Published on 17 Jun 2013

Why Syria’s conflict is turning from a just war into a cold war

How will we regard the war in Syria in 30 years’ time – assuming it’s over by then, which is quite an assumption? (The war in Lebanon, a country similarly divided by sect but much smaller, lasted 15 years.)

We tend to look on conflict in moral terms these days – which side commits more atrocities? We have gone back to St Thomas Aquinas and the “just war” theory. After failure in Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s – where the world looked on as genocide took place – the UN developed the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” (R2P). The prime minister uses this language when urging further involvement in Syria.

It’s undeniable that the Assad regime has committed horrendous atrocities – far more than the rebels. The merciless onslaught on Babr Amr, a rebel-held suburb of Homs in 2012, documented in Paul Conroy’s new book Under the Wire, is evidence enough.

Yet most western governments and people are reluctant to get involved because of the mess in Iraq, where the US invasion turned a bad but stable situation into out-of-control violent chaos, and the aftermath of Libya, where intervention dislodged a dictator but left a void where the state should be.

These are practical, not ideological, objections. But now we have a new element: is this a new cold war? President Putin of Russia (above right, with David Cameron) is providing Bashar al-Assad with weapons and diplomatic support, while a reluctant President Obama says he’ll send arms to the rebels. So is a moral struggle morphing into a power play?

Sadly, I think it is. The Middle East is changing shape, with sectarian and diplomatic loyalties trumping any kind of morality. The misplaced confidence of western governments (how often have we heard in the last two years that Bashar al-Assad was about to fall?) only encouraged his backers, Iran and Russia, to provide more support.

The Americans thought that Assad’s fall would provide them with a quick and easy incidental victory over Iran. Such wishful thinking. Assad’s survival has become a boost for Iran. The new cold war looks like this: Russia, Iran and Iraq back Assad. The west plus Gulf states, Jordan and Turkey back the rebels. Sectarianism – the countries backing Assad are Shia, the ones backing the rebels are Sunni – is being inflamed by old enmities from Europe after WWII.

I wish I had a solution. I just keep thinking about Africa in the 1980s. Nowadays we look on the struggle against apartheid as a moral battle. So it was, but why did apartheid South Africa crumble in 1989? Partly because the economy was foundering under sanctions and those who struggled for racial equality had won the argument, but mainly because the cold war was over.

It was the year the Berlin wall came down. The west had no more reason to back (however shame-facedly and covertly) the apartheid regime, because the ANC could no longer be seen as a Trojan horse for communism. Communism – at least in its powerful, Soviet style – was over. Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia – country by country cruel, pointless proxy civil wars ground to an end. It was no longer in the interest of capitalists or communists to stir up the tribal, racial and variously venal motivations the various sides had for fighting each other.

So I wonder if outside forces will be more important than the internal dynamic in bringing the conflict in Syria to a close. This war could run and run, pitting Sunni and Shia against each other across the region, but maybe the best thing the west could do is try to sort out its deteriorating relationship with Russia.

Follow @LindseyHilsum on Twitter

Tweets by @lindseyhilsum

5 reader comments

  1. adil says:

    Is that really Russia’s game? I’m not sure. I think it’s less ideology and more business. It makes good business sense to supply weapons to areas of conflict. However, perhaps in this case it’s a double edge sword as both sides have elements quite willing to export the fight to those they see supporting the other side.

    From the little I understand external influence comes from neighbouring countries and seems to be following more of a Shia-Sunni conflict agitated by neighbouring states (similar to the Iran-Iraq wars) as you indicate. I think it is dangerous for Western governments to view the middle east along country borders. It really should be seen along tribal and religious lines where the impact of an action on one group in one country may have consequences from the same group in a different country.

    If Russia were to continue to supply arms to the Syrian government it’s possible that Chechen hostilities on Russian soil may be the least of their problems.

  2. TheRedPill says:

    What is being played out is nauseating. Its nauseating because it is so obvious to anyone who has a memory and a compulsion to research for all perspectives for the simple self respecting aspiration to be able to join the dots and have a clearer grasp of what is going on behind the curtain.

    Its happening again and its been happening since the 50’s when a certain foreign intelligence agency successfully managed their first coup on a foreign govt. The precedent was set. Today’s media are equally culpable because they are part of the deliberate dissonance purposefully managed/manipulated/constrained by your paymasters.

    Journalism today is nothing more than politically biased press release stenography, too lazy or apathetic to upset their editors for an easier life of writing bilge and meeting for liquid lunches. Sound bites for a dumbed-down populace of 6pm-9pm consumers after a days work.

    The disgraceful pitiful ‘performance’ of most of the press over the chemical weapons debacle is typical. If any journalist worth the name engaged in ANY kind of research they would know it was suspect. The fact that the ‘evidence’ has not been presented. The fact that the UN has a specific process for authenticating such a charge was predictably flouted. The fact that one the UN’s very own, a distinguished ex-Swiss Attorney General and Internantional War Crimes Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte relayed to the press (clearly without prior permission from the US controlled UN) that her investigative team accounted for ‘evidence’ of chemical weapon use by the rebels and then was subsequently hushed up and subject to character assassination by the media. The fact that what was viewed on youtube was not only laughable it does not correlate in any way to the documented symptoms of sarin attacks.

    And lets not even go into the bigger picture of why the USA is obsessed with undermining Iran. Taken a look of a map of Iran lately? Count the US military bases surrounding that country. When is the last time Iran invaded anyone? Over 2 centuries ago. It doesn’t matter. The media urged by one insidious govt agencies influences all others because we are constrained by our dependency of mutual business regardless of the morality. On the issue of Syria, apart from Channel 4’s Alex Thomson and the Independants Robert Fisk all the rest are sheep. Some more than others like the awful Nick Cohen of the Observer are blatant disgusting govt mouthpieces

  3. Dr David Hill says:

    Syria, the next nail in the West’s Economic coffin.

    Why is it that western governments get it so horribly wrong and their eastern counterparts get it so overridingly right? For over the last quarter of a century there has been two wars going on – one military and the other economic. The irony of the former is that it has also been economic under the guise of war. Indeed, has anyone ever wondered why China has marched on economically and why the West has decisively gone backwards? Using common sense gives us great insights into what has happened. Whereas China has not gone to what is commonly known as conventional War, the USA, UK and its western allies have. Joseph Stiglitz, former World Bank economist and others have estimated recently that the real cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars at the end for the USA alone will be in the range $4 trillion to $6 trillion. To put matters into perspective the United Nations considers that $30 billion a year would end world hunger. Therefore for the average of $5 trillion, why not end world hunger for 167 years? But these Wars have cost the UK dearly also and some place the costs at the end to over £100 billion (or around $150 billion). For other western allies collectively the Wars have most probably cost them at least $50 billion and a total projected cost to the West of between $4.2 trillion and $6.2 trillion. But if we add in the Wars that the West has been involved with since the end of WW2 in real terms, the cost to the West moves towards $10 trillion. Therefore whilst the West has been going to War and countries like China have not, the West has got poorer by the year and where China is marching on to eventual Economic supremacy. Add in again the $15 trillion of Western bank debt and we can see why our governments have got it so horribly wrong and why China et al have got it so right. Indeed, whilst China has been building up its nation through the economic war of the last quarter of century, we in the West have been fighting the wrong Wars, even it has to be said unfortunately for our servicemen who died in fighting for our own kind of western War. Which politicians have intelligently run their nations it has to be asked?

    Dr David Hill
    Chief Executive
    World Innovation Foundation

  4. Philip says:

    The Russians are largely the same as the West. They support “their” dictators in the way we supported & still support “ours”. They have a Muslim problem internally – as do the Chinese. However, none of the Middle eastern countries has any interest in harming us, if we stop poking our noses aggressively & often militarily into their affairs. So far all our intervention has achieved is some relief for the Kurds in Iraq, but otherwise the radicalisation of a fair number of Muslim young people in the UK (most of them British citizens) and along with it a feeling on the part of most Muslims in the UK that the UK is anti-Muslim (& when you see some of the comments in the recent FACTCHECK item, you can see what they mean!). There’s a simple answer for us – keep out! Morality in international affairs has always only gone so far -e.g. Tibet. So let’s remind ourselves that we’ve better things to focus on at home: let’s solve our problems rather than pretend we’re helping to solve those of other countries, when often we just make matters worse.
    (And what sort of morality is it anyway that allows millions to continue to live in disease & poverty while we spend vast amounts of money on cosmetics, cosmetic surgery, tanning, nails, hairdos, “pampering”, etc? The better we look on the outside, the less of us there is on the inside!

  5. Nom DePloome says:

    “undeniable that the Assad regime has committed horrendous atrocities – far more than the rebels”…? I fail to see what’s so “undeniable” about such an assertion but, no doubt, David Cameron will be grateful to you for making it. However, we simply do not know which side has committed most atrocities, and it’s uncharacteristically dishonest of Lindsay to pretend we do.

Comments are closed.