Syria: lessons from history for the west

Much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion.

All too often, international events bear out the adage that "history teaches us that history teaches us nothing". Lessons from the shameful response of the international community to other crises must inform our policy on Syria.

First, we must not describe events as a "civil war", thereby creating an image in western minds that the combatants are morally or militarily equivalent when this is a cynical perversion of reality. One is the army of a dictatorship attacking civilians; the other are freedom fighters defending a popular uprising of democrats. In the 1990s the "civil war" descriptor was used by John Major, Douglas Hurd and their foreign counterparts, to justify inaction in the face of overwhelming Serb aggression. Tragic consequences followed.

Second, we must not accept that providing solely humanitarian aid satisfies our responsibility to protect civilians in Syria from war crimes. We must not copy the model used in Bosnia of sending in UN-helmeted western troops to protect humanitarian aid convoys, merely to feed today those who will be murdered by a powerful aggressor tomorrow. The so-called "safe havens" of Bosnia seared an image of the wilful impotence of the international community onto the minds of countless dictators, no doubt including Assad and Saddam Hussein. Now is the time for moral potency in bringing to life the growing norm in international relations that, under certain circumstances, we have a "responsibility to protect" when illegitimate governments murder or persecute their own people.

Third, we should recall that much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion. We should learn the lessons of the work of Ann Clwyd MP and others who set up the organisation INDICT in 1996 to seek the indictment of Saddam's regime for war crimes. Suffice to say Western governments did not take up this option. The UN Human Rights Council should be encouraged to act on the recent findings of the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

Fourth, we must remember the crowing of those opposed to the international liberation of Iraq in 2003 who said at the time: "why invade now for WMDs or oil...why didn't we invade when Saddam was massacring the Kurds and Shias in the 1980s." Western powers did, eventually and under public pressure, do the right thing by the Iraqi Kurds and instituted a no-fly zone and a safe haven which allowed the Kurds to return from the mountains and start building what has become the safest and most prosperous part of Iraq so far. We are now witnessing events akin to those dreadful crimes of the 1980s against humanity and failure to act will reap a terrible future harvest, not least for the people of Syria but for the Middle East and the wider world.

Finally, the Arab Spring has shown that the universal human urge to live in freedom can topple governments unwilling to reform. History will remember those who upheld and protected the rights of people whose desire was not death and destruction, but the dignity of living in freedom. The lessons of history teach us that we must not allow those who disparage and fear such universal forces to be the arbiter of human progress in Syria or elsewhere.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog. He was formerly researcher to Ann Clwyd MP (accompanying her to Baghdad in 2005 & 2006 when she was the Prime Minister's Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights).

Twitter: @JohnSlinger

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue