Syria The Times 30 May 2012

Syria The Times  30 May 2012


The slaughter of the innocents in Syria is, of course, horrific, barbaric, shocking, terrifying medieval, bestial — choose your own adjective; they’ve all been used – some many times over. In our attempts to camouflage impotence we are now devaluing hyperbole.


I do not complain about this. It is what we expect from our elected Western leaders. They have to represent populations who still remain, for all our diminished power, the world’s centre of righteous moral indignation — the natural habitat of the Something Must Be Done brigade, stretching (as it does these days) from the concerned public citizen, to Mr John Humphrys on the BBC’s Today programme.


None of this is wrong, none of it misplaced and none of it inappropriate. It is necessary to be outraged and concerned.


But it is not sufficient. With the West’s moral force in tatters after the blunders of Iraq and Afghanistan and military budgets so shrunk that we can no longer enforce our global morality at the point of a bayonet, we have to learn to be, not just concerned, but canny too if we are to get our way.


I thought we had learnt that lesson in Libya. But Syria suggests that we have not.


In Libya we in the West seemed to understand how the world had changed. Why the old glad confident days when we could, as in Iraq, treat the UN Security Council with cavalier disregard, were over (and a good thing too, some would say – though not I suspect in the beleaguered towns of Homs and Houla). That in future, international action meant a Security Council resolution, with all that entails for the enhanced power of Russian and Chinese vetoes. That the best way to avoid this was not for the West to front up the action, but to support and assist others (in Libya’s case the Arabs) to do so . The effect of making action in Libya an Arab call, not a Western one made it much more difficult for the Russians to say no — and in the end they didn’t.


Western diplomacy should have learnt lessons from this. First, that more than ever before, the crucial diplomatic battlefield is the UN Security Council. If you can’t make it happen there, you can’t make it happen.


Second, making it happen there is not always best served by the West out in front brandishing the sword of a morality and making demands for regime change which Russia and China can easily mis-represent as just a modern version of old imperialism.


Finally, we in the West should have learnt from Libya that to get things done means creating coalitions beyond the cosy circle of the Atlantic club.


Instead of building on those lessons we seem sadly, and stupidly, to have reverted to type in Syria. Instead of quietly standing back and letting the Arabs and the regional powers lead the call for action, Western leaders from Hilary Clinton through to newly arrived Président Francois Hollande, just could not resist donning the armour of moral outrage and leading the charge. Instead of making it more difficult for Russia to say “no”, they have made it easier. And overlooked the central role that Turkey could have played as a regional leader in putting together a coalition for action which the West could have found it easy to back and Russians much more difficult to oppose.

In today’s much more balanced “post-Western hegemony” world, we have to see intervention less as an event —like the invasion of Iraq — and much more as a process, like the one which led to the successes of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

Given the necessity of stopping Russia from using its veto, why on earth have Western leaders been shouting through megaphones about regime change? We know that Bashar Assad is just about the only friend Russia has left in the Middle East. Calling for him to go only helps them shelter behind the one scrap of clothing they have left to cover their dignity — that this is not driven by humanitarianism but by Western imperialism.


Of course any sensible person realises Assad must go. Gaddafi had to, too. But in Libya, we were careful not (quite) to say so. To demand Assad’s removal in lights is bad politics and clumsy diplomacy, not least with Kofi Annan’s mission on the ground trying to broker a cease-fire.


It now seems almost certain that the Annan mission is over. So the West should take a step back and leave space for a regional coalition, perhaps led by Turkey, to call for UNSC action. And what they propose should be framed initially, not around political actions, but exclusively around humanitarianism ones — the opening of a secure humanitarian corridor to Turkey perhaps, or the formation of a humanitarian relief mission to the besieged cities sanctioned by a UN Security Council Resolution and made up, not of Western nations but of Arab and regional ones.


A single mighty event that can bring a sudden end to tyranny, as in Bosnia, is now beyond us in Syria. But beginning a process driven by the region not the West that will take us there over time, is not.


The truth is that nowadays Western good intentions and deep concern are not sufficient. We have to learn to be canny too. And we haven’t been. The cowering innocents in Houla have been left to pay the price for a Security Council deadlock which, played differently, arguably may not have had to happen.