Comment: The perils of British action in Syria

Matthew Ashton on Syria, Assad and western intervention
Matthew Ashton on Syria, Assad and western intervention

By Matthew Ashton

What to do with regards to Syria seems to be the question of the hour. This week has seen the news that the violence seems to be escalating, Kofi Annan has resigned as special UN envoy and the UN assembly themselves have voted to condemn the Security Council for their failure to take action. There appears to be growing pressure on all sides that something has to be done; but what?

The trouble is decisions require information and we've got precious little of that at the moment. I don't think I've ever seen a news story where the phrase 'this has yet to be verified' is used so often. Because journalists find it difficult to enter the areas affected by the fighting we have to rely on grainy camera footage and reports from the two sides involved, both of which have a vested interest in their side of the story becoming the dominant narrative.

As a result cheerleaders for the government and the rebels have been out in force promoting their version of events. If you believe the most positive pro-rebel supporters Bashar Assad is an evil dictator and the rebels are noble freedom fighters. The pro-government side on the other hand are firmly of the view that these people are terrorists and if they win they'll plunge Syria into a decade of chaos and civil war.

In the fog of war it's difficult to separate fact from fiction here. You also have to query the motives of some of the pro and anti forces. Some appear to be pedalling the line that the rebels are George Washington and the founding fathers reborn, which clearly isn't the case. Others seem to be taking the line that because America and the CIA are backing the rebels then Assad must be in the right. I've also seen it implied that Russia and China are acting in some noble way by repeatedly blocking UN action. This is nonsense on stilts. Both countries are motivated by naked self-interest, the same as we are. I'm sure helping the people of Syria is somewhere on the agenda but so is a lot of other things that our governments isn't so keen to talk about in public.

The one things we can say with reasonable certainty is that Assad is a bad man and furthermore a dictator. Of course that hasn't always been a barrier to Western friendship in the past. Both Hussein and Gaddafi were at different times our ally when it suited our interests. In the same way we're still friends with several unpleasant dictatorships in the Middle East who share our strategic goals. Assad was useful too until the Arab spring upset the strategic balance in the region. That doesn't mean however that the rebels are our friends. We've got too long a history of us arming rebellions in small countries only to discover later that we've been supporting thugs and murderers. Equally we've also in the past supplied weapons to vicious regimes who subsequently used them to suppress their own people. The question in Syria is which is which?

There is a reasonable probability that if we start arming the rebels and providing other support they could eventually win. The rebels don't have to win an outright victory so much as wear the regime down. The more Assad tries to fight them, the more the West will increase their support. Short of verified footage of the rebels massacring thousands of women and children we've pretty much picked our side.

I also don't think there is much the public can do to stop this process. Going on marches in the past hasn't stopped wars, and as our economic crisis deepens I doubt whether the majority of the American or European public will care if our governments give weapons to one group to fight another group in a place far away from their everyday lives.

Let's assume then that they do manage to topple Assad. The question that has to be asked now is what will replace him and his government. The problem is at the moment is that no one I've spoken to has a clear idea of who exactly the rebels are or what they want. Part of our failures in Iraq and Afghanistan stemmed from our lack of understanding of the situation on the ground, or the people and their history. A small library of literature has been produced which seem to suggest that the USA went out of its way to fire or ignore or anyone who had the slightest knowledge of these countries and more importantly how to rebuild them.

If you look at the Second World War, planning for the reconstruction of Germany had already been set in motion by 1941. If we don't want Syria to fall into further chaos and disorder we need to start planning straight away for what may come next, be it civil war or humanitarian crisis, or both, because at the moment we're really not sure if we're helping people win their independence or just pouring gasoline on the worlds biggest bonfire.



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