Leader: Syria: the case not proven

There is nothing dishonourable in choosing between a bad outcome and a worse one. The risk remains that by intervening we will both widen and intensify the conflict.

British military adventurism in the Middle East is invariably disastrous. Yet, following the recall of parliament on 29 August, here we are again, on the verge of another western military intervention in the Levant, a region with a long history of religious and sectarian conflict.
 
The alleged use of chemical weapons against its own people by the murderous Bashar al-Assad regime was indeed a crime against humanity. No one who has seen photographs, or YouTube footage, of the suffering caused by the attacks – the hollow-eyed children gasping for breath, the terrified screams of mothers, the panic, the mayhem – can be in any doubt that something evil happened in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on 21 August. Assad has everything to lose and the rebels fighting him have nothing to lose: the combination is deadly, the suffering perpetual.
 
Intervention has mainly been justified as a necessary response to the Ghouta atrocity. The refrain from the American and British governments is that we cannot allow states to use chemical weapons with impunity. But, even if we assume the regime was responsible for the attack, there is no reason to believe that missile strikes would dissuade Assad from further massacres. Should his chemical weapons capacity be disabled, the Syrian despot will merely resort to other means by which to murder his opponents.
 
For this reason, as with Libya, regime change may become the de facto objective of the coalition against Assad. It is far from clear that the consequences would be benign, however. The rebels – a mixed group of genuine democrats, deserters from the Syrian army, Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist fanatics such as Jabhat al-Nusra – are not a unified and coherent force. They are factionalised, united only in their hatred of Assad and his fellow Alawites, who are a heterodox Shia sect. If the regime is toppled, secular liberal democrats will not replace it – as the west once hoped. The Syrian civil war is both a local and an intra-Islamic conflict, and its aftershocks will reverberate long into the future.
 
The Israelis and Turks look on anxiously, wondering if and when they will be drawn directly into the conflict. The Kurds are newly emboldened that before too long they will have their own nation state, carved out of parts of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. What we are witnessing is the unravelling of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and, surely also before too long, the inevitable break-up of the artificial nation states created by Britain and France: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
 
Barack Obama’s non-interventionist policy of drawing up a “red line” on chemical weapons, beyond which Assad was forbidden to go, while hoping for the best, has failed. The president is no dove: as our correspondent John Bew – author of a book on Lord Castlereagh and a war studies and foreign policy expert – writes on page 20, he is a realist. But he wanted to avoid being sucked into the Syrian civil war at the very moment US troops are preparing to leave Afghanistan.
 
Now, after equivocating for so long, President Obama is acting in haste, encouraged by the fading post-colonial powers Britain and France. Instead of preparing for military strikes against Syrian “strategic targets”, the US, the UK and France should do anything possible to keep diplomatic lines open to the Russians. Unilateral military action will close off that avenue. Russia, given its problems with Muslim minorities in the Caucasus, is desperate not to allow Syria to fall into the hands of Islamists. It therefore has every reason to support a peace conference and to force Assad to attend. Assad has rejected this option before but may yet back down under Iranian and Russian pressure. It is clear that he is not going to achieve a quick victory and that the civil war has, in effect, reached a stalemate. At best for him, Syria will be partitioned but he will retain power, however diminished.
 
There is nothing dishonourable in choosing between a bad outcome and a worse one. The risk remains that by intervening we will both widen and intensify the conflict, and increase rather than reduce the threat to civilian life. Syria and its Lebanese proxies, Hezbollah, might well seek to retaliate with strikes against Israel and Turkey as well as on western forces, creating conditions for the regional conflagration that policymakers have long regarded as the nightmare scenario.
 
The moral case for action against Assad is indisputable. But it is not enough for leaders to consider what is ethical; they must also consider what is prudent and wise. As the baleful consequences of the interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have demonstrated, too often high-minded liberals who go to war intent on preserving civilian life achieve the reverse.
 
Peace, as such, in Syria is unrealistic but a ceasefire, with all sides keeping what they hold, may be just about achievable. On the principle that war is justified only when all other options are exhausted, this should at least be tried. 
Syrian army soldiers are seen deployed in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus on August 24, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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Charlottesville: a town haunted by the far right

Locals fear a bitter far right will return.

On 12 August, a car ploughed down pedestrians in the street where I used to buy my pecan pies. I had recently returned to London from Charlottesville, Virginia – the scene of what appears to have been an act of white supremacist terrorism – having worked and taught at the university there for four years. While I unpacked boxes of books, the streets I knew so well were full of hate and fire.

The horror began on the evening of Friday 11 August, when thugs with torches marched across the “Lawn”. Running through the heart of the university, this is where, each Halloween, children don ghoulish costumes and trick-or-treat delighted and generous fourth-year undergraduates.

But there were true monsters there that night. They took their stand on the steps of the neoclassical Rotunda – the site of graduation – to face down a congregation about to spill out of St Paul’s Episcopal opposite.

Then, on Saturday morning, a teeming mass of different groups gathered in Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park), where my toddler ran through splash pads in the summer.

We knew it was coming. Some of the groups were at previous events in Charlottesville’s “summer of hate”. Ever since a permit was granted for the “Unite the Right” march, we feared that this would be a tipping point. I am unsure whether I should have been there, or whether I was wise to stay away.

The truth is that this had nothing to do with Charlottesville – and everything to do with it. From one perspective, our small, sleepy university town near the Blue Ridge Mountains was the victim of a showdown between out-of-towners. The fighting was largely not between local neo-Nazis and African Americans, or their white neighbours, for that matter. It was between neo-Nazis from far afield – James Alex Fields, Jr, accused of being the driver of the lethal Dodge Challenger, was born in Kentucky and lives in Ohio – and outside groups such as “Antifa” (anti-fascist). It was a foreign culture that was foisted upon the city.

Charlottesville is to the American east coast what Berkeley is to the west: a bastion of liberalism and political correctness, supportive of the kind of social change that the alt-right despises. Just off camera in the national newsfeeds was a banner hung from the public  library at the entrance of Emancipation Park, reading: “Proud of diversity”.

I heard more snippets of information as events unfolded. The counter-protesters began the day by drawing on the strength of the black church. A 6am prayer meeting at our local church, First Baptist on Main (the only church in Charlottesville where all races worshipped together before the Civil War), set the tone for the non-violent opposition.

The preacher told the congregation: “We can’t hate these brothers. They have a twisted ideology and they are deeply mistaken in their claim to follow Christ, but they are still our brothers.” Then he introduced the hymns. “The resistance of black people to oppression has only been kept alive through music.”

The congregation exited on to Main Street, opposite my old butcher JM Stock Provisions, and walked down to the statue of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – the early 19th-century Bear Grylls types who explored the west. They went past Feast! – the delicacy market where we used to spend our Saturday mornings – and on to the dreamy downtown mall where my wife and I strolled on summer evenings and ate southern-fried chicken at the Whiskey Jar.

The permit for the “protest” was noon to 5pm but violence erupted earlier. Between 10.30am and 12pm, the white supremacists, protected by a paramilitary guard, attacked their opponents. As the skirmishes intensified, police were forced to encircle the clashing groups and created, in effect, a bizarre zone of “acceptable” violence. Until the governor declared a state of emergency, grown men threw bottles of piss at each other.

At noon, the crowd was dispersed and the protesters spilled out into the side streets. This was when the riot climaxed with the horrific death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, the far-right groups marauded the suburbs while residents locked their doors and closed their blinds.

I sat in London late into the night as information and prayer requests trickled through. “There are roughly 1,000 Nazis/KKK/alt-right/southern nationalists still around – in a city of 50,000 residents. If you’re the praying type, keep it up.”

No one in Charlottesville is in any doubt as to how this atrocity became possible. Donald Trump has brought these sects to group consciousness. They have risen above their infighting to articulate a common ground, transcending the bickering that mercifully held them back in the past.

In the immediate aftermath, there is clarity as well as fury. My colleague Charles Mathewes, a theologian and historian, remarked: “I still cannot believe we have to fight Nazis – real, actual, swastika-flag-waving, be-uniformed, gun-toting Nazis, along with armed, explicit racists, white supremacists and KKK members. I mean, was the 20th century simply forgotten?”

There is also a sense of foreboding, because the overwhelming feeling with which the enemy left was not triumph but bitterness. Their permit had been to protest from noon to 5pm. They terrorised a town with their chants of “Blood and soil!” but their free speech was apparently not heard. Their safe space, they claim, was not protected.

The next day, the organiser of the march, Jason Kessler, held a press conference to air his grievances. The fear is that the indignant white supremacists will be back in greater force to press their rights.

If that happens, there is one certainty. At one point during the dawn service at First Baptist, a black woman took the stand. “Our people have been oppressed for 400 years,” she said. “What we have learned is that the only weapon which wins the war is love.”

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear