It seems certain now that within the next few days or weeks the House of Commons will, for the second time in as many years, be asked to vote to go to war in Syria. I have no doubt that the picture painted will be one of us plucky Brits bravely defending ourselves against an utterly inhuman, utterly irredeemable, utterly evil and, most importantly, completely monolithic force and that after a short, sharp military action peace will be restored and reign supreme. The difference between this time and last is that last time the evil monolith was the Assad Regime. This time, it’s ISIS.
We always seem to be sold war on such simple terms. Often, we seem to buy it because of them. But the world out there beyond the red-top tabloids is rarely so black-and-white. The conflict in Syria is less so than most.
Even just the causes of the initial uprising are difficult to track. Decades of political oppression, compounded by the stressors of the changing climate and student protests sparked by the Arab Spring tell part of the story. The fact that the initial uprising was neither immediately successful nor completely quelled, thus allowing more experienced militias, terrorists and paramilitary parties to replace the former civilian protesters tells a good chunk of the rest.
Importantly though, it would be naive in the extreme to expect that Britain alone among nations is the only state with interests in the conflict. This is not a simple war. It is not simply “us” versus “them” (however either is to be defined).
The Assad Government, though badly wounded and having lost control of much of the country, is still very much the sole state-like apparatus within the country. It is being supported by Russia which has, since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, seen Syria as its sole outpost in the Middle-Eastern sphere. Whilst not entirely enamoured with the Assad Government its goal for the region is a stable and strong state which it can influence. Buoyed by their success in using diplomatic pressure to largely remove chemical weapons from the equation we can expect Russia to form the core of any future diplomatic settlement. If it is to come to war however, we cannot expect to forcibly topple said Government without dealing with Russian forces on the ground there.
At the risk of a simple counterpoint, this explains much of the USA‘s interest in the region. For some, the Cold War never really ended and, as with Ukraine, the spheres of the two old giants of the 20th century continue to create friction between each other. Of course, the consequences of an open war are too great even for these two to contemplate seriously but a proxy war to show each other that they could still bite if they wanted to appears to be sufficient for now…
Speaking of proxy wars, the fall of Egypt as the prime Arab power in the Middle East and Northern Africa has resulted in Saudi Arabia (one of Britain’s best customers when it comes to buying our weapons) and Iran using Syria as a proving ground as each attempts to take Egypt’s mantle for their own.
Israel also has an interest. Their long enmity with Syria has never abated, quite possibly for not entirely unjustifiable reasons. Israel would be less than keen to see a resurgent Assad retake his country back but is also in the complex situation that neither a Shi’ite aligned nor a Sunni aligned successor state would likely view them with much greater favour. Nor, in the light of Egypt’s fall, would neither a stronger Saudi Arabia nor Iran advance their causes. A failed state, however. A weak state, ravaged by conflict, that might be ok so long as it doesn’t spill out too much. Oh, and a weak state is less likely to be able to retake the Golan Heights where Israel has recently been selling oil rights to a consortium part owned by Rupert Murdoch (which should perhaps be borne in mind when reading The Sun’s headlines on the subject).
And so the list continues among a half dozen other states. We’re used to thinking of international conflict as one war spread over several countries. In truth, the Syrian conflict is multiple wars being fought simultaneously within one country.
You’ll notice that many of the links above report that the state actors working against the Syrian Government are arming the various rebel groups in the region. And that’s the thing. There are a multitude of factions involved now. Each with their own backers, their own agendas and their own shifting network of allies and enemies.
But David Cameron would have us believe that it’s all about ISIS and that the solution is to drop bombs on them till they go away. This is why summary executions are in the headlines today and, likely, will be in days to come even if the impending vote goes against him again.
If Cameron wants to play the parts of Clotho and Atropos, choosing who is to die and cutting their threads from that tangled skein without thought of how they are truly connected then we, who know better, must add the voice of Lachesis and weave the tapestry into something new, something better. Neither of those things will be achieved by adding more conflict to an already bitter and complex one.
I can’t begin to offer a simple solution to the problems of Syria and the surroundings. A simple solution is not the thing that’s going to fix things. Really, what is needed is for the international community to engage with those parties and actors with whom we can countenance engagement. Identify their true interests and work to find a mutual settlement. Those who are uncountenancable can be isolated, starved of support and withered on their vine.
Simply wading in and blowing rubble into more rubble is not a solution. This is a job for the committee rooms of the United Nations, not the battlefields of Raqqa.
Voting for a war in Syria is not an option. Voting for war should never be an option. War isn’t even the last option. It is the consequence of the failure of the last option.
Wars never change.
Politicians start them.
Soldiers fight and die for them.
Civilians suffer through them.
Diplomats end them.