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Syria still matters, whatever walls we build

October 6, 2016

For what it’s worth, this is a short meditation on Syria. Why now? Get to the end and all will be revealed.

I haven’t written about the Syrian conflict for a while, because at the micro level I can’t pretend to be an expert on the shifting allegiances of the global, regional and local players, none of which seem to be to the benefit of the stricken population.

But this much I do understand.

We should not be surprised that governments are capable of bombing cities, attacking aid convoys and wiping out the only places the victims of the bombs can turn to for medical help. And when we’re talking about governments, let’s not forget that those who lead them are human beings, no matter how dehumanised their actions make them appear to be.

They’re not dehumanised. If human beings were constitutionally averse to shedding the blood of other humans, then our history would be very different. In fact, we probably wouldn’t have a history at all, because the chances are that we would remain a pastoral species among many, rather than one that has evolved through organisation, competition and subjugation.

What makes events in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya harder to ignore than any previous conflicts is that they take place in front of a global audience, often in real time. As communications technology develops, we, the non-combatants, are able, if we wish, to look inside, above and around every conflict.

Trace a line from the reports received in London weeks after the fact about battles in the Crimean War, through the two world wars of the 20th century, Vietnam and the Gulf wars to Syria today. The intensity and diversity of reportage grows in direct proportion to the bandwidth and accessibility of communications. Along, of course, with the potency and sophistication of the weapons brought to bear.

What also makes the Syrian conflict – unparalleled is its multiple dimensions. It’s a platform not only for local sectarian and political rivalries but for proxy wars between distrustful state actors: Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US and Russia are involved because neither wishes to see the eventual outcomes diminish their influence and physical foothold in the region. Those countries that have chosen to support the US in attacking ISIS are of relatively little account – without American involvement they would most likely fade out of the conflict. And now Turkey, ever fearful of its Kurdish minority and the success of the Kurdish fighters in the conflict zone, has joined in.

So it’s wrong to say that this conflict is, as some argue, like any other with local origins. That it will eventually burn out when the combatants on the ground run out of weapons, the desire to fight and an expectation that things will turn out to their advantage. For as long as the regional and global rivalries persist, Syria will have plenty of injections of arms, manpower and motivation for years to come. And so, for that matter, will Iraq, Yemen and Libya.

Even if ISIS are finally expelled from Syria, their destruction will not be a game-changer. Who will move into the vacuum? Assad with his mercenaries? The Syrian Kurds? One or more of the other rival factions aligned either side of the US/Russian/Saudi/Iranian divide? Or all of them?

The only way one can see an end to the Syrian conflict would be for Iran and Saudi Arabia to agree on limits to their ambitions for regional hegemony, and for the US and Russia to re-establish a stable détente. But none of these players seem to have recognised that they have reached the limit of the advantage they can extract from the current situation.

In each of those countries, there are naturally many people who are appalled at the human destruction taking place on a daily basis. But not so outraged as to persuade their leaders that the political consequences of backing off are not even more unacceptable than the price Syria is paying in lives. In other words, national self-interest – and political ambition – is more important than lives. So the killing continues.

What can we, the bystanders who have little influence over events and yet are assailed daily by reminders of the suffering, do beyond wringing our hands and saying “stop – all of you”?

The populations of each of the leading players see the conflict through their own perspectives. The United States has a presidential candidate who, until recently, was unaware of who or what Aleppo is – and most likely he’s far from alone in his ignorance. Russians by and large back their president in his ambition to do what it takes to restore his country’s power and prestige – for now. Iranians are cowed by the mullahs and their praetorian guard, for whom the maintenance of political control and influence trumps all other considerations. Saudi Arabians are unable to express their views through the exercise of conventional democracy, and their ability to protest via other means is limited. And the rest of us lack the individual or collective power even to shame the participants except by the use of well-meaning but ultimately impotent grass-roots campaigns.

What we can do is help to clear up the mess, and come to the aid of those who are wounded – physically or mentally – by the conflict. We can support neighbouring countries that are hosting millions of refugees. We can open our hearts and our borders to those who have fled, but only if our leaders have the strength to look beyond the fears of their electorates – a strength that appears to be diminishing every day.

And as individuals, we can make clear to our leaders – elected or otherwise – by any means necessary that we expect them to exert such influence as they have to bring the leading actors to the table. Not Russia and America, or Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But all of them.

And we can be kind and respectful to the minorities in our own countries, whether they are citizens, economic migrants or refugees. Because even if our leaders in their bubbles of power worry about economics, demographics and geopolitics, we are the people who encounter our neighbours every day.

Call me a pious metropolitan liberal if you like. But during the many years I spent living and working in the Arab world, there were three words that I heard and appreciated more often than any others: you are welcome.

When we neglect to say those words, and retreat within the confines of culture, ethnicity and nationality, we set ourselves up for future division and conflict.

Theresa May, Britain’s new Prime Minister, said yesterday in an address to her party’s annual conference:

If you believe that you are a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.

She’s wrong. I for one do understand what citizenship means: responsibility and accountability. And in my world, it is possible to be a good citizen of a nation without abandoning those who are suffering beyond our borders.

We are citizens of the world, whether we like it or not. And Syria should matter to each and every one of us.

From → Middle East, Politics, UK, USA

  1. John Butler permalink

    Excellent blog, Steve. I have a friend who’s just returned from Aleppo, Andrew Ashdown (a Rev who’s very knowledgeable about Palestine and the Levant generally). Since the visit he’s been on the media lately, who, naturally enough focus on their meeting with Assad. May I share it with him please? He’s firmly of the opinion that the Western media are very one sided and support for the ‘opposition’ is misguided. I think he’ll appreciate it and it chimes in with his view. Also, have you seen this, and what do you think of it I wonder?:
    It’s very good to have your positive suggestions as to what people can do. Welcoming is something the UK needs to get into its culture, England particularly. Theresa Mays saying will be as bad as Thatchers ‘no such thing as society’. Are there t shirts with I’m a citizen of the world on them?

  2. Thanks John.

    By all means share it with Andrew. Thanks also for the link to the piece in Counterpunch. It’s interesting in that it matches pretty closely with Jeremy Corbyn’s world view. If you start with the view that there are evil empires out there, rather than evil deeds, I suppose you would go down the road of blaming America (and probably Russia too) for all the conflicts and regime change attempts since WW2, which the author seems to do. Obviously there are abiding national interests – such as assurance of energy supply – that survive individual administrations, but I’m not sure it’s that simple. I would agree with him that the destruction of Syria and the suffering of its a people is a tragedy for which we all have to take a share of responsibility. We can’t just walk away.

    Kind regards, Steve

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