Syria: semi-impotent West can still make it worse
One special power that Western leaders like Barack Obama and David Cameron retain is the ability further to mess up the Middle East.
The Syrian crisis demonstrates the waning authority and creeping impotence of the West in the Middle East. It also, however, confirms that the US, UK and other global players retain one special power: the unique ability to make a terrible situation worse, by interfering in other peoples’ conflicts around the world.
We have heard the familiar bluster from British prime minister David Cameron and US president Barack Obama, about peace, humanitarianism, saving the children, combatting extremism and weapons of mass destruction. As ever, this interventionist rhetoric has far more to do with bolstering Western politicians’ own authority than solving the problems facing the Syrian people. But what are our something-must-be-done politicians actually proposing to do this time?
They certainly don’t want to repeat the disastrous, bloody invasions of Iraq from 2003 and Afghanistan from 2001. They are not even too keen on launching the sort of long-distance, low-risk aerial war they conducted over Libya in 2011. Instead, Cameron and Obama have proposed arming ‘the Syrian rebels’.
Never mind that nobody is sure exactly who is who among the ragtag forces fighting a civil war against the authoritarian regime of President Assad, except that everybody knows there are many radical Islamist factions involved. Forget the small matter of how exactly the Western governments might ensure any arms get to their chosen champions amid the chaos of the civil war. The important thing apparently was to propose doing something, anything, to demonstrate that the US and UK can still throw their weight around to some effect in the Middle East.
This pathetic excuse for a policy amounted to little more than a proposal for throwing some guns and missiles into the air above the Syrian maelstrom, and hoping that the right hands would reach out to catch them – whoever the ‘right’ people might be – rather like bridesmaids squabbling over the tossed bouquet at a wedding.
Little wonder that Western leaders were soon backtracking from even this half-cocked plan for military intervention. Having begun this week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland making bellicose noises about our responsibility to act, Prime Minister Cameron ended it by meekly observing that ‘nobody wants to see more conflict, nobody wants to see more arms, nobody wants to see more deaths’ in Syria. Er, presumably those would be the ‘more arms’ Cameron had proposed shipping into the warzone days earlier.
President Obama, too, was now toning down his administration’s suggestions that Washington was about to start arming the Syrian rebels, warning that it would be ‘very easy to slip-slide into deeper and deeper commitments’ as the months passed with no progress. You don’t say, Mr President.
Of course Obama and Cameron were quick to blame Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, a long-time backer of Assad, for their failure to forge a consensus on intervening in Syria around the G8. Yet the truth is that they could not rely on their allies at home to back their harebrained gun-running scheme. Tory and London mayor Boris Johnson spoke for many British ‘hawks’ in echoing Putin’s warnings about the dangers of arming extremists and cannibals. Indeed, arguably the most remarkable achievement of the US and UK governments over Syria to date has been to make Russia’s Putin appear almost reasonable and moral by comparison.
How the mighty have fallen. Almost a century ago, during and after the First World War, the British and French empires created modern states such as Syria, by drawing straight lines on a map and carving up the old Ottoman Empire between them. The European imperialists remained the dominant powers running the Middle East until after the Second World War, when they were humbled by the US over the Suez Crisis of 1956. During the Cold War era, the US and the Soviet Union vied for influence in the region, with the mighty Americans generally holding the whip hand – as when they backed Israel to defeat the Soviet-supported Arab states, including Syria, in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US – always backed by Britain – briefly held almost unchallenged sway over Middle Eastern affairs. In the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of 1990/91, President George HW Bush was able to command a broad international alliance that even included Syria under President Assad’s father.
Today, by contrast, Western imperialism in the Middle East is an insecure shadow of its former assured self. The US-UK invasions of first Afghanistan and then Iraq (again), in 2001 and 2003 respectively, brought further chaos and bloodshed to those on the receiving end of these wars of ‘liberation’, and only served to boost the regional influence of the West’s enemies, notably Iran. The recent decay and collapse of the old Arab regimes has not only undermined a thorn-in-the-side such as Assad, but also brought down key US allies such as Mubarak of Egypt. Israel, the West’s former gendarme in the Middle East, is now widely seen as an embarrassing reminder of the past.
By the time the Libyan civil war broke out in 2011, the West was reduced to reluctantly sending bombers in to support those fighting against Colonel Gaddafi’s regime from a great height. Gaddafi’s fall and death was celebrated as a victory by politicians and the media in the West. Rather less has been heard since about the continuing conflicts and sectarian strife in the ‘liberated’ but still lacerated Libya, where some of the rebels showed their appreciation for Western support by killing the US ambassador.
Forward to Syria where, from the start of the current bloody conflict, the Western states have been extremely reluctant to get militarily involved, with the opposition of Putin’s Russia serving as a useful excuse for inaction. Yet with the laptop bombardiers and moral crusaders of the liberal media baying for armed action, Obama and Cameron have felt compelled to make some symbolic gesture to show that the old powers still count in the changing geo-politics of the Middle East. Hence their risible scheme to sort everything out in Syria by semi-blindly sending in arms, presumably labelled To Whomsoever It May Concern.
The Syrian crisis has demonstrated the crisis of regional influence facing Western powers whose preferred form of long-distance, low-risk warfare in the Middle East is now to send unmanned drones in pursuit of individual al-Qaeda operatives. As one astute observer notes in the Financial Times, ‘Those who are urging the US to get more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict now are living in the past’.
Yet the US, and even more so the UK, cannot let go of their imperial pasts so easily. Their governments cannot resist the urge to meddle and try to give orders in the Middle East. The point of these ineffective interventions is not to secure some definite aim, whether territory, oil, or strategic positions. It is simply to demonstrate the moral authority of the intervening powers. Such seemingly random acts of imperialism-without-purpose only add to the crises in places such as Syria.
Thus one ‘success’ of Western intervention over Syria has been to internationalise the conflict there, drawing everybody from Lebanon and Hezbollah to Turkey, Israel and Iran into the civil war. As ever, such meddling exacerbates the tensions on the ground. The latest plan for an international peace conference is likely to mean more of the same.
The debates over Syria in Britain and the West have little to do with what is happening there. Instead, the competition to wave the most scary caricatured Syrian bogeymen around – on one side Assad and his chemical weapons, on the other al-Qaeda and its cannibals – says rather more about the state of Western politics than the mess that is the Syrian civil war.
Even as the US effectively admits that its 12-year war in Afghanistan has failed, by agreeing to talks with the Taliban, and as British generals warn that defence-spending cuts mean the UK could not fight such wars again, the president and prime minister still attempt to rattle their broken sabres over Syria. What the final form of intervention might be remains uncertain; however reluctant they are, events can take on a momentum of their own once the interventionist snowball starts rolling downhill.
The one thing of which we can be clear enough is that, to paraphrase Brendan Behan, there is no situation so terrible that it cannot be made worse by the intervention of a semi-impotent imperialist policeman.