Clean hands and a dirty conscience

When I left school, a teacher asked what was the greatest regret of my life. Even at the time, that seemed a strange question to ask a 17 year-old. My answer was equally strange: I regretted that I had never been taught to play a musical instrument. A whole life lay ahead of me, and I already thought it was too late. As, in fact, it has turned out to be.  

The reason I was never taught to play an instrument was that both my parents had been forced to learn the piano when they were young. Neither was musical; both hated their piano lessons; jointly, they decided that their children would never be forced into the same ordeal. However, my brother and I would love to have learned to play. Since then, I have had this image of alternate generations of a family being musical and unmusical, with the wrong lessons always being learned.

This story is an oblique prelude to talking about Syria.

The world is constantly beset with murderous conflicts, and populations saddled with murderous regimes. In the West, we sit in calm, peaceful, prosperous countries; we watch the carnage elsewhere; our consciences long to intervene to end the bloodshed and to instil liberal, democratic values. But we worry whether this would be wise.

In Bosnia, we thought it was wise. The West intervened and it intervened successfully. So we did it again in Afghanistan. And again in Iraq. And again in Libya. Messy failures, all of them, with desperate consequences for our image in the world, for our self-confidence and, most of all, for the people we ultimately failed to help. So, when the civil war in Syria erupted, we had learned our lesson and thought it best to do nothing. When the next conflict arises, what is the betting that we will think we have learned the lesson of Syria and will want to intervene again?

In this context, the word ‘we’ is appropriate and challenging. Governments or parliaments make the final decision, but – and especially in the case of Syria – those decisions rest on public consent. The invasion of Iraq rested on public support, and would have been unlikely without it. We might now say that we were misled, and we were, but I remain convinced that, even without the claim of weapons of mass destruction, a majority of the British people would have supported the invasion. Bosnia had worked. Afghanistan then appeared to be working. Saddam Hussein was a murderous tyrant. Tony Blair could do no wrong. Easy decision.

The coalition Government wanted to intervene in Syria in 2013. MPs refused to back the plan because we, the public, refused to back it. President Obama felt insufficiently confident of public support in America to go it alone without British support. So nothing was done then, and almost nothing since. Humanitarian relief has been considerable, and we can be proud of that at least. But in terms of any positive action to end the civil war, nothing.

Now we sit back in our armchairs and watch Syrian and Russian planes destroy eastern Aleppo and say how appalling it is and that something should be done about it. Well, it is appalling, but we collectively decided three years ago not to do anything about it ourselves. So who should we be blaming now?

If this makes it sound that I was in favour of armed British involvement in the conflict, I was not. Nor am I now. But if we are to hold Tony Blair to account for the failure of the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and David Cameron for the failure of the intervention in Libya, we should also hold ourselves to account for the failure of our non-intervention in Syria. The result has been to create a vacuum into which President Putin has stepped.

As far as one can tell, the West has no plan for Syria other than a vague hope for future peace and a demand that the Assad regime should be brought to an end – neither of which we are in much position to influence. The only thing the West has done (and which should not be undervalued) is to have helped prevent Islamic State from taking over even more of the country. Meanwhile our media, to its shame, relentlessly bombards our emotions while doing almost nothing to inform our minds.

When, a few years ago, it was proposed that the West should arm the Syrian rebels, one of the main objections was that there were several hundred rebel groups in Syria, ranging from democrats to jihadists, and that it was impossible to be sure that weapons would fall into the right hands. When we are now told of rebel forces under fire in Aleppo, these distinctions have melted away. Who are these people and what are they fighting for? Are they moderate Syrians who want a stable, tolerant country? Are they jihadists? Or are they a mixture of the two? No one tells us.

Instead, we are invited to believe that they are heroes. We now have two identifiable villains in Presidents Assad and Putin, so there need to be heroes, and the heroes must surely be those that the villains are bombing. Not necessarily. We can agree that the wretched non-participants of Aleppo are heroes, but we cannot be sure that they are not the hostages of forces that may be as poisonous as those of Assad.

As, along with the rest of the world, I watch bombs rain down on Aleppo, hospitals erased, civilians maimed and killed, the only clear certainties I have are that this war must end as soon as possible, and that the only practical way it is likely to end soon is with victory for Assad. This may be Putin’s calculation too. It is an infinitely depressing prospect, not least because it will mean that the carnage of the last few years will have had no purpose whatsoever. But then carnage seldom does.

Somehow we seem to have lost a sense of the lesser of two evils. We want perfect outcomes. Part of us believes that they are possible, but they seldom, if ever, are. Perhaps Bashar al-Assad is, for the present, the lesser of two evils. Perhaps Saddam Hussein was. Perhaps Muammar Gaddafi was. At the very least, when contemplating what we now know to be the evil alternatives to these evil men, one has to say that it is a close call.

At the end of World War II, the Frenchman Jean Dutourd, in despair at the pacifism of his country in 1940, said: ‘The choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.’ Active resistance or passivity. The analogy is not exact, but it is close enough. Who would want to make such a choice? But we regularly have to make it. And, because both alternatives are vile, we will always feel that we have got it wrong, even when we haven’t.