Syria: we should, shouldn’t we?

By Thomas Pike

Needless to say, as a proud classical liberal, I am most certainly not a fan of Western military intervention in foreign wars.

Such intervention can come with an incredible price tag, seriously harmful and unintended consequences, and trample upon a whole host of social and cultural norms which the sole of the American military boot can struggle to comprehend.

However, despite this position, I am not completely against the principle of humanitarian intervention – even if I do believe we’ve been far too eager to apply it in recent years. For example, while I hold that we were wrong to enter Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, I would have supported intervention in Rwanda.

To take a somewhat extreme hypothetical view, if the Holocaust were to be occurring in Germany today, could classical liberals really claim to be taking the moral high ground by refusing to intervene in the face of overwhelming genocide?

To me, that suggests that firstly, a boundary exists between situations we know do not warrant intervention, and those that do. While defining that line is no doubt difficult and highly subjective, we can conclude that it does actually exist and we can, in some cases, appreciate situations either side of it.

Secondly that intervention, if it can be justified in certain circumstances, can actually be highly unfavourable due to very basic pragmatic constraints. Which leads me to a quite a simple conclusion in regards to the current Syrian crisis and the question on many people’s lips: should the West intervene? Yes we should but, no, we shouldn’t…

By this rather unclear response, I mean that I believe that there are sufficient moral grounds to justify the intervention. I struggle to conceive of a real-world situation where the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons is moral or even amoral (not forgetting the widespread use of Agent Orange by the USA in Vietnam…).

Moreover, if we were to not take serious action following this attack, we risk communicating to dictators struggling to cling on to their shattered thrones across the world that the use of chemical (or similarly brutal) weaponry on their own populations is perfectly permissible.

But I’m not writing in an attempt to persuade you to adopt my moral code in regards to the use of chemical weapons on civilians; that is for you to decide for yourself.

However, despite my belief that military intervention on humanitarian grounds is now justifiable, I don’t believe it can actually make the situation any better – I can see us only dousing a fire with petrol, rather than water. I take this position for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there is a lack of clear desired objective amongst Western governments and populations. Would we intervene only to destroy chemical weapons stocks, and to ensure everybody ‘played fair’? If so, would we be willing to target stockpiles which the Syrian Free Army may have also collected?

Would we also be willing to target biological, and maybe even conventional weapons too? Or is our objective actually to completely overthrow the Assad regime? Is it even to establish another liberal, democratic and pro-Western outpost in the Middle-East, by also crushing Islamist elements within the rebels themselves?

A clear objective is fundamental for the moral justification of the war. We should stop the use of chemical weapons where at all possible; we have absolutely no right to engage in nation building in the Middle East, just as Assad has none in Europe.

Secondly, potentially huge damage to foreign relations in the region could be caused. Not only are we setting ourselves on a collision course with Russia but the Syrian conflict represents far more to the Middle East than simply a group of disgruntled citizens attempting to oust their unpopular leader.

It is ultimately a Sunni-Shiite war, being fought along a fault line which has existed for well over a millennium and, for this reason, has attracted the close attention of Iran and Lebanon with the possibility it may continue to draw in other Arab states.

In essence, any political actions in Syria will have very far reaching consequences within the reason, and may risk a much larger and unintended war on a scale we are ultimately unprepared to fight.

Thirdly, despite decades of Western presence in the Middle East, we seem yet to learn why the Arab world seems to dislike us quite so.

If we briefly accept the simply ridiculous notion that it’s down to the widespread death, damage and destruction which Westerns seem to wreck whenever they go near the region, intervening in Syria could simply add to the long list of well-intentioned but ultimately failed attempts to improve conditions for the average Arab chap and his family.

As Ron Paul says, if we want to reduce terrorism against the US and UK, the solution is to pull out of the Middle East, not go further in.

I make no bones about it, Bashar al-Assad is a cruel and ruthless dictator who the world would do well without. I dearly hope the man is eventually pulled before a court and sentenced for the heinous crimes he has committed against his own citizens.

But to believe that conditions in Syria, and the Middle East generally, will be improved by Western intervention is to underestimate the complexity and potential long-term fallout of the situation with which we are faced.