Tuesday, 6 September 2016

When military inaction is murderous

We need to talk about a leader of the Labour Party, whose Middle Eastern policy has arguably contributed to many deaths and enormous suffering. I’m not thinking about Tony Blair, though the Iraq War was clearly a costly mistake. I’m thinking about Ed Miliband.  Probably the most significant thing Ed Miliband did, other than help the Conservative Party achieve a majority at the 2015 General Election, was to play a key role in blocking Western military intervention in Syria in 2013. This followed a number of chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime, crossing Obama’s infamous ‘red line’. In response military action was planned by the US, France and Britain. Miliband, after some initial wavering, instructed his Labour MP’s to oppose the intervention, resulting in a Parliamentary defeat for the Government. This in turn caused the American Government to pause for thought, and then to negotiate with the Russian and Syrian Government to avoid intervention.

The deal was that the Syrian Government would hand over its chemical weapons, and in return America wouldn’t take military action. France, quite understandably, was unwilling to take action on her own. Now this wasn’t a total failure. Chemical weapons have only been used on a very small scale since the deal. But it has allowed the butchery to continue, and intensify, over the past three years.

The cost of non-intervention has been high, and probably greater than that of intervention. Just under 500,000 people have now been killed in the Syrian Civil War. In mid-2013 this figure was much lower, at just under 100,000. For all the media focus on the Islamic State and other Jihadi groups, understandably considering the threat they pose to the West, the majority of civilian deaths in Syria have been caused by the Assad regime and its allies. That’s not to say we should intervene now. Quite frankly since Russia began her military intervention to support Assad in September 2015 any Western action against Assad has become far too dangerous. Russia will be one of the key players in any solution to the Syrian conflict, and were going to have to accept that. But if the West had intervened in 2013 or before would the outcome have been different? Probably. It would have made it clear to the Assad regime, and its allies, that they couldn’t win outright. As such they would have had a strong incentive to negotiate with moderate rebel factions, who back in 2013 were considerably more potent than they are today.

Now if Western nations had intervened in 2013 thousands would still have died, and I suspect violence would be continuing on some scale to this day. But there’s good reason to think it wouldn’t have been on the same scale – something less than the outright slaughter house which were currently witnessing.

One of the curious things about the British left is how little they seem to care about Syrians dying in large numbers. They do admittedly care when Syrians drown trying to cross the Mediterranean, but when their getting barrel bombed in Aleppo or Damascus their interest vanishes like a thin mist on a summer’s day. Thousands of leftists took to the streets to oppose military action against the Islamic State in Syria last December. Their cry was ‘Don’t attack Syria’, which was odd considering that the Islamic State and Syria clearly aren’t the same thing. Labour MPs who supported this action received aggressive abuse from Corbyn’s supporters. Now I agree that MPs need to be held to account when they decide to commit our country to war, but they also need to be held to account when they decide to do nothing. The consequences can be just as dangerous. And that means that, just as Tony Blair has legitimate questions to answer over Iraq, so does Ed Miliband over Syria. 

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