The Syrian conflict has gone on for far too long. I could fling out the dreadful figures of how many have died, how many are refugees, how many are internally displaced, but the trouble is they have become only that – figures, not unique representations of the human beings that have suffered and continue to suffer at the hands of Assad and militant groups jostling for power over the opposition. These real people, who bleed, and break, and burn, and choke on the lethally poisonous gases fired at them by – as the media reports it – almost certainly the Syrian regime.
Something must be done. Or should it? Here is where I come up against a startling brick wall built by people whose opinions I usually understand and agree with; that actually, intervention by the West ought to be a complete no-no. Is this an ideological principle, or is it rooted in the fear that we will have another Iraq all over again? Does it stem from the belief that our governments are incapable of acting out of a sense of responsibility towards those who are suffering, that there always has to be self-interest involved?
The indignant comments I read mostly compare potential intervention in Syria with our invasion of Iraq, the obvious motives of greed and the spurious reasons of Saddam’s WMDs which were squirrelled away so expertly we never could find them. It’s a good thing to consider the motives of our governments for such interventions, but there is danger in this particular comparison. Danger because, first of all, we assume exactly the same motives spur our governments on to intervention in Syria (if there were economic benefits to entering into this mess, would the West not have dived in to the fray many months ago?). Secondly, and more significantly, there is the danger inherent in our automatic judgement that, just as with Iraq, our governments are creating evidence for atrocity where there is none. If we unquestioningly judge that the whole chemical weapons event in Ghouta was staged because WMDs in Iraq were a red herring, we are at risk of denying real, horrific suffering.
What particularly chills me to the bone is the opinion I have read more than once, that we ought to leave Syria to sort out its own problems. Not because I think the West ought to have influence over the political outcome of the conflict, but because I imagine what might happen if the roles were reversed, and I was one of those on the receiving end of a Sarin attack. Would another country then come to my aid? Yes, there might be political and economic gains for them to do so, and that begs the much bigger question of how the international community is regulated. But how would I feel about a world that never came to help? We ought to be concerned about what the consequences will be for international relations if we sit back and do nothing. Already, there are a million Syrian child refugees. When they grow up, how will they view the world that left them to ‘sort it out for themselves’? What precedent are we setting if we ignore the terrible human cost of the chemical weapons attack at Ghouta? Isn’t that the kind of soil that nourishes bitterness and hatred?
I don’t have answers to the question of what intervention could look like. I would simply like to open the debate a little on whether there ought to be intervention or not. At tho moment, those who are traditionally the voice for the voiceless in the large part seem to have closed that debate completely, along with any creative engagement in possibilities other than military force.