Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Syria: how did we reach this point?

There exists a dangerous tendency on the left which believes that government is a place where everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts. This week has been a reminder that government is frequently a place where nothing is beautiful and everything hurts.

The 2012 case for intervention in Syria gets stronger and stronger every day, the awful predictions about what would happen if the west stood by and watched  – Assad has massacred civilians and put the rebel forces to flight, the resistance has become balkanised and radicalised, the conflict has spread beyond Syria – have become more and more accurate. But as the case for intervention then becomes more and more powerful, the chance of success now becomes ever more remote.

There is a temptation, in life and not just politics, to draw conclusions that allow you to agree with the people that you like. I want to agree with Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and, on this occasion, David Cameron. I want to support a western intervention in Syria. I want to disagree with the never-send-anyone-anywhere tendency, who have no answer to any of the pressing questions of the world today other than undirected anger. When I hear one of the isolationists talk about the ‘disasters’ in Iraq and Libya, I want to say: yes, there are disasters in Iraq and disasters in Libya. But we can imagine a path to a better future in Iraq and Libya, while the best we can offer in Syria is that Assad might go back to oppressing his people quietly and cleanly, so we don’t have to look at it any more.

The anti-war left is willfully deluding itself about the reality of what we are allowing to happen in Syria. We imagine that our hands are clean because we’re not intervening; but people who die because of what we do not do are just as much our moral responsibility as people who die because of what we choose to do. Our movement bears the responsibility for what happens in Baghdad; it also bears the responsibility for what still goes on in Harare. That same dangerous tendency that believes that government is an easy ride has only one answer to deaths in foreign lands, and that is: not our problem.

But while the anti-war left is wrong on the morality, and, in any case, arrives at that position almost by coincidence, it is, unfortunately, right on the policy. Day-by-day, the case for intervention in 2012 is made ever stronger by the diminishing likelihood of success in 2013.  Both Obama and Cameron are adopting the policy they should have begun with a year ago; not because they do not care, but because both of them allowed events to take control of the day-to-day. The hope is, as with Kosovo in 1999, a show of allied force will lead to a Russian U-turn, and Assad back around the negotiating table. But in 1999, Russia was led by a recessional ex-Soviet and no one knew for sure whether or not Blair and Bill Clinton were bluffing. Vladimir Putin is not Boris Yeltsin; and as both UK and US leaders have spent most of the crisis trying to avoid it, why would the Kremlin be convinced by this latest threat?

Labour’s position now shouldn’t be to arm the rebels. Douglas Alexander is right:  Syria is already awash with weapons, the opposition is still riven, the country’s major cities have been taken over by Assad loyalists and the conflict is spreading throughout the region. The answer isn’t to do what we ought to have done in a year ago; the answer is to look at why we allowed things to reach this. The answer isn’t ‘What should we do now?’ but ‘How did we reach a point where there was nothing left to do?’ That, not the belated attempt to revive yesterday’s solution, must be Labour’s line on Syria.


Stephen Bush writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


Photo: Freedom House

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Stephen Bush

is a contributing editor to Progress, formerly wrote a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


  • “The answer isn’t ‘What should we do now?’ but ‘How did we reach a point where
    there was nothing left to do?’”

    Errr…that isn’t an answer either, it’s another question!

    So yet again, Labour’s only strategy is to whine about what’s gone wrong but never to actually offer any constructive suggestions.

    In truth, I’m being a bit harsh on this one. Syria was never, never going to have a happy outcome. I’m by no means an isolationist or “anti-war” in the way you are talking about certain sections of the party – but I always hoped we would stay well away from this one!

    Syria is not, say, Libya. (Although anyone who imagines the situation there is better than under Gaddafi is an idiot – at least for women or religeous minorities) Putin was never going to let us intervene – at least not without doing so himself. (there’s a happy thought!) As you rightly point out, things are very different from 1999.

    But there is a greater question on intervention. We seem to all too aften think that a country will just “get better” if the power in charge is “removed”. If the so-called Arab Spring teaches us anything, this is usually not the case. Sometimes it really is better to do nothing because the alternative is actually worse.

  • An excellent article, Stephen. I think it’s important to remind ourselves that intervention can work. It’s also important to remember that what is happening currently in Syria has occurred without our intervention.

    Here is my Wall Street Journal and Coffee House article on Syria and intervention in which I reflect on lessons from a recent visit to Iraqi Kurdistan where I saw a son witnessing up the recovery of his father at a mass grave from the 1980s and also visited the Domiz refugee camp on the Syrian border where I met many families fleeing the violence.

  • The answer isn’t ‘What should we do now?’ but ‘How did we reach a point where there was nothing left to do?’ – you know it’s still happening right?

  • Total tosh from start to finish and no solutions at the end. Why are people, and Prime Minister’s in particular so obsessed with our country being world’s policeman? (along with the USA). How on earth is it in our national interest to have a proxy war with Putin? Why don’t the French or Germans intervene?You know why – because they are smarter than us.

  • The west cannot and should not sit on its hands. The death toll is approaching 100,000 people of which the UN puts the figure for children at 6,000 a figure more than the women killed at approaching 3,500. Refugees at 1.5 million. Just imagine if these were European or Israeli children having been slaughtered. The Labour Movement should not push all this to one side; this is a civil war which began as a fight for democracy and pluralism.

    What I cannot grasp is how people in our party can politicise this thing as a Cameron or Obama thing. This about stopping a brutal regime which as the UN has told us has committed massive inhuman acts and has criminal charges ready and awaiting for Assad’s henchmen. This is Labour at its lowest moral position since world war 2; we cannot ignore the horrors of the suffering and its on a par with rescuing people from the Nazi death camps , from Kosovo, from Cambodia’s killing fields. You ignore it – but never assume that all members of this party are ready to look the other way and forget that the basis of all politics is morality and brotherhood.

  • Its called humanitarianism, morality and responsibility and its what the allies did when their soldiers liberated the Nazi Polish death camps and picked out the living bodies from the dead ones.

  • With great respect, 6000 children dead; ‘do nothing’ ! ; Is this your Labour party? Its not mine.

  • Great idea, lets send in the troops and show these johnny foreigners in Syria how it should be done. Indeed I recommend that Stephen Bush be made a General with the power to form a PALS Brigade of card carrying intellectual like minded leftists who he can lead into battle to sort this terrible chap and his horrible followers out. This may leave a few squadies back in Blightly kicking their heals, which Gen Bushand his brigadiers may well loose, but hey the regular squadies on £17k pa, won’t on this occasion..!! Yet the ultimate sacrifice General Bush may well make will be a great example of putting your mouth where your well thought out academic evaluation is. Go get em Stephen….

    Perhaps leslie48, Lord Soley and John Slinger can be the first recruits, what better example than to lay down your life for something you believe to be right, as I sure you wouldn’t ask others to do what you would do first?

  • Thankfully, it’s not my labour party! God forbid!
    If you read my comment, I was critical of the poster for seemingly just being interested in complaining about what the government had done but was unable to offer any alternative.
    And I was certainly not suggesting that we do nothing on the diplomatic front…although whether that has any real chance of succeeding now is another question.
    As to the 6000 children…that’s my point. How many of those children would still be alive if had not been for the west’s support for the rebels? We have given encouragement to the rebels without which it’s probable that the uprising would have been crushed long ago.
    How many more dead children will there be if we arm the rebels? Bearing in mind Russia (and probably Iran) will then feel justified in more overt support!
    Let’s enforce a no-fly zone? What will we do if Russian aircraft fly in arms…shoot them down?
    As to it being “humanitarianism”…if only. It’s about power and influence…and in Assad’s case about getting rid of a bogeyman. The gulf war was the same and frankly if you believe we entered the second world war because we wanted to free people from the death camps, you need to read a little history.
    What concerns me is that in a few years we will look back and see…after our intervention…a country with even more dead children and even more refugees. And for what, so we could see a different bunch of thugs in charge? And that’s assuming Assad doesn’t win!

  • No Brit or American or other European soldiers lost their live securing Libya from the dreadful dictator Gadaffi ; Syria is not some trivial exercise ; its saving a nation’s citizens from a dictator’s brutality and inhumane actions to women and little children and its part of the UN’s remit for advanced democracies with air superiority to defend all threatened people’s. There is no morality in looking the other way ; you have twisted & reversed the Left’s traditional brotherhood & internationalist morality into rescue is wrong to ignore is right.

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