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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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.