Syria: Something must be done – I mean, anything!

Some people object that we couldn’t have known that Assad would turn out like this by Mark Steel (The Independent)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma during their official visit to France, 2010
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma during their official visit to France, 2010

It must be heartbreaking for many of these people who were looking forward to some bombing in Syria. One of them was on Question Time, trying hard to make a strategic case for war, but so frustrated he looked as if he was about to shout “Oh look it’s not FAIR – I wanted MISSILES and EXPLOSIONS and the bloke who wrote Bravo Two Zero on Sky News guessing what would be blown up next. I WANTED it. I WANTED it. I HATE that Putin.”

Their catchphrase is, “We can’t stand idly by”, whenever a war seems possible. If it’s suggested that military intervention will almost certainly make things worse they say “But we have to do SOMETHING,” as if it doesn’t matter what. Maybe there’s a case for that, and seeing as the route to bombing Syria is blocked for a while, the army should be asked to burn down a random village in Somerset. Survivors of a helicopter gunship attack on Templecombe will complain about cruise missiles coming through the cowshed, cluster bombs spoiling the tea shoppe and the struggle of living in a refugee camp in Yeovil, but they can be reassured “Yes but we have to do SOMETHING.”

Eventually it could be a legitimate defence in all criminal cases. Barristers will tell the judge that their client regret any collateral damage from the armed robbery on the old people’s home, but he for one was not prepared to stand idly by.

Because the main issue, for some supporters of military action, appears to be finding a way to not feel bad in ourselves. Then in the future, when people ask what we did to oppose the horrors of President Assad of Syria, we can say “I did my bit. I sat in a pub and said we can’t stand idly by.”

If you’re sceptical of this approach, you can’t help wishing there was some recent example of Western military intervention, against an Arab dictator we’d previously backed but suddenly discovered was evil and had to bomb as we couldn’t stand idly by, then we might have more clues as to the possible outcome of getting involved in a war with them.

Presumably, those people who were most eager for war in Iraq, on the “must do something” grounds, are pleased with how that turned out. Because whatever else opponents of the war might say, there’s no disputing that the war did do something.

Among its achievements were to make the situation incomparably more violent than before, enraging the people we claimed to be protecting, and discovering the weapons that were the premise for the whole escapade didn’t exist. At this point, I suppose the politicians who’d supported the war said: “This invasion has led to utter carnage. We insist on supplying Semtex to the suicide bombers, as we have to do SOMETHING.”

For some people the current anguish about Assad must be especially frustrating. Tony Blair for example, supports bombing him, so how he must wish he’d done it when he had the chance. Because Blair invited him here as a special guest, so special he was put up in a bedroom in Buckingham Palace. The poor Queen can’t have had much say in this, and may now have to answer questions from social security, as that bedroom is unlikely to be occupied by Assad again which makes it a spare room and liable to cause a reduction in her annual allowance.

Some people object that we couldn’t have known that Assad would turn out like this, as if he was such a pussycat back then that to not sell him weapons would have been downright rude. It was true his path to power hadn’t complied with every modern aspect of democracy, in that he took over from his father without a single vote anywhere in the country, but his wife loved to shop at Harrods and you can’t get much more modern and democratic than that.

The same process repeats itself now. We sell billions of pounds worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, adamant that they use them responsibly, as they assure us water canon for example won’t be used against dissenters. And we should take them at their word – it’s much more that likely they’re to be installed as extreme car washes across the desert.

So it could be argued that one way to deter atrocities by dictators is not to sell them the weapons that a few years later we have to do SOMETHING about. In other words, when they ask us for lorryloads of weapons we must be prepared to stand idly by.

As well as these problems, in Syria there’s the conundrum that many of the rebel groups are linked to al-Qa’ida. To get round this, it was reported yesterday, “the CIA has a vetting process to decide which rebels to support”. That’s reassuring then, if there ever is a point when we’re sending weapons out there. Maybe each group will have to fill in a form, as if it’s a community hall applying for a grant from lottery money. Only if the CIA are really impressed with how they answer the question: “How will you use the aid to build cultural bridges between the diverse elements of age and gender within your locality” will they get a truck full of anti-aircraft missiles and a flame thrower.

Because arming Jihadists and groups fighting the same Jihadists and groups fighting a dictator and the dictator – all that may have its critics, but at least it’s something.

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