Why Britain must try to stop the slaughter in Syria

Published in the London Evening Standard (April 27th, 2011)

Libya made history last month by becoming the first nation to be suspended from the United Nations Human Rights Council. Next month, elections take place for its replacement – but in the best tradition of many member states, the result has been stitched up in advance. The winning candidate, supported by both Egypt and Tunisia, is set to be Syria.

This is beyond satire. Syria is slaughtering its citizens, torturing protesters and beating human rights activists. Hopefully the growing backlash against President Bashar Assad will ensure a change of heart. But it demonstrates the speed at which events are moving in North Africa and the Middle East.

Britain’s foreign policy was sent spinning by the Arab Spring, exposing our muddle-headed support for despots over democrats. As the weeks pass, it is easy to forget the seismic nature of these uprisings. But as they escalate, the region is becoming even more unpredictable.

Already Britain is ensnared in a foreign conflict that has lukewarm support at home and in the US with senior military figures predicting it will end in stalemate. This would be an alarming outcome.

Having visited Libya the week before the uprising to meet with activists, I have no doubt intervention was the right action, despite the risks. A massacre was averted. As the chorus of pessimism grows, opponents must answer why they would have accepted rivers of blood flowing down the streets of Benghazi.

But it is foolish to doubt there is now mission creep. First there was a no-fly zone, then military advisers, now drones. The aim is to help the rebels become more organised while Gaddafi’s forces run out of weapons, stamina and money to pay mercenaries. Advances in the blighted town of Misrata give grounds for hope. But as William Hague warned the Cabinet yesterday, the path ahead could be long and bumpy.

The one thing worse than mission creep is mission failure. However, Downing Street’s view is that even the worst possible outcome – the division of Libya – is better than the horror that would have been unleashed without intervention. Insiders remain optimistic that Gaddafi will be ousted. But they have been frustrated by the White House “blowing hot and cold”, as one put it.

These are testing times for both David Cameron and Barack Obama. Our Prime Minister has emerged as a reluctant liberal interventionist, siding with those struggling for freedom but without Tony Blair’s missionary zeal to reshape the world. He believes Britain must support the Arab groundswell for freedom, despite the potential turbulence.

As a young man, Cameron was influenced by travelling in eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Likewise, Obama is the first US president moulded in the post-Cold War era, but this has left him acutely aware of the resentment American actions can cause. His emerging foreign policy was summed up this week as “leading from behind”, which in practice means spreading his nation’s values without inflaming hatred.

Such a stance will be tested by Syria, the most pivotal Arab nation in the Middle East given its location and alliances with Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. The nation is a web of religions, tribes and ethnic groups held together by an aggressively secular government. Even protesters fear the chaotic forces that could be released and the ramifications for the region.

Assad has mishandled events since the uprising began, wavering between talk of reform and savage repression. Now, with tanks on the streets and house-to-house searches of opponents, he appears to be playing by “Hama rules” – the brutal strategy named after a town destroyed by his father during a previous crackdown, where more than 20,000 inhabitants were killed.

Even as Assad’s forces started killing protesters, Hillary Clinton called him a “reformer”. The opacity of his regime, combined with fear of change, duped people for too long. Now the concern in the White House and Whitehall is how to respond given the West’s limited influence, especially since diplomats fear a cycle of unrest and repression could drag on for months before exploding in sectarian violence.

Two weeks ago I was in Damascus meeting protesters. I was struck by their courage, especially given that they all had friends or family members who had been beaten and tortured in recent weeks by gangs of secret police. But talking with these savvy young people, I was also struck by their implacable hostility to the US. One night over dinner I ventured that America, for all its faults, was a force for good. This provoked intense debate but no agreement.

This underlines why the Western response to Assad’s repression is so fraught, especially given his ceaseless claims of foreign involvement in the unrest. Already tentative talk of fresh sanctions has been condemned by some Syrian bloggers.

But there are things we can do. First, as Mr Hague did yesterday, there must be strong condemnation to underline our support for those seeking reform. Second, we should encourage Arab countries to take a lead on punitive measures, whether sanctions or referring the regime’s leaders to the international criminal court, thereby building on the coalition formed over Libya. It was heartening to hear the Arab League condemn the use of force against pro-democracy campaigners yesterday, a welcome sign of the times.

And third, we should put pressure on Turkey to restrain Syria, given their close diplomatic and trading relationships. This will not be easy, however, given that Turkey has failed to implement the UN-mandated asset freeze on Libya – but then, it does want to join the European Union.

The Arab Spring could turn into a long, hot summer. But we must keep the faith. First and foremost, for the people seeking freedom in their own countries. But also because it is in our own interest for so many reasons – not least among them that today in Libya there are people thanking Britain and America, not cursing us.

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