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Opponents of intervention in Syria won’t take lectures from the hawks, says Mehdi Hasan

The clamour for military action in Syria grows with each passing day, exacerbated by the relentless brutality of the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia wants to arm the rebels; Qatar has called for an Arab-led force to impose a ceasefire. Meanwhile, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the west demand that Nato enforces "no fly zones" and "safe corridors".

We have been here before. Each and every time a foreign conflict or humanitarian crisis erupts, the debate yo-yos between the extremes: bomb or invade, on the one hand, or do nothing, on the other. There is, it seems, no middle ground, no peaceful alternative, no compromise position. A negotiated, non-violent settlement? Don't be silly. Diplomacy is for wimps, restraint is for the cold-hearted.

“The upshot of inaction is murder," wrote Philip Collins, Tony Blair's former speechwriter, in his Times column on 24 February. "The rhetorical naivety in this appeal is deliberate. When you see children slaughtered by state-backed monsters, there is nothing wrong with being reduced to cliché. This cannot be allowed to happen . . . Something must be done."

Something indeed must be done to stop the ongoing carnage in Syria. But military action cannot just be an expression of moral outrage; it has to be a viable and legitimate method for halting the killings and restoring the peace.

Those of us who oppose a western military intervention in Syria are as repulsed and horrified by the violence as the hawks. Personally, I object to taking pompous lectures from those who offer simplistic solutions to complex, faraway conflicts under a cloak of "morality" and "conscience". Nor will I take ethical lessons from the gaggle of hawks who launched an illegal war in Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the torture and abuse of detainees and the biggest refugee crisis in the Middle East since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

Selective outrage

Then there is the issue of selective moral outrage. Where was the anguish from Collins and other Blairite bombardiers when their lodestar, the then prime minister Tony Blair, was turning a blind eye to the Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006, including the massacre of 28 civilians in the village of Qana, 16 of them children? Blair refused to intervene or even call for a ceasefire.

Today, western governments denounce Iran's support for Assad and condemn the inaction of China and Russia. Our leaders piously call for freedom and democracy in Syria - as part of an anti-Assad coalition that includes liberal paragons such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Hamas and al-Qaeda. Shamefully, we choose to ignore the motivation of the Sunni-led Gulf autocracies, who want Assad out for cynical, sectarian reasons. Opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have had to downplay the fact that they are drawn largely from Syria's Sunni majority and have denied claims that their protests and anger are aimed at the quasi-Shia, Alawite minority that rules the country.

Yet, in July 2011, just six months after the start of the Syrian uprising, the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based foreign-affairs think tank, revealed how opposition groups "edit out sectarian (ie, anti-Alawite) slogans" from the videos of the protests that they post online.

In recent weeks, members of the FSA - a loose network of armed, military defectors - have admitted to kidnapping Alawites to use as bargaining chips against the regime. Last month, FSA fighters bragged to the BBC that they had summarily executed a group of prisoners. Are those in the west who breezily advocate arming the FSA aware of such reports? If so, does it not bother or worry them?

Unknown factions

To point out the crimes of some Syrian rebels is not to question the opposition's right to resist or offer support - "objective" or otherwise - for the Assad regime. But it should make us pause and think twice before giving weapons, cash or diplomatic recognition to such unknown quantities, thereby making us complicit in any abuses that they are bound to commit.

To claim that the people of Syria, or even the members of Syria's fractured opposition, are united in their call for foreign military intervention is also disingenuous. Take Mohammed Saleh, a Homs-based activist who spent 12 years in jail for his opposition to the late president, Hafez al-Assad. "Anyone who supports us with weapons just wants Syrians to kill each other," he told the Daily Telegraph on 26 February. "We will triumph by man, not by arms. If we win through the weapons, militants will take charge, and we will need another 40 years for a new Syria."

That the phrase "Syria isn't Libya" is now a cliché doesn't make it any less true. Some might argue that Libya isn't Libya - that is, a model or template for liberal intervention. A year on from the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has estimated that there are now 250 different, armed militias vying for control of the Libyan coastal city of Misurata. "People are turning up dead in detention at an alarming rate," HRW's Peter Bouckaert told the New York Times last month. "If this was happening under any Arab dictatorship, there would be an outcry."

We have short memories - and shorter attention spans. Stephen Walt, professor of international affairs at Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government, has compared the west's foreign policy elite to "a kid with ADD". "A crisis erupts, and there's a sudden flurry of interest and activity," he wrote on 21 February. "And then the moment passes (often as soon as the former ruler does), and attention moves on to the next set of headlines. A year ago, Libya; today, Syria, tomorrow, who?"

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 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar