The noninterventionist moral high ground isn’t very moral

With talks of forceful reprisal for the Syrian regime’s bestial chemical attack, more and more eyes are turning to the divisions within the United Nations Security Council. British MPs in the House of Commons have today debated the issue of intervention, and both John Kerry and William Hague have hinted at the possibility of circumventing the UNSC to launch attacks on Assad’s regime.

The Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has stated that any unilateral military action against the Syrian regime would be in defiance of international law. Putin is worried that the U.S. is planning to add his ally, Syria, to its list of toppled regimes, and has consistently vetoed any proposals to intervene in the civil war.

Both ‘sides’ in the conflict are receiving financial and logistical support (although disproportionately) from outside players. Russia has its reasons to support Assad and so does Iran. In a recent interview, when asked what it is that makes Russo-Syrian relations so strong, the increasingly risible Bashar al-Assad offered this answer:

There is more than one factor that forges Syrian-Russian relations so strongly. First of which is that Russia has suffered from occupation during World War II and Syria has been occupied more than once. Secondly, since the Soviet era, Russia has been subjected to continuous and repeated attempts of foreign intervention in its internal affairs; this is also the case with Syria.

The third answer is barely worth mentioning: Russia and Syria find friendship through their mutual struggle against ‘terrorism’.

Three permanent members of the UNSC – France, the US and the UK – are debating, but seemingly in favour of, retaliatory action as a means of deterring further chemical attacks. China, but principally Russia, are against. Both positions are understandable for reasons that don’t have to be reiterated, but I will anyway. The principal arguments of the anti-war lobby assert that any Western interference would:

  1. ‘Ignite’ the region in conflict.
  2. Cause civilian deaths.
  3. Aid Al-Qaeda affiliates.

(For the sake of brevity, I’m leaving out the other ‘neo-colonialist, imperial venture’ arguments.)

The first two are arguably the most pressing concerns of most opponents. Regarding destabilisation, it must be remembered that if there are any destabilising elements in the region it’s Syria’s allies, Russia and Iran – the two flagrant ‘opponents’ of intervention. Russia supplies weaponry to Assad’s regime daily. Iran supports Assad financially, but has also sent troops directly into Syria that have helped with the capture of Qusair and other rebel strongholds.

The involvement of Iran’s surrogate group Hezbollah has played an indispensable role in recent government victories, but is also speedily dragging Lebanon into the conflict. Nonintervention, in this context, subsequently serves only to prolong and augment Russian and Iranian influence in the region, while further destabilising neighbouring countries. All this has been happening while the West has been weighing the pros and cons of supplying any rebel groups with light arms (or even gas masks), making nonsense of any Russian or Iranian pleas for peace talks.

Concerning civilian deaths, there is a vital difference between NATO airstrikes and Syrian army airstrikes. NATO airstrikes would likely target strategic objectives, possibly advanced weaponry, runways and chemical weapons sites, and would be purposed to halt bloodshed. Syrian army airstrikes target populated neighbourhoods with chemical weapons, and these attacks will likely continue in the absence of any form of intervention, especially if the regime senses its imminent collapse.

Finally, it’s an accepted fact that well-financed jihadist groups attract starved moderates to their repugnant, yet well-financed, radical cause. Again nonintervention will also result in further radicalisation as moderate groups are starved of resources and face a regime backed by the might of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

Don’t talk as if there isn’t a difference between chemical weapons and conventional weapons: Users of chemical weapons need to know that there will be consequences. The fact is that the anti-war non-interventionist stance offers no alternative other than the status-quo (the continuance of a bloody civil war in which chemical weapon usage could swiftly become the norm) and no punishment for the perpetrators. These ‘progressives’ who have argued wholeheartedly since day-one for the abandonment of our secular allies in Syria, have effectively adopted a reactionary stance.

Ghouta is Obama’s Srebrenica. As written in The Washington Post, Obama doesn’t want regime change (another dissimilarity between Syria and Iraq); he wants limited, punitive action that will deter Assad from taking to the chemical weaponry once again. He knows that any form of intervention will have its wider ramifications – ramifications that those in favour of intervention will eventually have to answer for.

Deciding exactly how to punish Assad, and how to usher Syria towards a state of relative (italics don’t emphasise this word enough) stability is a difficult decision: one that I, along with many others – exemplified by the excessive use of ambiguous phrases such as ‘decisive action’ – am glad I don’t have to make, or ultimately be held responsible for. (There are, however, options – read this article.)

What I do know is that any form of intervention or ‘punitive action’ is infinitely preferable to the ‘Hands Off’ approach propagated by many ‘pacifist’ groups who refuse to concede that (yes, Western!) intervention has often saved more lives than the ‘it’s-their-war‘ passivity of anti-war groups.

About the Author
Brad is from the UK and is currently pursuing a career in journalism.