“Something must be done about Syria,” the hawks cry. Well, try diplomacy

Remember this – 99 per cent of the 100,000-plus dead Syrians were killed by bombs and bullets, not by sarin or VX gas.

Forget the C-word. On Syria, it’s the D-word that has become unsayable. Yes, diplomacy. To call for a diplomatic or negotiated solution to the Syrian conflict is to invite ridicule and opprobrium from the neoconservatives and self-described liberal interventionists. They still, inexplicably, dominate foreign-policy debates in the west despite their support for the catastrophic invasion of Iraq just ten years ago.
 
Diplomacy is for wimps, naifs or fools; proposed peace talks in Geneva are a distraction, an evasion and a waste of time. Bashar al-Assad will kill, kill, kill while we talk, talk, talk. Only a military strike by the western powers will deter him – and protect Syrian children from chemical attacks.
 
This is the seductive mantra that has dominated much of the discussion on Syria. Until, that is, the Russians proposed that the Assad regime place its chemical weapons under international control – and the regime apparently decided to agree to it. Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical judo throw didn’t just put his US counterpart on the defensive; it reminded the rest of us that the world isn’t as black-and-white as the neocons and their liberal fellow-travellers often claim.
 
Remember this – 99 per cent of the 100,000-plus dead Syrians were killed by bombs and bullets, not by sarin or VX gas. Whether or not a deal on chemical weapon stockpiles is agreed, it won’t stop the Assad killing machine on the ground, nor will it prevent ongoing atrocities by the more extreme rebel groups.
 
Military action is unavoidable, say the hawks. Thousands of people are dead, millions are homeless. We have tried the diplomatic route, they declare, and found it wanting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diplomacy hasn’t been tried in Syria. It has been 15 months since the first peace conference in Geneva, in June 2012, while the second peace conference (“Geneva II”) has now been postponed twice – at the request of the Americans, not the Russians. The UN peace envoy Kofi Annan quit in 2012, claiming that he “did not receive all the support that the cause deserved”.
 
What we havehad, to borrow a phrase from a recent report on Syria by Julien Barnes- Dacey and Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is “diplomacy-lite” instead of diplomatic negotiations involving “unpalatable compromises – in particular, accepting that Assad’s fate must be a question for the transition process, not a precondition or assumed outcome, and that Iran must play a role in the diplomatic process”. (It is worth noting that in the brief, Annaninspired ceasefire between April and June 2012 civilian casualties fell by 36 per cent, according to the London-based Syrian Network for Human Rights.)
 
Yet pessimism abounds. Negotiating a solution with Assad is “impossible”, said David Aaron ovitch in the Times on 5 September. However, history suggests otherwise. In an essay for Foreign Affairs in February, J Michael Quinn and Madhav Joshi noted that 60 per cent of civil wars since the end of the cold war have “ended in a settlement”. “Since 1989, combatants in civil conflicts have reached about 180 peace agreements,” they wrote. “[T]here have been 18 rebel victories [and] the majority of rebel victories were achieved within the first year of combat.”
 
And guess what? If you want to protect innocents and deter adversaries – as the Obama administration professes to want in Syria – then military action is a pretty poor way of going about it. A recent study of “intrastate conflicts” between 1989 and 2005 by three US political scientists found that external military action on behalf of rebel groups resulted in a 40 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed by governments.
 
As for deterrence, did Ronald Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya in 1986 stop Muammar al-Gaddafi from carrying out the Lockerbie bombing just two years later? Nope. Did Bill Clinton’s decision to launch cruise missile strikes against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan in 1998 deter Osama Bin Laden from ordering the attacks on the Twin Towers just three years later? Not in the slightest.
 
So why would a bunch of Tomahawks lobbed into Damascus by the US navy over the course of 48 or 72 hours deter Assad? Dropping bombs might make us feel a bit better as we rerun the gut-wrenching images of writhing and suffocating Syrian children on YouTube. Yet not a shred of evidence has been produced by leaders in London, Paris or Washington to bolster the breezy claim that bombing Syria will make it a better or safer place to live. In the memorable phrase of the US academic Marc Lynch, a US-led military intervention in Syria “appeals to the soul but does not make sense”.
 
“Something must be done,” goes the cry. This is the Yes Minister Theory of Military Action. “We must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it.”
 
In a bizarre twist, we now have diplomats – such as the US secretary of state, John Kerry, and our own Foreign Secretary, William Hague – loudly demanding air strikes while the generals, including Martin Dempsey, America’s top soldier, and Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British army, quietly express their doubts over the viability of military action and lend their support to a political solution.
 
I’m with the generals. Inaction isn’t an option. We in the west cannot turn a blind eye to war crimes in Damascus. But to pretend the choice is between firing missiles and sitting on our hands is disingenuous; the choice is between ratcheting up and ratcheting down the fighting.
 
Diplomacy might not work, but it is our best bet – and I would still rather we try to pour water, not fuel, on the flames of Syria’s terrible civil war.
 
Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this article is cross-posted
A rebel fighter carries his son after the Friday prayer in the al-Fardos neighbourhood of Aleppo. Image: 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.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

Photo: Getty
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The “lunatic” incident showed us the real Owen Smith: and it ain't pretty

Forget the slur - what really matters is what it says about his empty promises, says David Wearing. 

Owen Smith has embarrassed himself again. Having previously called for Labour to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, advocated negotiations with ISIS, and described himself as “normal” with “a wife and three children” while competing with a gay woman to stand for the Labour leadership, you might expect him to have learnt the value of expressing himself more carefully. But no. Not a bit of it.

At a rally on Tuesday evening, Smith described Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic” with no “coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain”. It’s an interesting choice of words from someone who needs to win over tens of thousands of Corbyn’s supporters if he is to avoid a crushing defeat in this summer’s Labour leadership election. Indeed, we may look back on this as the final nail in the coffin of Smith’s campaign.

Let’s be honest. Most of us at some stage have used casual language like this (“lunatic”, “insane”), to describe those whose rationality we don’t share or understand. I’ll admit to having done so myself. But it is wrong. It perpetuates a stigma around mental illness and damages peoples’ chances of getting the care and support they need from society. We should all cut it out, especially those of us who aspire to high public office.

Beyond this, however, Smith has driven a coach and horses through the central premise of his own campaign. Throughout the summer he has presented himself as substantively agreeing with Corbyn on almost all domestic and economic issues, and only seeking to pursue that agenda more effectively and professionally. He has set out a range of policies - including a £200bn “British New Deal”, workplace rights and more redistributive taxation - that constitute an overt appeal to the social democratic, progressive values of the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn and secure a clean break with the neoliberalism of New Labour.

But it is simply not credible to simultaneously say “I agree with Jeremy” and that Jeremy is a “lunatic”. No one uses the word "lunatic" to describe someone whose politics they basically share. No one says “your diagnosis of the country’s ills is incoherent, and that’s the substantive agenda I want to take forward”. Smith’s remarks indicate that, deep down, he shares the incredulity expressed by so many of his colleagues that anyone would want to abandon the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron “centre ground” of deregulation, privatisation, corporate-empowerment and widening inequality. After all, Corbyn’s narrative only appears incoherent to those who regard the post-1979 status quo as self-evidently the best of all possible worlds - give or take a few policy tweaks - rather than the very essence of “what’s wrong with Britain”.

This incident will confirm the suspicion of many Labour members that, if he did win the leadership, Smith would dilute or ditch most of the policies he has used to try and win their votes. Those fears are well founded. Take as one illustrative example the issue of immigration, where Smith has shown one face to the party while suggesting that he would show quite another to the country, as party leader.

At leadership hustings, Smith presents an enlightened, pro-immigration, anti-xenophobic stance, but in a Newsnight interview last month we saw something rather different.  When asked if there were “too many immigrants” in the UK, he replied that “it depends where you are”, giving official comfort to the post-Brexit “pack your bags” brigade. He asserted that EU migration “definitely caused downward pressure on wages” despite academic studies having repeatedly shown that this is false, and that EU migration is of clear overall benefit to the economy.

Then, calling for an “honest” discussion on immigration, Smith noted that his wife is a school teacher and that schools in their local area are under pressure from “significant numbers into South Wales of people fleeing the Middle East”. In fact, a grand total of 78 people have been resettled in the whole of Wales under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In the local authority encompassing Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the total number is zero.

This suggests, not someone who shares members’ values, but one who probably regards the leader’s pro-immigration stance as “lunatic”, and would prefer a return to the days when Labour erected the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention camp, rejected the vast majority of asylum applications from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and when Tom Watson put out an election leaflet reading “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”.

Smith’s problem is that his mask keeps slipping. And every time it does, the choice before Labour members comes into sharper focus. On the one hand, they have a man who lacks many of the managerial and communication skills for party leadership, but who shares their values and who they can trust to fight for their agenda until a credible successor can be found. Against him stands a man they may not be able to trust, who may not share their values, and whose claims of professional competence grow more threadbare by the day. It’s a poor choice to be faced with, but Smith is at least making it easier for them.