Syria: It’s about Them, Not Us

As a policy analyst, I am naturally interested in the dynamics of domestic politics, the role of specific actors, institutions and communities. So I understand why so much talk in Britain yesterday and this morning was and is about party politics. I am struck, however, by how much mainstream media attention this morning is focused on David Cameron’s lack of control over his own party. With all the analysis that has up to now compared Syria and the international response to it with Kosovo and Iraq, it is puzzling that no-one but the government itself has acknowledged that Cameron did the right thing: firstly by recalling Parliament; secondly by listening to Ed Miliband and changing the motion tabled; and thirdly, by promising to abide by Parliament’s and by extension the British peoples, preferences. Instead, Cameron is described as weak and lacking control over his backbenchers. So much for respect for democracy. It can be of little surprise when politicians and leaders occupy intransigent positions when attempts on their part to listen and respond to wider opinion are met with this kind of response. Before the vote and certainly this morning, I have been rather disgusted at the opportunism displayed by both politicians (of all leanings) and journalists – people are dying and being displaced in their thousands and that is a fact that should be central to all anyone says in relation to this crisis. We have time later to dwell on what this means for British politics.

As a foreign policy analyst, I am also naturally interested in the relationships between different international actors. So I care what the USA will say and do about this and how it will affect future UK-USA relations. But what I am most interested in now is how this will be exploited by Russia and other big players who have expressed opposition to any kind of intervention. Why? Because their views and how and what they now do is what is important in respect of the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria. It is also important to know whether the USA will go ahead – with only France really on its side.

Getting Our Focus Right

What all this means for British domestic politics, for future relations with the USA – those topics are and must be for future discussion. All attention should now be on what happens for Syria. Ed Miliband seems singularly to miss this point. Cameron will need to come out fighting in terms of seeking a solution through another, more multilateral route. That may be a losing battle but it is what is left to him.

I have to believe that those who voted against the motion last night did so not as an act of political infighting but because they did not see how any military action so far posited could possibly help resolve the wider crisis. While I agree that use of chemical weapons should absolutely not go unpunished, we needed to wait for the UN inspectors to do their work, Miliband was right about that. We have already seen how this crisis has power to spread and inflame tensions. Process had to be followed – if not, then why on earth was a robust intervention not put in place over two years ago when this first started and when it seemed pretty clear how the crisis would escalate? It is also difficult to believe that airstrikes will do anything to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people. They will send a message about the use of chemical weapons but they are unlikely to do anything more – except to cement differences.

We Have Been Here Before

So we are back to where we have long been in respect of this crisis. We are faced with a United Nations that desperately needs reform. We still need to listen and engage with Russia and China and do more to understand their positions. It is frequently heard, from the US particularly, that Russia does not matter. Clearly, for Syrians, it does. Big powers need to build better relations with regional actors as well – and to empower them. And they need to think more closely about how their own rhetoric and actions are perceived, and work harder not to back themselves and others into a corner. Syria is its own unique case, of course, but it is also part of a wider historical and international context. The sufferings of Syrians are portrayed as the result of the failings of the Syrian regime. That is true and undeniable. But the ongoing state of their sufferings reflects a long-failing international system which at this point in time really does seem to be in a state of anarchy.

States Not People

In 2005, the UN General Assembly adopted the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect. It is not entirely clear, it is said, that R2P applies here. And this is where I begin to understand people who say they are turned off by politics. Look at why R2P came about, consider its underlying principles, think about the fact that 2005 was a moment when it looked like states might actually care about people and human rights and were willing to accept their responsibilities in the face of other actors committing crimes against humanity. Do all that and then think about Syria. It seems blindingly obvious that for a long time now we have been looking at a state that is both unwilling and unable to protect its people. In this way, who used chemical weapons in Syria is irrelevant, if the rebels did, it means the regime has lost control and that it is no longer capable of protecting its people – even if it wants to. No ordinary person could argue that crimes against humanity have not been committed in Syria. So if this is not an R2P situation, all that R2P stood for is dead. We are back to living (if ever we escaped it) in a world where states matter, not people.