What this conflict needs is less Olympic-style partisanship and more respect and rationality behind a new UN mediator – as well as compassion for those at risk on both sides in Syria
Kofi Annan’s resignation as the UN’s envoy to war-torn Syria didn’t get as much attention in some of our more expensive media as it would have done if Team GB’s Olympic ambitions hadn’t enjoyed quite such a good day in the medals table. That’s shocking, but not really surprising as Britain’s global horizons shrink to the point where sporting golds matter more than avoidable bloodshed.
News values often work that way for reasons we can readily understand. In this instance the moral quagmire is so deep, the absence of easy solutions to the crisis so painful, the disappointing ambiguities of the Arab spring so daunting, that even warrior columnists – usually keen to mount their high horses from the safety of a Fleet Street armchair – hesitate to charge off in August. Historically, it’s a notoriously dangerous month.
Annan’s own summary of his dilemma and consequent decision is well set out in the article he writes for today’s FT (subscription). As a respected diplomat and former UN secretary general, he is sensibly even-handed in handing out blame. The UN security council has been divided and both sides in Syria’s internal conflict – the Assad regime and its opponents – have taken military advantage of that weakness.
As for the outside parties involved by varying degrees of proxy, they too have been less resolute in search of a demilitarised solution than is ideal. China and Russia have blocked tougher measures in the security council, the western powers – the US, its EU allies and the Sunni block in the Middle East – stand accused of both encouraging the Syrian rebellion to seek a military solution and of assisting it in several ways, military among them.
Annan politely urged Moscow, Beijing and, of course, Tehran, which is the crucial regional sponsor of the Assad family’s Alawite (ie Shia-related) regime, to persuade Damascus to change course and embrace what he calls “political transition”. He urges Washington and its allies to embrace “a fully inclusive political process”, in other words one which includes communities and institutions associated with the 40-year autocracy.
But the crucial sentence in Annan’s mild article is surely, “It is clear that Bashar al-Assad must leave office” as part of the long-term transition to a more representative regime. Given what we know about the bloodshed that may be a statement of the obvious, but in UN-speak, where nationality sovereignty is officially sacred, it’s tough talk. It’s also correct.
The alternative is a further plunge into a serious civil war, one with potentially incalculable consequences for the region and the wider world. Anything which involves Iran, Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia has a lot of potential for trouble in a world with plenty of economic ills to cope with already. Syria is a very fragile body politic, which is why some minority communities – Christians among them – have long preferred the devil they know to the prospect of Sunni majority (74%) rule.
I hope that’s a reasonably fair summary, but I was very struck this week by an article – also in the FT (subscription) – by a Russian commentator examining the media in his own country. Yes, most reflects the Moscow’s agenda in Syria and plays down the story except when it’s unavoidable, wrote the film director, Andrei Nekrasov.
Thus the insurgents are routinely described as “boyeviki”, which is closer to bandit or terrorist, Nekrasov suggests, than it is to freedom fighter, an equally emotive and subjective phrase which we all tend to cherry pick. But even the media not controlled by Olympic visitor Vladimir Putin, Russia’s internet media, usually accepts the official line that the core problem in Syria is “aggressive western powers bent on force”. Unlike its critical reporting of domestic issues, “with Syria geopolitics takes precedent over objectivity”, he wrote.
That was the phrase which pulled me up sharp. We can all recognise it, can’t we? I still recall vividly my realisation as a teenager that Greville Wynne wasn’t just the “jailed British businessman” of tabloid description, he really was the MI6 agent which the Soviet Union said he was when they imprisoned him in 1963 – after they’d caught Oleg Penkovsky, perhaps Britain’s most important cold war spook.
No one has a monopoly of morality, I began to realise, not even the good guys in the Whitehall script. So to offset my own biases I draw your attention to the most recent Syria piece by my colleague, Seumas Milne, who tends to swing the other way from me on geopolitical matters; also to a piece I culled from my old chums on the Media Lens website, written by Charles Glass, the London-based Middle East American expert (briefly a hostage in Lebanon).
Glass fingers the Brits and French intelligence, as well as Washington and the Saudis, though he puts the Russians in the frame too – “Syria is a house on fire” which cries out for a diplomatic solution so Russia and the US have turned up with their flamethrowers.
There’s an old-fashioned cold war flavour to all this, Syria has long been an ex-Soviet client, just as Israel next door is an American one. Saudi v the Islamists in Tehran is a further complication, Shia v Sunni, modernisers v fundamentalism, etc. Glass likens it to Kosovo in 1998 – as so often (Britain against the Ottoman Turks in 1916?) the west is going into a conflict to “liberate” someone.
It is, he suggests, also like Washington’s shameless mid-80s support for the contra insurgency (freedom fighters, as Ronald Reagan put it at the time) against the leftist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. The unauthorised weapons flow was, incidentally, funded by the proceeds of covert arms sales to the old enemy in Tehran.
Pretty wicked stuff, I thought at the time and still do. Strange to report, Danny Ortega, Washington’s bad guy in the 80s but more adaptable than the White House realised, is back as president of Nicaragua again, re-elected in 2007 and a friend of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Barack Obama was on Thursday reported to have signed a secret order which allows the CIA to get further stuck into the Syrian quagmire, which probably means intelligence data, CIA operatives on the ground helping the Free Syrian Army and obstructing the al-Qaida types who – the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdud-Ahad reported this week – have moved into Syria from Iraq to improve the rebellion’s military competence and alarm the locals. It will also mean proxy weapons sales.
All that is bad for the Syrian people, more of whose lives are thereby put at risk. Where I part company with the left comrades, as, alas, I so often do is in wanting to blame western aggression and intervention for this state of affairs. Syria has always been too powerful and too important for the west to muck about with: when in doubt, blame Gaddafi was the old rule.
It was initially assumed that the Assad regime’s fearful grip – buttressed by substantial domestic support, it should be added – would inoculate Syria from the Arab spring. When that complacency was proved wrong the prime responsibility for what has since happened – 20,000 deaths included – should surely lie with the regime which chose (predictably) to repress, not to adapt.
By the same token, it is Russia and Iran which have been (until very recently, perhaps still) arming a regime which has been on their books, not Washington’s for a very long time, since Moscow switched sides on Israel in the 50s. Ditto the blocking tactics at the UN. These are forms of intervention which predate the green light now being given to the CIA.
It can be presented as non-intervention, just as Anglo-French non-intervention in the Spanish civil war (1936-39) was presented. But it isn’t, any more than it isn’t a neutral outcome when – for whatever reason – the UN fails to act effectively to prevent bloodshed in Rwanda, the Congo (DRC) or indeed in Kosovo. Inaction can have as much of a consequence as action, though it seems to allow folk to sleep better unless they’re on the receiving end.
In Iraq the “insurgency” was supported by all sorts of progressive folk because it could be justified as a legitimate response to the US-led invasion, though it also often looked like a deliberate campaign to foment sectarian civil war by a displaced Sunni minority which had just lost power and privilege over the Shia majority. That majority was not what Washington wanted, but always the likely outcome of a free vote.
In Syria where it is the Sunnis’ turn to be the disadvantaged majority that argument seems in danger of being reversed. So when the insurgents blew up three senior regime ministers on 18 July there were jeers that the west did not denounce it as terrorism, even comparisons with the suicide bomb murder of seven Israeli tourists in Bulgaria on the same day which Washington did call terrorism.
I follow the argument, but don’t think much of it. If you can’t distinguish between tourists abroad and three blood-stained officials implicated in sustained atrocities, you’re not trying very hard. What this conflict needs is less Olympic-style partisanship and more respect and rationality behind a new UN mediator – any volunteers? – as well as compassion for those at risk on both sides in Syria.
If that means the Assad crowd don’t end up at the international criminal court at The Hague that might be a price worth paying, one we can worry about later. As the regime squares up to prevent ancient Aleppo becoming a rebel enclave on the Turkish border, something that really would raise the stakes, there’s no time to lose.
August is a dangerous month, even in an Olympic year. Especially in an Olympic year when surrogate nationalism is rampant.