If you want to read about my own views & the thoughts of some Syrians & Turks, I wrote this longer piece for politics.co.uk a few days ago.
This is a short post being rushed out - in the spirit of the moment, I suppose - in the comforting knowledge that nothing I say has any bearing on events. (Ah - the comfort of irrelevance!)
Time Running Out?
In Downing St. the stakes are high, as they are in Washington, Damascus and - lest we forget - New York. This urgency, though, is something of an illusion. Chemical weapons have been used in Syria by someone. Assad or Iranian 'help' seem to be the likely culprits.
The West want to 'punish' this step because they (we) are terrified of chemical weapons. They're vile and unethical, for one thing. But also they're a weapon that liberal democracies like us effectively can't use, so they set a precedent which puts us at a strategic disadvantage in future conflicts.
The rush, then? There is a window of something under a week to declare armed response. After that, the moment quite literally passes. Retaliative attacks have to be hasty. This is a structural problem in international politics that weighs against comprehensive evidence gathering & analysis.
Iraq & Kosovo
Plenty of usually intelligent political pundits are offering extremely simplistic and populist views to the world via Facebook statuses and tweets. Let's do a quick recap.
- Iraq in 2003, Kosovo in the 1990s, Libya in 2011, Sierra Leone in 2000 and Syria now all constitute different countries at different times. The scenarios are therefore different. Anyone who has a basic grasp of geography and a watch should be able to understand this.
- Bombing raids of the kind seen in Libya & proposed in Syria are inherently different to full invasions of the kind seen in Iraq. Anybody who has a basic grasp of the principle of aviation should understand this.
- Unilateral, bilateral and multilateral declarations of war are different to the tabling of motions to the UN. Everybody should be able to understand this.
The Same Mistakes
None of this negates the fact that the US and France are now marching towards intervention at top speed. The UK is following, perhaps more reluctantly (interestingly, we had been at the forefront of diplomatic 'threats' but now seem to be having second thoughts). France is talking openly about punishment, the US is finally using its classic hung-ho language (Obama conspicuously absent) ...and the UK is tabling a UN resolution.
This is a markedly different UK policy than seen under Blair - a sign perhaps that the Special Relationship is receding, that Hollande is seeking a bigger international role or that the Coalition is cautious about repeating the politically toxic distaster of New Labour in 2003.
Still, ships are manoeuvring and missiles are being primed. Western rhetoric makes an attack look likely despite - as I wrote recently - this being hugely unpopular in the Muslim world and the fact that Britain would, in effect, be aiding Al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups, by bombing Damascus.
Is it the Economy, Stupid..?
One alternative view is that Western powers may have felt unable to intervene before now as domestic economic woes made any attack unjustifiable at home or to markets. With modest economic improvements, leaders may now feel they can 'get away with it' where before they couldn't.
Finally, lest we forget, plenty of military intervention is already underway in Syria - Islamic hardline groups, Iranian help and even Western jihadists have descended on the Civil War, distorting its dynamics and committing disgusting atrocities as they go along.
Syria is increasingly a pawn in the wider fights of Russia/China vs. the 'West'; in extreme Islam's attack on anything less (presumably to the horror of Syrians, who are mostly as moderate as the average COI Christian) and now, it seems likely, in our moral crusade against chemical weapons.
I'll close as I closed my other piece: tread lightly, tread very lightly. It will be difficult to do much good, easy to do damage and both the stakes and the body count are rising every day. Until we know exactly what we're doing, let's not make the latter any higher.