A few days ago, David Cameron’s call for a military response after the Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons was defeated by a Commons majority. On the morning of Friday 30 August I listened to various radio phone-in contributers railing about how we should all hang our heads in shame. Chancellor George Osborne told Radio 4's Today programme there would be "national soul searching about our role in the world".
But why? Because our elected representatives acted democratically? Or equally commendably, because the UK demonstrated we are no longer America’s blindly obedient lap-dog?
If the west meddles in another Middle Eastern
conflict, where exactly do the missiles get pointed,
when do they stop, what happens after
they stop, and what if civilians die?
Ten years ago Tony Blair's communications director Alastair Campbell produced the now notorious ‘dodgy dossier’ about Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction - biological missiles which it was claimed could target the UK in 45 minutes - in order to justify military action. Inspired by their respective beliefs in Christian morality, Blair joined George Dubya Bush in committing the lives of his country's young men to war with Iraq. Hussein, a murderous tyrant who had authorised chemical attacks against his own people as well as Iranian soldiers during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, was ousted with relative ease. However the invading western forces were not greeted by widespread civilian support, and the political vacuum quickly degenerated into a sectarian bloodbath. The ultimate legacy of the Blair/Bush attempt to liberate Iraq is that car bombs remain a daily occurrence in Baghdad. Ironically, in a region of the planet beset by ironies, the main perpetrators of the violence are Sunni insurgents who share many ties with the anti-Assad rebels.
No-one is disputing the war crimes of the Assad regime, apart from its besuited ministers. (I’ve often wondered why conventional bombs which blow people to atoms are somehow less offensive than chemical ones?) But the situation on the ground is unbelievably complex. Obama should have thought twice before his ‘red line’ rhetoric. Assad is no lunatic like Gaddafi, a dictator who funded the IRA and is suspected of ordering Lockerbie. But if the west meddles in another Middle Eastern conflict, as the likes of Boris ‘Hillsborough victims were thugs’ Johnson or Andrew ‘police are plebs’ Mitchell are advocating, where exactly do the missiles get pointed, and when do they stop, what happens after they stop, and what if civilians die?
Syria's instability has prompted ugly gatecrashing, with proxy fighters like the pro-Iranian Lebanese Hezbollah and the pro-Iraqi Al-Nusra Front fanning Syria's funeral pyre. The forces fighting Assad (and each other with equal enthusiasm), from the Free Syrian Army to Al-Qaeda militants, have often crossed those same red lines of civilized behaviour.
Many right-wing Tories have drawn parallels with the policy of appeasement in the 1930s, when the western democracies stood idly by as Nazi bombs rained on Guernica, then Warsaw, then eventually London. But the circumstances are completely different. Syria is no Libya, where a dictator was universally reviled. Nor is it a Kosovo, where armed thugs were ethnically-cleansing civilians. Syria is melting-down into a sectarian nightmare of Sunni v Shia, secularist v jihadist. No-one can predict the outcome of raining even more missiles down on Syrians.
Murdering fellow human beings in God’s name has brought Syria, one of the most ancient nations on Earth, to its knees. Sadly, the answers seem particularly elusive, even by the violent standards of 21st century civil unrest.