Game-changing: Syria, tough reality and alternatives to military adventurism

By Simon Barrow
September 1, 2013

As well as the expected vain pontificating and sabre-rattling, there has been a good deal of wise commentary on Syria, intervention and change in the past week or so -- seeking to get to grips with the hard politics of the situation, while not losing sight of the fact that it is suffering humanity (all of it, not just 'our' portion of it) that should always be the litmus test of effective action.

Perhaps the most important contributions are coming from those who cannot be readily dismissed as "the usual anti-war suspects" (Nick Cohen), but whose scepticism about military interventionism, alongside advocacy for the politics of containment, transition and change, is rooted in the hard lessons of strategy and history.

I say that as someone who, while totally willing to engage realpolitik, is finally committed to extending the armoury of nonviolence among all who will engage in alternative thinking and action, rather than someone who thinks that moral action ultimately involves endorsing or refusing to endorse the unleashing of weapons.

From that perspective (one rooted in a peace church tradition and a style of politics and policy which seeks to reframe rather than legitimate the status quo), I am going to offer twelve markers for engaging 'political reality' (below) responsibly and honestly, as well as some indicators about "what do do" in relation to Syria. But as a prequel to that I will cite a couple of writers who are starting from rather different places.

First, it is most unfortunate that the Guardian carelessly chose to title a thoughtful, passionate piece from ex-Times editor Simon Jenkins 'Syria: it takes more courage to say there is nothing outsiders can do' (, because he is most definitely not saying, "do nothing". That would be fatuous and immoral.

Like many sceptical of missile strikes, Jenkins is suggesting, with sound precedent, that ill-considered military intervention tends to make matters worse, to massage politicians' macho egos while leaving civilian victims of brutality terribly exposed, and to detract from the unpopular, thankless political and diplomatic slog needed to bring change.

He writes (29 August): While it was wrong to rush to judgment with inquiries still in train, there is justice in a desire to enforce the law [regarding chemical weapons]. But enforcement must be meticulous in its legality. Otherwise what is dispensed is anarchy, not law.

The government claimed it could attack Syria under the UN's "responsibility to protect" doctrine, where people in a foreign state are abused by their own government. We know from the Iraq invasion that British politicians are adept at finding lawyers to say what they want. But facts are facts. The UN's resolution 1674 on responsibility to protect plainly states that such action must be "through the security council in accordance with the charter". That process was absent.

The use of chemical weapons is awful. But to treat their apparently random use to justify an urgent, extra-legal attack on a foreign state is wilful. It had been precipitated by President Obama's unwise warning in the summer that such use would cross a "red line". This is odd from a leader whose own arsenal embraces phosphorous and depleted uranium shells and delayed-action cluster bombs, not to mention nuclear weapons. Why such dreadful weapons are not taboo, and chemical ones are, is a mystery.

Obama's intention is currently for a "limited, tailored … clear, decisive shot across the bows" of the Syrian government. The tactical basis for this is obscure. It can hardly claim to deter a chemical attack, since the red line speech tried and failed in that respect. While Assad seems unlikely to repeat the outrage, the idea that he will roll over if bombed and stop killing his people is naive. As for "degrading" his arsenals, if this releases chemical clouds how stupid is that? ...

Something-must-be-done wars have a long and wretched history, notably in the Middle East. .... Overstating the military and political potency of air power – mostly as a "sending of messages" – is as old as air war itself. ....

Dropping a few bombs would have been the nearest the British government got to Cameron's own charge of "standing idly by". It would have been careless of outcome, halfhearted intervention, intervention-lite.

In Syria the human misery is intense and agonising to watch. It merits extremes of diplomatic engagement and humanitarian relief, to which outside attention and expense should surely be directed. Bombs are irrelevant. They make a bang and hit a headline. They puff up the political chest and dust their advocates in glory. They are the dumbest manifestation of modern politics.

Writing in The American Prospect, senior correspondent Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel, of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 and of The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount argues in 'No Empire Strikes back' ( that "The days of unilateral imperial action are gone—American power is not enough to solve the conflicts in Egypt and Syria."

Yet, facing the crises in Egypt and Syria, the voices demanding American action sometimes mix necessary moral outrage with an implied belief that the United States can flex the imperial power of old. If Barack Obama hasn't replaced governments, he stands accused of weakness of character. In reality, the imperative to act is much greater than the ability to do so. ...

The chemical weapons attack in Syria has provided an even sharper message about the limits of power, even when you have the world's strongest military. Ignoring the corpses in Damascus would indicate that all US threats are empty, and send the message that mass murder by gas is an accepted part of war. Yet there's no strategic goal in Syria that Tomahawk missiles can serve.

The only way to destroy Syria's chemical arsenal would be a ground operation to take control of bases, secure them, and begin the slow process of destroying the weaponry, Israeli expert Yiftah Shapir explains. Shapir, head of the Military Balance Project at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says that air attacks on Syria's chemical-weapons installations could indeed be disastrous, releasing poison gases. An American offensive that topples Bashar al-Assad's regime only increases the danger. While most weapons for delivering gases require large military units, rebel groups might be able to seize and use rockets or shells with chemical warheads as they turn from fighting the regime to fighting each other.

Here lies the core of the problem: There is no reasonable strategy for an outside power to make Syria into one functioning state again. An American ground invasion is certainly not the method, even if there were someone in Washington interested in the idea. Internally, Syria "is even more complicated than Iraq," Shapir argues, with "all sorts of internal rivalries that have reemerged." Today the most likely outcome of the civil war, he says, is "disintegration and a long period as a failed state."

This touches on exceptionally painful realities, tinged with hope if we can learn from them. Here are my 'twelve indicators' for reading apparently intractable conflict situations:

* First, conflicts submerged by dictatorships (such as those the major powers have aided in the Middle East over the years) do not disappear quickly but work themselves out with exceptional pain and countless victims when an unlocking - such as the so-called Arab Spring - occurs. There is no short cut here.

* Second, civil wars usually fight themselves to a standstill before they reach the negotiating table, or are ended by a neighbour. Pushing all sides to recognise that reality and to start talking sooner rather than later is a vital part of what creative politics is about.

* Third, there is no military solution in the long run. Feeding that illusion by lobbing in missiles hopefully in the short run, especially without the clearest of realisable objectives, is not realism. It is cruelty.

* Fourth, you have to talk to people you don't like and negotiate with terrorists and dictators. This does not mean acceding to them (let alone arming them), but it does mean acknowledging that the forces they represent will have to be brought into a longer term resolution.

* Fifth, real solutions cannot be imposed from the outside but require local and regional creativity and negotiation. Power wise, we increasingly live in a multi-polar, not uni- or bi-polar world.

* Sixth, the circumstances in which humanitarian-driven military interventions (with all the usual provisos about targeted, limited etc.) can work are few and far between compared to the history of making things much worse and applying matches to powder kegs. 'Military effectiveness' measures itself in metrics convenient to its own assumptions in terms of identifiable victims/victors, geography, history and outcomes.

* Seventh, the interventions that end up mattering most - diplomatically, strategically and morally - are usually the early political ones that stop things escalating, rather than later ones that enable outside actors to assuage their guilt, impotency or rage at the cost of others' lives.

* Eighth, change is about producing people, civil society and structures of process and engagement that bring people together to argue, work and deliberate - it isn't about thinking that state actors and armies are the be-all and end-all for 'solutions' and 'good governance'

* Ninth, moral arbitration on the global stage cannot rely on a 'world policeman' concept, because this is a degenerated legacy of the imperial age, and one that ultimately ends up relying on those with might to be right. That is why reform of international institutions and the UN to include a far wider range of actors is vital, though no-one should kid themselves that it will not be immensely frustrating, too.

* Tenth, we invest billions of pounds (and the shrunken imagination of tens of thousands of politicians) in military machinery, equating security with the balance of terror, profit with arms sales, justice with coercion, peace with the absence of war, intervention with killing people, and "doing something" with the shell of a missile. Instead, we need to start to invest on a huge scale in unarmed forces -- in the machinery of conflict transformation (not post-hoc 'resolution'). This needs to be built into political and negotiation structures at all levels of all the societies we can, not wheeled out as a sticking plaster solution when conflict has escalated beyond reason. A transformational approach recognises conflict as usual and tragic, not exceptional and eliminatable, and in so doing perhaps surprisingly does not see it as fated to be fatal.

* Eleventh, different actors can achieve different things. States are, inevitably, secured and perpetuated by coercion. The trick for ones that seek to be humane is to reduce the levels of force as far as possible, to make the mechanisms of power as widely accountable as possible, to share economic benefit as widely as possible, and to put the flourishing of people and planet as near to the centre of their political tussles as possible. But non-state actors -- most especially churches, faith groups and civic organisations of good faith -- can and should seek to behave in different ways to 'the norm', and to exercise witness (providing sight of a good example) rather than control (an attempt simply to manipulate the machinery of power one way rather than another).

* Twelfth, courage is about putting our lives on the line through costly engagement, not someone else's through vicarious military adventurism. This is why Ron Sider, in launching Christian Peacemaker Teams (, asked: ""What would happen if Christians devoted the same discipline and self-sacrifice to nonviolent peacemaking that armies devote to war?" An answer to that question can only be provided by asking how people are transformed, not just the structures they build and inhabit -- something politics and secular philosophy is not habituated to enquire about, but which moral communities (religious ones, not least) should be.

Much of this is about longer-term thinking. But what might it involve in relation to practical action on Syria in the coming weeks?

It means, among other things, (1) pushing the Syrian regime to sit at the negotiating table for a Geneva II style of negotiations that could usher in a transitional arrangement (involving Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, Lebanon, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation); (2) getting evidence of atrocities and chemical agent use to the UN and the UNSC as soon as possible; (3) engaging the International Criminal Court to investigate war crimes in Syria; (4) enforcing arms embargoes with commitment and vigour across the board; (5) increasing and better allocating humanitarian funds to address refugee flows; (6) building political will for cooperation around non-military intervention options in both Syria and Egypt in the context of upcoming UNGA and R2P discussions; (7) regional and global action on chemical weapons control and the strengthening and extension of inspection regimes, (8) supporting the surprisingly large nonviolent activist movement in Syria (; and (9) "working with all stakeholders, state and non-state, to apply new non-military mechanisms to weaken the engaged parties’ capacities and motivations to commit atrocities against civilians" (

None of that amounts to a recipe for instant success or resolution. The reality is that there is no such recipe. But it as far from Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown's "doing nothing" mantra as you could possibly (I use the term advisedly) hope to be right now.

The last remark I will leave to my friend and colleague Dr Nick Adams, senior lecturer in theology at New College, Edinburgh, who like me is involved with the Centre for Theology and Public Issues ( there, but much more so in its vital project on peacebuilding, part of which touches on the Middle East.

He commented, in relation to one of my earlier articles, on social media: "The Muslim Brotherhood (or some of its more extreme elements; it's not a unified body) is regrouping in Eastern Libya after its set-backs in Egypt. Violence there is increasing as a result. Strengthening [the] Libyan government would build trust among Muslims in the region. Undermining the extremists in this way, across the region, is key to building a credible non-violent post-Assad government in Syria. Increasing funding for the British Council (which does so much for educational opportunities in the Middle East) is also a no-brainer and builds trust. Under Cameron, that funding has been cut. All the good things are much cheaper, but much longer-term. Government and Opposition [are] both failing on this."

My other recent articles:

* Commons Syria vote: a significant moment, but what next?

* Syria: what lies behind the clamour for military strikes?

* US and UK dossiers leave confusion over Syrian chemical weapons

* More on Syria from Ekklesia:


(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. Follow him on Twitter @simonbarrow

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