Five misconceptions about intervention in Syria

By Alex Bryan

Since reports of a chemical weapons attack launched in Syria by the Assad regime began circulating a week or so ago, debate has intensified over how the West should respond to such a barbarous act which typifies the opportunism and disregard for human rights at the heart of the Syrian state. Some have called for restraint; more have called for action in some form or another, be it humanitarian action, targeted missile strikes or more direct methods of intervention. The sheer scale of the global conversation about how to solve the crisis in Syria by its very nature means that facts are distorted, straw men are constructed and taken apart and the very topic of conversation at times becomes lost amidst the clutter. Here then is a handy guide to a few important misconceptions, mistakes or misplaced concerns the commentariat have expressed about the potential options the West has in facing down Assad.

Misconception 1 – The West is not currently intervening in Syria

As we are talking about foreign policy misconceptions, there seem few places more fitting to start than Tony Blair’s piece in the Times yesterday. Blair notes that other powers are intervening right now, and that they are not terrified by the prospect of intervention. Blair is right; Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others are intervening in the conflict as we speak. However, he is wrong to imply that the West is not. Intervention, as Blair knows, is a broad term which can cover a whole host of options, military or non-military. It is clear that the UK is engaging with the conflict, as is the U.S.; the fact we have not bombed Syria does not mean we are ‘wringing our hands’ on the sidelines.

Misconception 2 – That the West is chiefly concerned with morals in Syria

Commentators have tended to be fundamentally divided on how they suggest we view Syria. Some, such as Blair, view the need for intervention as one which is essentially based on Western interests and the need for long term stability in the Middle-East. Others view it as a moral necessity now that chemical weapons are involved, saying that chemical weapons provide an imperative, that using them breaches a fundamental principle of human dignity and that we must act to ensure this does not happen again. In a sense both are right. However, the second view is clearly normative rather than descriptive; one can argue that we should intervene on moral grounds, but it is a different thing to say that is why we will intervene. The moral argument is far more complicated than is generally accepted, and involves swallowing a whole host of difficult implications. For example, if chemical weapons represent a moral line, where does this leave the thousands killed using guns or sticks or knives or bombs in Syria? Is this morally defensible? Are their deaths any less worthy of our moral concern? Our concern with chemical weapons is not entirely moral; it also involves a national security element. Preventing the flow of chemical weapons into the hands of non-state actors – including the Syrian rebels – is a priority for the West in defending itself against possible future terrorist attacks. There is a legitimate concern against the use of chemical weapons, but it is not entirely moral. If it were, intervention would be much less likely.

Misconception 3 – That international military intervention without a UN mandate is still legitimate on humanitarian grounds

On Conservative Home Robert Halfon MP argues that the UN’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine essentially grants a mandate to any country. This is a misunderstanding of the doctrine, which could be very dangerous. More fundamentally however, Halfon misunderstands what R2P is. It is not a set of guidelines or rules, but an emerging norm. The reason it is emerging is because it is still highly controversial and far from perfect, as the previous attempts to implement the doctrine have shown. So, although we can appeal to R2P in making a case to the UN to intervene (or allow an intervention), it does not guarantee the legal certainty that Halfon appears to claim it does. Halfon also seems to misunderstand what R2P allows the international community to do. When the UN talks about the ‘international community’ with regards to R2P, what it means it ‘the international community represented by the Security Council’. So R2P gets us no closer to a legitimate response; it would still be blocked in the Security Council by Russia and China, both pro-Assad and anti-R2P.

Misconception 4- We should not aid the rebels because of the Muslim Brotherhood

This idea is fairly prevalent among those keen not to get involved, such as Sir Andrew Green. Conversely, fear of the Muslim Brotherhood is also the reason Tony Blair gives for supporting the military against the democratically elected government in Egypt. While Green and Blair both cite the Brotherhood to support differing opinions, they both demonstrate similarly strange approaches to foreign policy. Green might be right that if the Assad regime topples, the Muslim Brotherhood will gain power, attempt to implement Sharia and an Islamic state and rule Syria for a number of years. Of course he acknowledges the complexity of the issue, but also implies, rather strikingly, that the collapse of the regime would launch the Syrian Brotherhood into mainstream politics. However, the Syrian Brotherhood is very different to the central, more powerful Egyptian Brotherhood. Alison Pargeter notes the differences in her excellent book The Muslim Brotherhood: From Opposition To Power, and even if the relative liberalism of the Syrian Brotherhood is no more, it should still be clear that judging the Syrian Brotherhood on the actions of its Egyptian counterparts is a mistake. Perhaps more pertinently, we cannot claim with any certainty what might happen if Assad were to fall. The only certainty we have is that for as long as he stays in power, Syria will be drenched in blood.

Misconception 5 – The actions of the West will decide the future of the conflict and the long-term future of Syria

The general discussion in the West in the last week has – perhaps naturally – focussed on the options at our disposal in changing the course of the conflict. In discussing the options, many have rested on an assumption which, if once true, is no longer valid. We cannot assume, with the political revitalisation of Russia under Putin, China’s inevitable rise and the increasing assertiveness of the Arab world, that Western actions will have a huge effect in the long term. The age of U.S. unipolarity is dying if not dead, and we in the West must face up to this fact. We are no longer omnipotent. Intervention in Syria might have a short term effect, but the long term future of Syria will be more determined by the geopolitical forces of the Middle-East than the wishes of the United States. Our ambitions must, then, be limited to what is possible. Our approach to Syria must mirror this uncertainty; however the West ends up intervening, it will not mark the end of this damned tale.

Intervening in Iraq was no mistake

By James Le Grice

It’s been a war of mistakes, there’s no denying that. I won’t list everything that Bush, Blair and Co. bungled up; you can find all that in any newspaper’s coverage of ‘Iraq – Ten Years On’ from the past three weeks. The Guardian and Independent are good places to start. The success stories of Iraq remain, as ever, overlooked. But amongst the successes, there’s one particular biggie: ten years since the invasion of Iraq, the free world is still fighting terrorists; it is not fighting a nascent Islamic empire.

Saddam Hussein’s threat to the world may have been exaggerated, but the threats posed by those who tried to take his place have been anything but. To appreciate the nightmare that could have been, there are a few inevitabilities and some unsettling realities to consider.

The first inevitability is that Saddam Hussein’s rule would come to an end at some point. He was not an immortal god, no matter how much his propaganda made him seem that way. And if alive today, he would be nearing 76.

Inevitability number two is that the end of Saddam’s rule would be violent. Modern Iraq has been particularly prone to coups and revolutions, even within the same factions, but at no other point in its history has power been so monopolized by one single person for so long. Saddam’s end would leave an incredible void, not one that his playboy son and heir Uday could easily fill. There would be a scramble for power, and the sectarian tensions between Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds, deliberately exacerbated by Saddam’s method of rule, would be unrestrained to boil over. Whoever was to fill the post-Saddam void would get there by strength of arms.

Now for the unsettling realities. The religious revivalism of the 20th century gave rise to a new jihad amongst the extremists in the Islamic world: overthrow the nation-states in Muslim lands, replace them with the rule of Islam, and purge these societies of everything un-Islamic.

The threat of this jihad was compounded in the time since Saddam Hussein came to power by the rise of two opposing entities seeking to redraw the map of the entire Islamic world.

The first of these is the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose main foreign policy objective is to export its revolution. At its heart is the belief that the Mahdi, the messianic figure of Shia Islam, is returning imminently with Jesus to lead the faithful to victory in an epic war against the unbelievers, and that the Supreme Leader of Iran is a guardian sent to ready the world for the Mahdi’s rule.

The second of these entities is al Qaeda, which seeks to build a new caliphate and make it the supreme world power after bankrupting the United States.

By the 2000s, these entities had grown strong enough in their financial, military and human resources to be major game players in the internal affairs of Muslim countries. And that’s exactly what happened in Iraq.

Their proxies fought under the banner of anti-Americanism, but they would have been there even if America hadn’t. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda’s proxy, was in Iraq before the Americans got there, building links between his Jordanian group, Jama’at al Tawhid wal Jihad, and anti-Saddam rebels in the northeast. The Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose militias received training and weapons from Iran, is the son of the most prominent anti-Saddam Shia leader of the 1990s. And even if these specific two did not enter the post-Saddam void, al Qaeda and Iran would have found other proxies, because controlling Iraq is a vital necessity for both.

Iraq was the first country Osama bin Laden sought to gain after forming al Qaeda. In 1990, he appealed to the Saudis to give him and his holy warriors, fresh from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan, a base from which to fight Saddam. The Saudis snubbed him for the US military instead. As for Iran, it has been boxed in since its revolution by a hostile Iraq, a country home to the holiest sites of pilgrimage in Shia Islam.

Most importantly, Iraq is the golden ticket that would allow both to stop fantasizing about a new Islamic empire and start building it. Iraq is an industrialised nation strategically located at the heart of the Islamic world. It offers a forward operating base to spread directly into Western Asia, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula, and more than enough oil to fund it all.

So what might have happened without America’s intervention? Saddam would have probably faced a rebellion; the conditions were ripe for it in 2003. Twelve years of UN sanctions had devastated the country, and while his people starved, Saddam built himself more palaces. There were rising defections within the regime, and a well organized and internationally funded opposition. If a rebellion didn’t kick off then, it certainly would have by the 2011 Arab Spring.

And we know what this would look like. In March 1991, the Iraqi people rose up against Saddam and took control of 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Armed with helicopters and chemical weapons, Saddam crushed the uprising, displacing 10% of the population, draining the southern marshes and obliterating the centuries-old livelihood of the Marsh Arabs, and killing some 180,000 people in one month. As perspective, Iraq Body Count estimates that the civilian death toll in Iraq from the last ten years of fighting is 122,115.

But with a strong al Qaeda and Iran supporting Sunni and Shia proxies, rebellion would not be so easily crushed. Their involvement would turn this into a long protracted civil war, costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives.

Al Qaeda would have the advantage to come out on top. In search of an endgame, it is not unlikely that the Baathists and al Qaeda would form a united Sunni front against their common Shia enemy. Together they could defeat them and that would then pave the way for al Qaeda to get rid of Saddam and his family and turn Iraq into an emirate with Zarqawi in charge.

Then Sunni extremists in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran could escalate their jihads to overthrow those states, safe in the knowledge that from just over the border, they’d have a steady supply of soldiers, weapons, and money, as well as the backing of one of the most powerful militaries in the Middle East.

The West would get drawn into the conflict eventually, once it’s oil supply, Turkey, or Israel came under serious threat. Except in this case, they wouldn’t be fighting terrorists armed with just AK-47s, RPGs and IEDs; they’d be fighting suicidal jihadists armed with Iraqi tanks, scud missiles, aircraft, and possibly biological and chemical warheads.

So thank goodness that didn’t happen. Thank goodness the coalition forces managed to overthrow Saddam Hussein in just 20 days. Thank goodness the Americans and British won the battle of Fallujah, denying al Qaeda one of their most important Iraqi strongholds. Thank goodness Zarqawi is dead, courtesy of the US Air Force. Thank goodness the Americans, British and Iraqi government forces won the battle of Basra, leading Muqtada al Sadr to disband his militias, and adopt a peaceful cooperative strategy. Thank goodness that al Qaeda and the Sadrists are fringe movements in Iraq today, not the dominant powers. Thank goodness the dominant military force in the post-Saddam void fought to give democracy to the victims of totalitarianism, rather than to give them a new totalitarianism. Thank goodness that intervening in Iraq was no mistake.

Our Great Irony: Market Stalinism and Jeremy Hunt.

By Patrick Lee

Picture it. You’re a university lecturer teaching a course on Modern American Fiction and you’re conducting your own research into, I don’t know, the conception of protest in different generations of alternative narratives. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, any example will do. OK, so you have a desire and a passion to teach. You’re looking forward to the course. Now you have to submit a ‘module specification’, listing all your ‘aims and objectives’, which will be assessed at the end of the course; then you have to provide a ‘modes and methods of assessment’ form; then at the end of the course you have to provide an assessment of your performance and the module’s strengths and weaknesses. Then you have to provide some paperwork on how the course will be improved next year. Then you have to submit your four best pieces of published research as part of the Research Assessment Exercise. This is just the start of the paperwork.

Or, as I recently was, imagine you are visiting a dying person in a state funded hospital. In my case we had to plead, and finally insist, that more morphine was given to the patient due to their agony and distress. Morphine has to be administered by two nurses. This process has to be monitored, and recorded. The patient, dying, in bed in the middle of the night, swimming in and out of consciousness, surrounded by family, then had to be stripped naked, and re-clothed. This was a fundamental procedure, despite the fact she had less than a few hours left to live. A box had to be ticked. The change of clothes did nothing to help the patient’s physical state. The bureaucracy was of detriment to the service. The nurses who changed her were private nurses.

I’ve worked in kitchens where a tick box focusing on what to clean and how to clean it was actually damaging to the process of keeping the kitchen as clean as possible. I’ve worked in restaurants where waiters were given scripted lines to say to customers. I’ve worked in call centres where every line of conversation, every bathroom break, and every glass of water drunk, was monitored and recorded so I could assess my own performance levels.

On the surface it, a focus on bureaucracy seems antithetical to the neoliberal, free market liberal democracy of Western hegemony. The appeal of neoliberalism is that it is the opposite of Stalinist centralised government. It encourages free market growth and empowerment of the individual to achieve in a competitive workplace, rather than serve the interests of the state. Neoliberalism should therefore, theoretically, attempt to abolish Stalinist paperwork and bureaucratic procedures.  In the West only the market rules, and those who participate in it are individuals who can succeed or fail as they see fit. So, the obvious question is: why all the bureaucracy?  And does it benefit anyone?

Think back to the examples of the dying patient in hospital, or of a teacher wanting to lecture his students. Are these students’ consumers or products of the privatised education institution? This question becomes very tricky and as you try to work it out, try to imagine you are looking at it from the perspective of free market entrepreneur: how can the education (or health) system generate as much money as possible? The difficulty comes in the fact that these forms of labour are difficult to quantify. An ideal market produces swift transactions, where demands are met directly by an institution. But now we need to monitor this institution in order to maintain that transaction. More management is needed to regulate and mediate on performance of the hospital or school. Boxes must be ticked, evaluations completed in order to preserve the illusion of all round smooth transactions. Performance of the institution must be evaluated and judging the performance of a school, or of a hospital, or a police station, where it is difficult to bracket customers and pigeonhole results, necessitates a lot of awkward, boring and possibly unnecessary questions and observation.

Please note, however, that it is only the appearance of the institutions that actually matter. You will notice that during this evaluation the needs of the customer have become secondary to the needs of the market. More effort must now go into preserving the appearance that work is being done on improving services, rather than actually improving those services themselves. And so we witness the introduction of targets, which everybody knows by now are bad for business. We can all, I’m sure, think of examples of the failure of targets. I immediately remember practising for my GCSE exams, and asking my maths teacher to explain in more detail the reason for applying a certain formula to get certain results (I think it may have been why Pythagoras’s theory worked, or why in order to find 1% of something I divided by 100). Instead of having the rule explained to me, I was just told to remember the rule, as that’s all I would need for my exam. This wasn’t necessarily bad teaching. My teacher simply had limited time to make sure his students got the best exam results possible, and to ensure that he therefore scored highly in his own assessments from management. I, however, never really learnt the truth behind certain math problems: only the exam mattered, only the illusion that I had a grasp on Pythagoras. Targets become ends in themselves rather than empirical measurements of performance, and the customer suffers.

The result if what contemporary philosophers and social scientists refer to as market Stalinism. Stalin wanted the world to see communist industry at its best and so pushed development of projects until their progress was hampered by his goal-orientated ethos. The White Sea Canal project is the best example of this form of Stalinist industry, and is comparable to how markets are managed in the contemporary neoliberal West.

However, as work has become decentralized and the onus is on individuals to constantly re-evaluate and demonstrate their skills in ever changing work spheres, it becomes the responsibility of the worker to monitor their own performance. As Foucault described with his panopticon metaphor, when a person does not know when they are being monitored, they act as if they are being monitored constantly. As a worker in a decentralized market it is only your responsibility to continue to monitor your own performance and progress, or to fail. Consequently workers will now be expected to find something wrong with themselves, in order to have something to improve upon. Working to a “satisfactory” level is no longer actually satisfactory.

This bureaucracy, the measurement of unquantifiable data in order to try to derive profit, is the price we pay for free market liberal democracy. And what does that provide us with? The answer is ostensibly economic growth, the satisfaction of human needs, the growth of technology and victory of man over nature.

In the instance of unquantifiable and essentially humanistic or egalitarian aims, however, the bureaucratic process clearly does not work. A compromise must be found, and the first step must be in addressing what liberal democracy provides human beings. Rousseau argued that technological advancement did not make humans happier, but rather more miserable. Human needs are only very basic, according to Rousseau: food and shelter from the elements, and not much more.  Technological advancement and economic growth may in fact hinder the most vital human instincts. So long as the desire for exponential growth still exists the bureaucratic procedure in the world of work will rule, as it is the way of monitoring the market. However, in the instance of the NHS, or humanistic institutions, these procedures are damaging. Compromise must be found. Jeremy Hunt’s Statutory Instrument 257 is the next step in the Tory coalition government privatising the NHS, opening up doctor’s records to the private health companies, and further adding a new layer of damaging bureaucracy onto the health system. In order to fight against bureaucracy and the damaging nature of self-evaluation, a new collective political subject must emerge. The first step is in fighting the total privatisation and bureaucratisation of the most fundamental institutions.

A petition against Hunt’s privatisation measures can be signed here:


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