse. Because that’s how it was with Iraq, runs the logic, so it will be true of Iran, Syria or any future conflict. And so the peace movement ends up fighting the last war — specifically, the Iraq war.

But if it is nonsensical to propose military force in every case, as some on the bellicose right do, then it is surely just as nonsensical [for anyone but an absolute pacifist] to oppose it in every case. We need to see again what we understood well before Iraq: that every case is different.

Take Syria. I am not with those who, appalled at the sight of the world doing nothing as children and their parents are killed and maimed by Bashar al-Assad’s troops, immediately demand military action. There is not a binary choice between nothing and war. A range of non-violent steps in between are available to Western nations. These include sabotage, electronic interference with the Assad forces’ communications, the offer of incentives to high-level Syrian defectors and the public naming of those units directly involved in the current brutality and their commanding officers. That way Assad’s generals will know that, however this ends, they will never be able to travel freely again, for fear of arrest and prosecution. In addition, of course, the West can support the opposition, which, we should remember, is not a rival army, but began as a non-violent protest movement of ordinary citizens, lethally crushed.

‘Military force has to be an option’
That menu of options comes from Carne Ross, who resigned from his post as the lead official on the Middle East inside the UK mission at the UN over Iraq. Specifically, he quit because he did not believe Britain and the US had exhausted all other options before resorting to war. Once again, in Syria’s case, he believes there are non-violent steps the West could and should take first. I agree. But if those stops don’t end the slaughter? “When innocent civilians are killed in large numbers, military force has to be an option,” he says.

In other words, the post-Iraq blanket rejection of intervention makes no moral sense. Many, chiefly on the right, argued against intervention in Bosnia in the 1990s — and yet if the West had acted earlier, it would have saved tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of mainly Bosnian Muslim lives. Force should always be a last resort — not a first resort, as it is for too many on the right, but not a non-resort as it is for too many on the left.

There is similarly blanket thinking on Iran. Because it understandably recoils from one proposed solution — military action — the anti-war camp refuses to recognise there might even be a problem, namely the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. It dismisses all talk of the issue as neoconservative warmongering, assuming that it amounts to no more than a re-run of Iraq — a drumbeat for war for war’s [or oil’s] sake, with the feared threat from Iran as hollow as it was from Saddam.


Such an assumption looks neat, but it’s too easy. Yes, it is still a matter of dispute as to whether Iran plans to acquire, or how far it has got towards acquiring, nuclear weapons. But it is natural for Israel to feel threatened by the prospect, given Iran’s rejection of Israel’s right to exist as Israel, and the slogans reportedly daubed on Iranian missiles, promising to wipe the country off the map. Carne Ross says Israel’s security concerns are “entirely legitimate” and that were we in their position, we would be just as worried as they are.

“Why should Israel fret,” comes the reply, “they have the bomb, don’t they?” But an Iran-Israel nuclear stand-off would not be like the US-Soviet containment of the Cold War, with its lines of communication and negotiated military doctrines underpinning a stable, nuclear-balanced détente. There is no such communication or mutual understanding between Iran and Israel. The Middle East and the world would be on a hair-trigger to nuclear war.

The anti-war camp needs at least to acknowledge the existence of a problem here, that while military action to thwart Iran would have terrifying consequences, so too would an Iranian nuclear weapon. Nor will it do to oppose not just force but every other step the West is taking to prevent a nuclear Iran, including sanctions and sabotage. If anything, the anti-war movement should be the loudest advocate of non-violent alternatives to military action. That goes for Syria too, on which it says nothing, save that the world should stay out.

For it is blinded by Iraq. The left was right to oppose that war: I opposed it too. But not all of the world’s troubles, whether in Tehran or Homs, are reruns of 2003. We have new problems now. Fail to see that and we make the people of Homs pay the price for the mistake we made in Baghdad. – guardian.co.uk

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