“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 Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.