Syria has provided the main news point this week, with the UK House of Commons voting not to be involved in air strikes against the Syrian regime. In this decision, MPs reflected UK public opinion, where only 19% (Telegraph) or 29% (Independent) believe we should support military action (and the backward regret about Iraq). Some of the parliamentary and international debate – whether from MPs (including Ed Miliband) or from Vladimir Putin – is about being sure that the Syrian regime is behind chemical attacks. Let’s wait to see what UN inspectors say, is the cry. This strikes me as fudging the issue, and is not what lies behind the reservations expressed by upwards of two-thirds of the UK population. I don’t think Mr Average in Swindon or Stockbridge thinks we should hold back because there’s a strong chance that someone else committed the latest atrocity. They think (if they are like me) that it is pretty certain the regime is behind the chemical attack on civilians. What we don’t see is what a drone attack or a hail of Tomahawks does to improve the situation; least of all, what would be the consequence of a land invasion except a muddled withdrawal in ten years time, with Arab public opinion blaming ‘crusaders’ and ‘Zionists’ for the resultant chaos. We are told by enthusiasts and drum-beaters (see David Aaronovitch in the Times) that Syria is not like Iraq, and parliamentary debate should not be overshadowed by the ghosts of the past. But there is one way it is very like Iraq, which is that there seems to be no coherent plan to get a better solution. Some things in life are just a mess, and creating more mess does not seem to be an improvement.
Brecht wrote a play – “The Good Woman of Szechwan” – where the heroine tries to use a gift from the Gods to help everybody in a poor town and resolve their problems. Pretty soon she is penniless and exploited, and discovers that “what is needed is a blanket ten thousand feet wide, to cover the city”. There is no such thing of course. Plot spoiler – she has to invent a wicked uncle to tell those wanting more money and more help from her to go away. The world is like that: it isn’t possible to fix everything. Those of us who oppose action in Syria don’t support Assad – and I suspect those columnists who speak of ‘helping the regime’ know we don’t. But neither do we support some of the repulsive ‘rebels’ who execute prisoners and eat their body parts. We are not particularly keen to make debating points about the far greater fatalities in Darfur or the Congo (or chemical attacks by Saddam when he was our boy) that attracted little interest or proposals for intervention. We just have the experiences of Somalia and Afghanistan and Iraq to go on to see that meddling might be an expensive way to make matters worse, and the view of Libya and Iran and Egypt to know that regime change is not always successful.
Footnote: a week or so ago, my line was to threaten the Tomahawks and drones unless specific and deliverable assurance were received – no chemical weapons, open access for humanitarian aid organisations, immediate cooperation with International War Crimes investigators. It looks as if we might be crawling towards some version of this, with the closure of all chemical stockpiles. War may be the continuation of diplomacy by other means, but diplomacy should be the replacement of war by other means.