Syria: The Case Not Proven

New Statesman (1996), August 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Syria: The Case Not Proven


British military adventurism in the Middle East is invariably disastrous. Yet, following the recall of parliament on 29 August, here we are again, on the verge of another western military intervention in the Levant, a region with a long history of religious and sectarian conflict.

The alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people by the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime was indeed a crime against humanity. No one who has seen photographs, or YouTube footage, of the suffering caused by the attacks--the hollow-eyed children gasping for breath, the terrified screams of mothers, the panic, the mayhem--can be in any doubt that something evil happened in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August. Assad has everything to lose and the rebels fighting him have nothing to lose: the combination is deadly, the suffering perpetual.

Intervention has mainly been justified as a necessary response to the Ghouta atrocity. The refrain from the American and British governments is that we cannot allow states to use chemical weapons with impunity. But, even if we assume the regime was responsible for the attack, there is no reason to believe that missile strikes would dissuade Assad from further massacres. Should his chemical weapons capacity be disabled, the Syrian despot will merely resort to other means by which to murder his opponents.

For this reason, as with Libya, regime change may become the de facto objective of the coalition against Assad. It is far from clear that the consequences would be benign, however. The rebels--a mixed group of genuine democrats, deserters from the Syrian army, Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fanatics such as Jabhat al-Nusra--are not a unified and coherent force. They are factionalised, united only in their hatred of Assad and his fellow Alawites, who are a heterodox Shia sect. If the regime is toppled, secular liberal democrats will not replace it--as the west once hoped. The Syrian civil war is both a local and an intra-Islamic conflict, and its aftershocks will reverberate long into the future.

The Israelis and Turks look on anxiously, wondering if and when they will be drawn directly into the conflict. The Kurds are newly emboldened that before too long they will have their own nation state, carved out of parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. What we are witnessing is the unravelling of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and, surely also before too long, the inevitable break-up of the artificial nation states created by Britain and France: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. …

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