Just over  two years ago, western governments made a strategic decision about Syria.

We decided, collectively, to do nothing.

Oh, we would do everything we could to make it look like we were acting.

We would call meetings of the UN security council. We would summon conferences that never happened. We would give our blessings and our good wishes to those who opposed Assad, we would issue stern statements and pious press releases about the importance of human rights, democracy, and  the need for negotiations.

We would do all the things that had the appearance  and form of activity, but when people were killed, when weapons were supplied, when forces were marshalled and dispatched, when outside forces intervened; in other words, when others actually did something, we would do nothing.

Perhaps we did this because we thought the regime would fall anyway. Perhaps we did it because we thought Iran and Russia would eventually tell Assad time was up. Perhaps we did it because we feared the consequence of a no fly zone, or of directly supporting the rebels. Perhaps we even did it because we thought Saudi Arabia would solve the problem for us.

Whatever the reasons, we made that decision.

Two years later, the UN reports that 93,000 people had died by April this year. They say this is a conservative estimate, and there may be another 37,000 dead, while 5,000 people are being killed each month.

If nothing has changed then, another six thousand people will have died since the UN report. This is before any attack on Aleppo, before any “mopping up” by pro-Assad forces in retaken towns.

Do we feel responsible for our grotesque failure in Syria? Not a bit of it.

Indeed, we still seem to be pretending that somehow we have not failed. We debate earnestly the risks of arming the rebels, noting carefully the danger in aiding groups that our own inaction has made reliant on radicals and states whose interests have nothing to do with democracy. We talk of peace conferences, which are turning into a sick joke as the war-war goes on and on while the jaw-jaw is repeatedly delayed.

We have failed in Syria already. We have done nothing, and instead of feeling the shame of our failure, we choose to pretend it is not happening. Others see that weakness for what it is, and ruthlessly exploit it.

The last decade has been a steady retreat from intervention.

We know why. We saw the terrible costs of intervention first hand, while the deaths of the Marsh Arabs, the repression of the Kurds, the brutality of Saddam’s regime (and yes, our real-politik driven complicity in that regime) were somehow forgotten.  We even managed to forget that the cost of containment was a society trapped by sanctions, a price worth paying for the containment of a regime we did not wish to overthrow.

Yet now, in Syria, we also see the price of inaction.

I make the following comparison not to compare the loss, or the war, or the justice of either, but to compare our reaction to each.

The rate of violent death in Syria is already more than double that in the bloodiest year of the Iraq war. Around 170,000 have died in Iraq in the decade since the war. More than half that are dead in Syria already, and the violent deaths are increasing rapidly. Where is the outrage of the humanitarian left? Where are the marches and the vigils? The petitions and the disbelief? Where are the Anti-War Marches?

Further, doing nothing has increased regional instability. Already Hizbollah are killing Syrian rebels, with who knows what consequences for Lebanon. Israel is both nervous of Islamism and of an unstable Syrian government. Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan and Jordan are having to cope with some one and a half million refugees.

These are the results of the policy we chose.

Would things have been better if we had intervened directly? Would the slaughter have been less with a No Fly zone, or airstrikes on Syrian forces mounting aggression, or if we had supported secular, moderate rebels early? Would things have been better if we had even made it clear to Russia that there was some action that we would not tolerate?

That I can’t know, just as I cannot know what would have happened in Iraq this past decade if Saddam had been left to imprison and murder his people under a sanctions regime  that killed innocent civilians in order to constrain their torturers.

No-one can really know “what if“.

The awful truth is that inaction and intervention both have terrible costs, and those who decide between them cannot ever truly know what will result. Some forgot that in the last decade, choosing to believe that only intervention could have a terrible price. I don’t forget the reverse now.

Just because the policy we have pursued has become a catastrophe does not mean the policy was undoubtedly and obviously wrong.

But by God, I wish we felt more shame for what we have not done for the people of Syria.

11 Responses to “Syria”

  1. Brian Hughes

    The point you make – that no one can ever know how things would have turned out had a particular course of action, which was taken, had not been taken or vice versa* – is well made.

    Anyone who is certain that a particular course of action was wholly right or wholly wrong must be wholly unaware of life’s delicious complexities and is therefore wholly to be mistrusted.


    If you’re going to beat yourself up about Syria, why not also about Chechnya, Rwanda, Burma, Sudan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo to name but a few? There’s an awful danger of becoming a stereotypical, angst-ridden Guardian reader lamenting stony-faced at dinner parties in leafy suburbs and raging impotently against the injustices of the world by night whilst quietly trousering some of its fruits by day. And you wouldn’t want that to happen now would you?

    And what of our arms industry aka our defence industry? One of the few bits of our manufacturing economy still functioning. Doesn’t that constitute intervention pretty well everywhere? It’s a mean old complicated world…

    * although, taking Iraq as an example, we can be 100% certain that we would have heard much less on the 10 o’clock news about preventable deaths in that country had our troops never set foot in it.

    • Brian Hughes

      PS Comparing the action taken by “the west” (which curiously included Australia which is about as far east as is possible) in Iraq in 2003 and that not (yet) taken by “the west” in Syria in 2013 is a little like comparing chalk and cheese.

      Despite appearances and possible outcomes, intervention in a civil war isn’t at all the same thing in reality (or even in “international law” if such a thing exists) as making a pre-emptive strike.

      PPS one too many hads crept into my first para above – sorry.

      • hopisen

        My feeling is that there was a moment in 2011 when regime was at a tipping point, and when action (No-fly, arms, structured support to SNC, clear reprisals if regime attacked) would have had a good chance of success.

        Given that is not what was done, the regime was allowed to stabilise and resupply, and a protracted civil war ensued intervention has become both harder and less likely to succeed (witness the weak response to Chemical weapons usage). In other words, our policy has failed.

        On your borader point, Personally, I’d rather a left that cared about that failure to one that said, ‘well, at least it’s not our fault’, which is both untrue and lacking in that favourite left word ‘solidarity’.

        • organic cheeseboard

          So the ‘success’ you envisage intervention resulting in would be, roughly, the kind of ‘success’ these same activities generated in Libya then.

          Followed the news from there recently? Feeling any ‘shame’?

          • Hopi Sen

            Of course I have. Libya has huge problems. To take the most recent, 31 people died after a peaceful protest against militias turned violent.

            What happened? The chief of the army resigned, the army took the militia HQ, and government pledged to speed up the disbanding of militias.

            If Syria could have just that sort of problem, awful though it is, it would be a blessing.

        • Brian Hughes

          All for solidarity, not convinced that throwing more fireworks into the fire is necessarily the best way of demonstrating it.

          The “west’s” record of various forms of intervention in the region, especially France’s, Britain’s and, more recently, the US’s over the past 100 years and more, doesn’t give much cause for optimism.

  2. Fluffy Thoughts

    Too little; too late and now too desperate: Been their; posted-it and the Labour sheep said “Bah!”. Thanks to God you have Edward Samuel Miliband to salve your anguish….

  3. Kathryn

    When you mention the deaths in Syria you imply that the killing is one-sided, the rebels aren’t the benign force your article might lead us to believe they are:

    Most people outside Syria (and civilians inside no doubt) want the killing to stop, but this ceremonial assuming of the guilt is not saving any lives or helping any Syrians; with both sides willing to slaughter civilians, the only way to stop the deaths is to stop the fighting. Around the time that sending missiles into Assad’s territory was proposed, on Friday 30 August 2013, Christian Aid joined the International Committee of the Red Cross in warning of the dire consequences of escalation in Syria and has actually gone further, saying that a political solution is the “only way to achieve lasting peace”. Janet Symes, Head of Middle East at Christian Aid, said:

    “If an air strike is announced, the number of people fleeing Syria will increase dramatically, with catastrophic effects on the already desperate humanitarian situation in neighboring countries, such as Lebanon and Iraq.

    An escalation in military engagement within Syria will worsen an already precarious humanitarian situation; leading to more civilian casualties and further destruction of infrastructure. It has the potential to jeopardise humanitarian access without bringing an end to the conflict any closer”.

    It’s not just guns killing people in Syria, but the cold and starvation too: if you want to do something constructive with your guilt donate to these people:

    Syrians can’t eat guilt.

    • hopisen

      What makes you think I haven’t?

      Frankly though, I reject the subtle equivalence that feeds your comment. When the rebellion against Assad began, it was nothing like what it has become. Those who wanted our help in providing a moderate, open opposition to Assad’s vile regime have been repeatedly let down, while money and arms flows unrestricted to their opponents, both jihadi and regime.

      A ‘political solution’ may now be the only way to achieve lasting peace, but diplomatic talk of a political solution often neglects what such a solution would actually involve.

      In all likelihood, given the current balance of power, it would mean granting Assad and his regime, who show no signs or need to stand down, de facto power of life and death over millions of people. Why would they accept anything less? Iran and Russia seem willing to let them continue almost indefinitely, and for three years we’ve shown little more than a desire to talk them into doing what we want. We (and they) know how this can play out, because we’ve let it happen before. Ask the Kurds. Ask the Marsh Arabs.

      So, such talk of a ‘political solution’, without accepting what that _really_ involves, strikes me of just another way of closing our eyes to our own enormous failure.

      Food parcels won’t change that, Just as humanitarian aid isn’t ending the war.

  4. Kathryn

    Humanitarian aid will help save lives, eulogising and self-flagellation will not. Your piece offers much sentiment and indeed it is hard not to feel sorry for people suffering in Syria, but regretting not taking paths which may have in-fact produced similar or worse results and complaining that things are very wrong over there is not a solution. In a world where negotiations are difficult and choices are unpalatable you suggest nothing but a desire to unburden your conscience and frustration. It’s not just guns that are killing people, it’s cold and starvation; humanitarian aid will not produce a quick fix to the war, but if you encouraged people to donate rather than to passively lament then some lives could be saved and Syria would have less deaths to mourn, surely this lesser goal is worth fighting for? Surely one life saved by a call to donate is better than no lives saved by pandering to people’s feelings of helplessness? You have an audience, what would you have them do?


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