We all must be aware of the evil that exists in every man
And refuse to dismiss Srebrenica as history.
Thousands were slaughtered just for one barbaric plan
And we must still stop those who see it as a victory.
-Extract from Genocide, by Isabel Shaw
I thought we wouldn’t have to have this conversation again. I am, admittedly, too young to really remember Srebrenica. My vague childhood memories of it consist of snapshots of Slobodan Milosevic on late night news, never quite grasping the significance of it all. Now, I understand. Mass killings of civilians happened then, and they continue to happen now, and we watch in condemnation, but we watch and do nothing nonetheless.
How many more times do we have to say never again before we stop allowing it to happen again and again and again?
I do not wish to begin to suggest that the current situation in Syria is anything other than a quagmire. We don’t really know which rebels are where; who is part of ISIS, or Jabhat al-Nusra (recently rebranded as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham), let alone who is part of the FSA, or the so-called moderate rebels. But what is certainly true is that it is a lot harder to do now than it was in 2013, when intervention was originally tabled. A quagmire it certainly is, and bits of Syria have been turned into a living hell, and when surrounded by hell, I’d imagine it’s very hard to remain moderate, whatever side you happen to be on.
The truth is, of course, we don’t know if we could have stopped this from happening. Maybe it couldn’t have been stopped. But what fills me with disgust is that we did not even try. We allowed the regime to use barrel bombs against its own citizens, we allowed the waves of legitimate joint protest from Sunni, Shia, Christian and Kurd to be turned into a sectarian war, just as Assad wished, we allowed ISIS to take control of great swathes of the country, we allowed moderates to be radicalised, and worst of all, we left the civilians behind, trapped, waiting to suffer the consequences.
The time to intervene was not when ISIS had strengthened and taken over much of the east of Syria, but years ago, as far back as 2013, when the British Parliament debated the matter, but the opposition, led by Ed Miliband, helped to block the motion; a fact he remained proud of two years later, when he used ‘standing up to the leader of the free world’ over Syrian intervention as a point to prove his toughness in the run up to the 2015 General Election.
The concept of Western intervention was hit hard by Iraq, of course, but that cannot be allowed to become the marker by which we judge all future interventions. That is legitimate and just. The Iraq war was, as we now know, rushed into on shaky ground without legitimate proof of the claims being made. This was not the case here. The motion was brought before parliament after the widely recognised use of chemical weapons by the regime, which broke international law and gave ample legal grounds for humanitarian intervention. After a long debate, the motion to intervene was eventually defeated by 332 votes to 220.
This was a hugely significant moment in the Syrian conflict. It perhaps led Mr Obama, who had drawn an infamous ‘red line’ before the use of chemical weapons as something that must not be crossed, to back away from any of his own intervention plans. It is my belief that Obama’s own wish for Syria not to be seen as his Iraq led to a certain short-sightedness here; a short-sightedness that was the architect of the situation in which Syria finds itself today. From the moment that the Obama administration neglected to offer meaningful intervention in the region, a vacuum formed, into which the Russians and the Iranians willingly waltzed.
Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, wrote in The Atlantic recently that a world without US intervention is a world that is less just, and that there is no such thing as neutrality from America in an international crisis. The ‘do no harm’ principle espoused by the current administration does not hold when the actions of the actors that step in in America’s place are considerably less well-intentioned and considerably more wantonly murderous. In other words, if the US does not act, it is not that nobody acts; they do, and the results are much worse.
In Syria the war was not left to Assad and the various rebels, but also pursued by Russia, Iran, and the Iranian sponsored Hezbollah militia, and it is these groups as much as any others that are responsible for the current crisis in Aleppo. Assad had military capabilities himself, of course, but he could not have dreamt of the destruction wrought by his erstwhile allies once they were allowed to intervene. Russia led bombing raids on hospitals, leaving thousands without access to surgery. Iranian-sponsored militias deliberately targeted civilians; Aleppo turned into hell on earth with shells falling without pause, even when ceasefires had purportedly been agreed.
Some say this is an inevitable consequence of bringing stability to a region torn apart by not one, but numerous different rebellions, and that at least ISIS is being beaten back as a result. This is, however, belied by the fact that the terrorist group was allowed to march in and retake Palmyra almost unopposed while Assad and sieged Eastern Aleppo. You have to ask yourself who the real enemy is for Assad after he allows something so pitifully careless to happen.
And this is where I feel betrayed by my brothers and sisters on the left. Not only do many support the inaction on Syria – which I understand as a principle but struggle to come to terms with when the practicalities of such a stance have played out to such tragic consequences – but many on the far left have even taken it further and outright supported the murderous Assad regime. The anti-imperialists and anti-war demonstrators politely turn their backs on those in need while they are bombed other Empire building nations and don’t notice the hypocrisy; now these Pontius Pilates have blood on their hands that will not wash off easily.
The odious impersonator of cats, and supporter of brutal dictators, George Galloway, took the opportunity to tweet his support for the regime as people were dying in their hundreds, while the Morning Star, a communist newspaper, took its opportunity to celebrate the upcoming ‘liberation of Aleppo’, a line for which Jeremy Corbyn refused to condemn the paper outright, though he did offer the mildly conciliatory point that he ‘didn’t agree with that statement’.
If that is liberation, may I never have the misfortune to be liberated.
In his final press conference of the year today, President Obama said that every day he feels responsible for every death there is and has been in Syria and around the world.
Well I’m sorry, but that’s simply not good enough. Syria has become a crucible of war, suffering, and death, and we are partially to blame for it. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives, millions more have been displaced, and we have done next to nothing to stop it from taking place. We said we would never let it happen again. We lied, again.
Benedict is an interviewer, podcast leader, and is political writer and commentator. Benedict is also editor-at-large for Conatus News.