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1 March 2012updated 11 Sep 2021 9:00am

Syria: lessons from history for the west

Much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion.

By John Slinger

All too often, international events bear out the adage that “history teaches us that history teaches us nothing”. Lessons from the shameful response of the international community to other crises must inform our policy on Syria.

First, we must not describe events as a “civil war”, thereby creating an image in western minds that the combatants are morally or militarily equivalent when this is a cynical perversion of reality. One is the army of a dictatorship attacking civilians; the other are freedom fighters defending a popular uprising of democrats. In the 1990s the “civil war” descriptor was used by John Major, Douglas Hurd and their foreign counterparts, to justify inaction in the face of overwhelming Serb aggression. Tragic consequences followed.

Second, we must not accept that providing solely humanitarian aid satisfies our responsibility to protect civilians in Syria from war crimes. We must not copy the model used in Bosnia of sending in UN-helmeted western troops to protect humanitarian aid convoys, merely to feed today those who will be murdered by a powerful aggressor tomorrow. The so-called “safe havens” of Bosnia seared an image of the wilful impotence of the international community onto the minds of countless dictators, no doubt including Assad and Saddam Hussein. Now is the time for moral potency in bringing to life the growing norm in international relations that, under certain circumstances, we have a “responsibility to protect” when illegitimate governments murder or persecute their own people.

Third, we should recall that much more can be done short of an Iraq-style invasion. We should learn the lessons of the work of Ann Clwyd MP and others who set up the organisation INDICT in 1996 to seek the indictment of Saddam’s regime for war crimes. Suffice to say Western governments did not take up this option. The UN Human Rights Council should be encouraged to act on the recent findings of the UN-appointed Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

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Fourth, we must remember the crowing of those opposed to the international liberation of Iraq in 2003 who said at the time: “why invade now for WMDs or oil…why didn’t we invade when Saddam was massacring the Kurds and Shias in the 1980s.” Western powers did, eventually and under public pressure, do the right thing by the Iraqi Kurds and instituted a no-fly zone and a safe haven which allowed the Kurds to return from the mountains and start building what has become the safest and most prosperous part of Iraq so far. We are now witnessing events akin to those dreadful crimes of the 1980s against humanity and failure to act will reap a terrible future harvest, not least for the people of Syria but for the Middle East and the wider world.

Finally, the Arab Spring has shown that the universal human urge to live in freedom can topple governments unwilling to reform. History will remember those who upheld and protected the rights of people whose desire was not death and destruction, but the dignity of living in freedom. The lessons of history teach us that we must not allow those who disparage and fear such universal forces to be the arbiter of human progress in Syria or elsewhere.

John Slinger is chair of Pragmatic Radicalism and blogs at Slingerblog. He was formerly researcher to Ann Clwyd MP (accompanying her to Baghdad in 2005 & 2006 when she was the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights).

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Twitter: @JohnSlinger