If we arm the Syrian rebels, how do we stop British bombs and bullets getting to al-Qaeda?

The perils of intervention.

Is it too late to stop Syria’s descent into hell? Since the uprising against the despotic Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, 70,000 people have lost their lives, one million refugees have fled across the border into the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and four million Syrians – a fifth of the population – have been internally displaced. In recent days, the Assad regime has been accused of using chemical weapons in Aleppo and the rebels tried (but failed) to assassinate the Syrian prime minister in Damascus.

The popular uprising long ago morphed into an armed insurgency, backed by a motley alliance of the United States, Europe, Turkey, the Gulf states and . . . al-Qaeda. Syria, a secular state, has been engulfed in the flames of a vicious, sectarian civil war in which both sides want to kill their way to victory. Viable solutions of the diplomatic, non-violent variety are few and far between. “Syria poses the most complex set of issues that anyone could ever conceive,” declared General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, in March.

The clamour for a military intervention in Syria is getting louder – especially following the (as yet unsubstantiated) chemical weapons claims. On the right, there’s the US senator and Republican former presidential candidate John McCain, who, in recent years, hasn’t come across a war he didn’t want the US to fight. The Obama administration, McCain told NBC on 28 April, should arm the rebels, impose a no-fly zone and “be prepared with an international force to go in and secure these stocks of chemical and perhaps biological weapons”.

On the left, there’s the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, one of the driving forces behind Nato’s 2011 war in Libya. In an interview with me for al-Jazeera English, which will be broadcast in June, he said “there is no question” that a military intervention in Syria, beginning with a no-fly zone, is “doable”. When I asked him how he could be so confident, he shrugged: “Bashar al-Assad is weak . . . a paper tiger."

If only. Assad may be a loathsome dictator but that doesn’t change a central fact: that he continues to command the support of a significant chunk of Syria’s population (Alawites, Christians, some secular Sunnis). Nor does it change his air defences, which are far superior to those of Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Mullah Omar. Syria is believed to have up to 300 mobile surface-to-air missile systems and about 600 fixed missile sites. Oh, and did I mention the chemical weapons?

The experts are much more honest about the limits of military action than the Lévys and McCains of this world. Dempsey, America’s top soldier, has said that he can’t see a military option that would “create an understandable outcome”. His opposite number in the UK, General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, has told ministers, “Even to set up a humanitarian safe area would be a major military operation,” according to the Sunday Times of 28 April.

The reality is that even the best-intentioned humanitarian intervention could end up costing hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent lives. Those who flippantly claim that life couldn’t get any worse for the Syrian people should be reminded of Algeria (ten years; 200,000 dead), Lebanon (15 years; 170,000 dead), the Democratic Republic of Congo (ongoing; five million dead) and Iraq (ongoing; 600,000 to a million dead).

Let’s be clear: diplomacy, whether of the coercive or the non-coercive variety, isn’t a panacea. So far sanctions haven’t worked and the Russians continue to bat for Assad in the UN Security Council chamber.

But isn’t it depressing to witness how the west’s interventionists are always waiting for diplomacy to fail? Their targets – Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, Saddam, Gaddafi and now Assad – are always latter-day Hitlers: crazy, irrational, immune to political or diplomatic pressure. To negotiate is to appease.

It is a simplistic, Manichaean view of the world. Yet as the then leader of the Syrian opposition movement in exile, Moaz al-Khatib, acknowledged in September 2012: “Negotiation is not surrendering to the cruelty but it is choosing the lesser of two evils.” (Al-Khatib has since been smeared by some of his fellow rebels – most of whom, admittedly, crave a western military intervention – as an Assad apologist. He has had to stand down as opposition leader.)

Listen to Haytham al-Manna, the anti-interventionist spokesman for the opposition National Co-ordination Committee, whose brother was killed by the Assad regime. “We must adhere to a negotiated political solution in this difficult phase so as to give every Syrian a chance to see the end of destruction,” he wrote in the Guardian on 18 April.

“We cannot let the bloodbath go on like this,” Lévy told me. However, there is little evidence to suggest that sending in our bombers or arming the rebels will ratchet down, rather than ratchet up, the violence. Remember: weapons are fungible. We have no way of preventing the al-Qaeda-affiliated members of the opposition from getting hold of bombs and bullets supplied by Britain and France. Nor does anyone have a credible plan of action for the day after Assad falls.

The west should be pouring water, not fuel, on the Syrian fire. Our ministers should be putting pressure on, and offering incentives to, Moscow to detach itself from Damascus; our diplomats should be trying to convince the Gulf states to rein in the rebels, especially those of the ultra-Islamist, hand-chopping variety; our lawyers should be threatening Assad and his underlings with International Criminal Court indictments.

It may be that none of these options works. But, a decade on from the US-led invasion of Iraq, the alternative – all-out war – is too dreadful to contemplate.

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column also appears, and a columnist for the New Statesman. His new al-Jazeera interview series, “Head to Head”, will begin airing on 7 June

A rebel fighter from the Al-Ezz bin Abdul Salam Brigade in April. Photo: Getty

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Hate Brexit Britain? 7 of the best places for political progressives to emigrate to

If you don't think you're going to get your country back, time to find another. 

Never mind the European Union, the UK is so over. Scotland's drifting off one way, Northern Ireland another and middle England is busy setting the clocks back to 1973. 

If this is what you're thinking as you absentmindedly down the last of your cheap, import-free red wine, then maybe it's time to move abroad. 

There are wonderful Himalayan mountain kingdoms like Bhutan, but unfortunately foreigners have to pay $250 a day. And there are great post-colonial states like India and South Africa, but there are also some post-colonial problems as well. So bearing things like needing a job in mind, it might be better to consider these options instead: 

1. Canada

If you’re sick of Little England, why not move to Canada? It's the world's second-biggest country with half the UK's population, and immigrants are welcomed as ‘new Canadians’. Oh, and a hot, feminist Prime Minister.

Justin Trudeau's Cabinet has equal numbers of men and women, and includes a former Afghan refugee. He's also personally greeted Syrian refugees to the country. 

2. New Zealand 

With its practice of diverting asylum seekers to poor, inhospitable islands, Australia may be a Brexiteer's dream. But not far away is kindly New Zealand, with a moderate multi-party government and lots of Greens. It was also the first country to have an openly transexual mayor. 

Same-sex marriage has been legal in New Zealand since 2013, and sexual discrimination is illegal. But more importantly, you can live out your own Lord of the Rings movie again and again. As they say, one referendum to rule them all and in the darkness bind them...

3. Scandinavia

The Scandinavian countries regularly top the world’s quality of life indices. They’re also known for progressive policies, like equal parental leave for mothers and fathers. 

Norway ranks no. 2 of all the OECD countries for jobs and life satisfaction, Finland’s no.1 for education, Sweden stands out for health care and Denmark’s no. 1 for work-life balance. And the crime dramas are great.

Until 24 June, as an EU citizen, you could have moved there at the drop of a hat. Now you'll need to keep an eye on the negotiations. 

4. Scotland

Scottish voters bucked the trend and voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union. Not only is the First Minister of the Scottish Parliament a woman, but 35% of MSPs are women, compared to 29% of MPs.

If you're attached to this rainy isle but you don't want to give up the European dream, catch a train north. Just be prepared to stomach yet another referendum before you claw back that EU passport. 

5. Germany

The real giant of Europe, Germany is home to avant-garde artists, refugee activists and also has a lot of jobs (time to get that GCSE German textbook out again). And its leader is the most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel. 

Greeks may hate her, but Merkel has undoubtedly been a crusader for moderate politics in the face of populist right movements. 

6. Ireland

It's English speaking, has a history of revolutionary politics and there's always a Ryanair flight. Progressives though may want to think twice before boarding though. Despite legalising same-sex marriage, Catholic Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws of the western world. 

A happier solution may be to find out if you have any Irish grandparents (you might be surprised) and apply for an Irish passport. At least then you have an escape route.

7. Vermont, USA

Let's be clear, anywhere that is considering a President Trump is not a progressive country. But under the Obama administration, it has made great strides in healthcare, gay marriage and more. If you felt the Bern, why not head off to Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont?

And thanks to the US political system, you can still legally smoke cannabis (for medicinal reasons, of course) in states like Colorado.