‘We are witnessing events which match the behaviour of the Nazi regime in Guernica in Spain.’ British MP Andrew Mitchell isn’t holding back in his condemnation of the Russian and Syrian regimes ahead of this week’s House of Commons debate on the conflict in Syria. But then no Western politician is holding back when it comes to Russia and Syria. Ever since the collapse of the latest absurd ceasefire agreement – absurd because only some combatants were party to it – the diplomatic air has been thick with moral hyperbole, as Western statesmen have eagerly stepped forward to express just how outraged they are at Russia and Assad for their role in the ongoing destruction of Syria.
US secretary of state John Kerry, focusing on the air attack on a UN aid convoy trying to help the inhabitants of the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo, said both the Russian and Syrian governments should face a war-crimes probe. Kerry’s call was supported by Britain’s ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, who accused Russia of ‘killing off, literally, those who want a moderate, peaceful and pluralistic future’. Rycroft’s US counterpart, Samantha Power, also vented some moral wind: ‘What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism. It is barbarism.’
Such grandstanding bluster is hardly a surprise. Ever since Russia openly stepped up its involvement in Syria over a year ago, shoring up the Assad regime against its assorted opponents, Islamist or otherwise, the tale of Syria’s collapse told in Western circles has transformed Russia into the central protagonist: first propping up the politically bankrupt Assad government, before killing indiscriminately to secure Assad’s future. That it was Western powers who first got stuck into Syria after the Arab Spring, stirring up and entrenching what then became a vicious factionalised civil war, whereas Russia merely reacted, with brutal pragmatism, to the chaos emerging on its territorial margins, is largely ignored. For many Western politicos, Russia is the bad guy in this simple-minded morality tale, and Putin the Bond-esque villain. It’s therefore almost too easy for the likes of Mitchell, Kerry, Power and so on to make moral capital out of the Syrian conflict; almost too appealing for posture-seeking politicians to wring their hands at Russia/Assad’s brutality; almost too good an opportunity to miss for the do-gooders of international relations to demonstrate their moral superiority over the barbarians in the East.
But it’s a big ‘almost’, because Western powers, from the US to the UK, are not wise, disinterested arbiters of Middle Eastern affairs, commending and condemning as reason dictates. They are immersed in Middle Eastern affairs; they are complicit in the unravelling of an entire region; and they are therefore as morally compromised as Russia. Every moralistic posture, every self-righteous condemnation, reeks of hypocrisy.
Which brings us to Yemen, that largely ignored Middle Eastern nation 2,500 kilometres to the south of Syria. Like Syria, a deeply unpopular president is being desperately propped up by foreign powers, as assorted internal factions, from the ascendant Houthi rebels in the north to al-Qaeda in the south and east, take advantage of the power vacuum following the implosion of the Yemeni state in 2011. In fact, it’s fair to say that Yemen’s nominal president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, commands even less domestic support than Assad. That’s because Hadi owes his reign not to the activists who prompted the exit of his predecessor, President Saleh, but to the United Nations and the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council, which effectively appointed him leader as part of the so-called Yemeni transition agreement in 2011. In the words of a researcher based in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa: ‘[Hadi] has no military power, no real political power, no support base on the ground, no tribal support base. In reality, what’s he got? It’s the international community.’