“Never again,” we like to tell ourselves, again and again. Looking back, we know Thomas Hardy was right to anticipate “all nations striving strong to make red war yet redder”; the so-called “war to end all wars”, beginning in 1914 with Gavrilo Princip’s bullet of the century, would not really end until 1991. Outlived as he was by the old men who sent him to die, Wilfred Owen’s glib submission “dulce et decorum est” should represent more than anything else the grim legacy our generation inherited from the 20th century. Our heroes showcase a grand hatred of war.
Except we see the world beyond through different spectacles. The student voice, which in the 1960s called on Britain to take a moral lead in the world, drops dead with apathy or sinks into “post-colonialist” hysteria whenever faced with foreign conflicts; the Labour Party has been mellowed by a populist sickness that chases after old Tory slogans; and Barack Obama, with his innocuous charm and Nobel Prize to think of, would rather pretend there is no war than bring it to an end.
The Arab world’s Franz Ferdinand moment was the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2011. He would cause the downfall of four governments and two civil wars. In Syria, a refugee crisis unparalleled in modern times and a death toll perhaps matching a decade in Iraq shows no sign of abating; and our moral obligation to act has grown with every passing day in which we have excused ourselves from doing so.
Even if Iran, Russia and Syria’s neighbouring Arab governments hadn’t already turned the civil conflict into an international (and imperialist) war then it wouldn’t matter in the slightest. Chamberlain’s grisly dismissal of the “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing”, with which he would justify his capitulation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Hitler in 1938, would be as feeble a defence against fascism as the paper on which “Peace for Our Time” was written. The attempt to absolve ourselves of the common allegiances human beings owe to one another is a twin terror, morally and pragmatically.
So if it would be “illegal” to assist our Syrian comrades then the auspices of international law are not worth the hearing. This week, many are remembering King’s prophetic dictum that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”. To charge Putin and the Central Committee of the CPC with legal jurisdiction would be no less a farce than the proud “Anglo-Saxon” George Wallace, governor of Alabama, advising Kennedy on racial segregation. The UN’s failure to stop the wars in former Yugoslavia, its self-absolution of obligation in Rwanda, and the great negotiator Kofi Annan’s sleepwalk into the Darfur extermination can only point to two choices: the Security Council must either be democratised or be dismissed.
Those who agree with the moral imperative to intervene but who nonetheless remain sceptical of which road to take can be roughly summarised into: those awaiting the UN’s report on the attacks, those who know that jihadists are as bad as Assad, and those who believe that, given these variables, involving ourselves can only worsen the situation. All three concerns need to be chewed over – and spat out.
The first is irrelevant. If the rebels are responsible then chemical weapons are loose in a sectarian bloodbath. But if, as expected, Assad is indeed calling our bluff, then it’s worth remembering that the nadir of war criminality occurred quite some time ago as the exposure of torture chambers for “terrorists” – unarmed civilians and their children – by human rights groups has already revealed. Assad is simply becoming more promiscuous of his attraction to savagery.
So whatever the case, annihilating a few weapons has little worth if the armed murderers remain in play. In the Spanish Civil War, George Orwell’s hatred of the Soviet forces did not choke his support for the Republican government. America is in a better position than he was then – it can fight both the regime and the clerical fascists who fantasise of replacing him. Britain’s resolution at the UN proposes “all necessary measures to protect civilians” which as a principle, though certain to be thrown out by Russia and China, is pretty strong: because it implicitly recognises that support for the opposition must be conditional on humanitarian essentials.
And, as policy-makers well know, a secular victory is not as mad as it seems. American cooperation with Turkey, Jordan and (possibly) Israel could enforce a no-fly zone to snuff out the last bases through which Assad gets his foreign supplies; it can provide better training and much more sophisticated equipment to the Jordanian-backed southern groups pushing against both the regime and al Qaeda affiliates. In the north, videos emerging of incredibly brave Syrian civilians standing up to jihadists are far from anomalous: five cities under the control of the Islamic State in the north have reported protests against their occupiers, their Sharia impositions more likely to horrify than convert.
The rise of the Nusra Front and Islamic State is a result of the collapse of the Syrian economy, upon which they have feasted, together with the total isolation of the FSA secularists when set against their religious rivals. Not only will bolstering the FSA encourage regime defections, but it might also lure back lost regiments. Vermin thrive in the dirt, just as fascists thrive in poverty; and to isolate the masters, you feed their slaves.
For socialists, the absolute midnight of the 20th century was said to be the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, the moment when far left and right totalitarianism collaborated against the free world. It is difficult to be sure of the exact hour in Syria, only that it is not yet too late; but that the moderate opposition is shrinking every day – and that midnight is coming.