“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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder