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The Ghouta sarin massacre: one year on

Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

On 29 August 2013 the Coalition government reconvened the Commons to debate a motion calling for a third British military intervention in the Arab world. Ten days previously, the regime of Bashar al-Assad had gassed civilians with the nerve agent sarin in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, and the likelihood was that the RAF would be deployed to support US and French air-strikes against the Syrian armed forces. The government motion was defeated, thanks to a combination of Labour votes and rebel Tory MPs. In retrospect, it was the last opportunity for external intervention to curb the violence that Assad was inflicting on the Syrian people, and to end the civil war that has to this date killed up to 200,000 people.

Much has been made – not least by the Baathist regime in Damascus – of the increasing power of the Islamists in the Syrian rebellion, and as I noted in a previous post, the ISIS onslaught into Northern Iraq was in part a consequence of the misrule of Nuri al-Maliki’s regime. Yet Assad actually facilitated the emergence of ISIS, and it is significant that during the Syrian civil war it is the more moderate elements of the rebellion – rather than ISIS – that have faced the brunt of the regime’s military and militia offensives. Part of this is divide-and-rule, but part of this is also Bashar being the arsonist posing as a fireman. He knows full well that a fanatical Islamist faction that dominates the insurgency and crushes its rivals will serve as a deterrent to any future Western intervention against him. Despite the Syrian foreign minister’s declaration that his country will co-operate with any partners interested in fighting ‘terrorism’, we should not forget his government’s role in fostering ISIS’s rise.

When it came to last year’s debate, critics did oppose air-strikes on Syria for honourable reasons, most notably due to concerns that they would be ineffectual, would lead to escalation, and would empower an insurgency in Syria that was increasingly dominated by the radical Islamist movement of ISIS. I will recognise that there were grounds for opposing intervention which could a year back have been seen as morally and practically sound, even if ultimately they were misconceived. In the absence of Western air-strikes the fact is that the Syrian war has escalated, and has destabilised Iraq and Lebanon. ISIS has established a de facto state in the Mashriq which has become a magnet for jihadi volunteers from across the world, including an estimated 500 Britons.

Just like Afghanistan under the Taliban and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11.

This post is not directed against those critics who erred honourably over Syria. It is firstly aimed at the Support Tyrants and War criminals Collective and its media supporters, who never once marched to protest against the Assad regime’s serial crimes against humanity against its own people since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011, and who gloated over the outcome of the Commons vote. Hopi Sen’s piece on the STWC says all that needs to be said about an ‘anti-war’ movement that has said nothing to condemn the barrel-bombings, chlorine gas attacks and massacres Syrian civilians have suffered since Ghouta.

It is also directed against the Labour Party. Mark Crawford’s eloquent denunciation of Labour’s response expressed – far more lucidly and coherently than I can – my own sense of revulsion over Ed Miliband’s opportunistic decision to oppose a government motion he had earlier promised to support. The spectacle of Labour MPs nit-picking over the gassing of civilians and making snide remarks over how the JIC couldn’t spell ‘Assad’ illustrated the party’s collective inability to see Syria in humanitarian terms.

What struck me about the vote and its aftermath is how consequence-free non-interventionism has become. With the Iraq war, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan, we have a narrative in politics and the media that places the blame for every fatality on those who supported military action to overthrow the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. Even if the vast majority of civilians killed in Afghanistan since October 2001 and Iraq since March 2003 have been murdered by insurgents – sorry, the ‘resistance’ – moral responsibility for every single one of these deaths has been placed on the heads of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, and we have had sanctimonious demands for supporters of intervention to ‘apologise’ and show contrition.

By that criteria, surely anti-interventionists should accept some culpability for the carnage that has continued to unfold in Syria, and to accept that they were morally wrong in deciding that infantile and narcissistic ‘anti-imperialism’, party political machinations or (in the case of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition) moral cowardice and self-interest were more important guides to judgement than either strategic calculations or compassion for Syria’s people.

Surely the likes of Ed Miliband, Diane Abbott, Lindsey German, Seumas Milne et al should acknowledge that they have a share of the blame for the implosion of Syria and Iraq, for the massacres of the Yazidis, the reign of terror directed against Iraqi Christians, and the continuing atrocities of both the Syrian regime and ISIS?

Fat chance.

We should consider here the fact that Bush Junior is considered by all Right Thinking People™ as a war criminal because of Iraq, but Bill Clinton – whose administration wilfully ignored the genocide in Rwanda – is regarded as an elder statesman. Guardian and Daily Mail journalists and readers want Blair to go to The Hague and experience the same treatment as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Yet nobody offers the same bitter invective against John Major or Douglas Hurd, whose role in facilitating the butchery the latter inflicted on Croatia and Bosnia is a matter of record.

The fact is that if you engage in a failed military intervention or support such an action, you are damned with exclusive responsibility for the consequences, no matter what your motives. If you oppose intervention – not out of a genuine consideration for the implications, but out of dogma or moral midgetry – there are no come-backs for you at all.

We are now in a world where an anti-interventionist can turn a blind eye to mass murder without being held to any account. It is not a world that I think is good, or safe, to live in.