War has a way of throwing together the weirdest coalitions, but the likes of the collection of opponents that is set against military intervention in Syria is possibly without historical precedent. Not only is it very large, representing well over half the population of Britain and France according to polls taken last week. It is also so fantastically heterogeneous as to resemble a meeting spot for various species of intergalactic travellers.
Their arguments opposing swift and punitive strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, need it be said, are impeccable. They have the examples of Afghanistan and Iraq to point to; the sectarian geography of the region, which urges extreme caution; the likelihoods of mission creep, conflict spill-over, fresh enmities with Russia and China, a wave of anti-Western virulence and empowerment of the most ardent Islamic fundamentalists, all of which are indubitably real risks of any deeper involvement in Syria’s war.
By drawing so eclectically on the stores of knowledge and learning that are to be found among the component groups — peace activists and fanatics of realpolitik, anti-imperialists and devotees of empire, eurosceptics, and believers in the European ideal, critics of militarism and top military commanders — the opposition has thoroughly dominated the terrain of public argumentation following the chemical attack almost certainly carried out by Assad's regime in Ghouta, with a death toll close to 1,500.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s defeat in a parliamentary vote on Thursday over punitive military action was the moment this multitudinous backlash crystallized in political form. Thirty Tory MPs joined with the Labour Party, whose revenant leader, Ed Miliband, had insisted on a rigorously multilateral process passing through the large intestine of the United Nations. Many more Conservatives paid their duties of obeisance with barely disguised scorn. After all, almost local party members appear to have opposed intervention; The Daily Mail was against; the London Mayor Boris Johnson, principal Tory rival to Cameron, has adamantly resisted any sort of succour to the Jihadist radicals in combat on Syria’s streets.
Out to the further reaches of the right, the deployment of pacifist compassion to deter the war-mongers was equally extraordinary. Dan Hannan, a Conservative European MP running a crusade against the European Union, tweeted his own rebellion: “Let me get this straight. We dislike the use of gas because it kills indiscriminately. So we’ll respond by raining missiles on Syria?”
Hannan, by the way, may be remembered in Argentina as one of the more forthright exponents of British rights to and military garrisoning of the Malvinas. “We must leave them (the Argentines) in no doubt that we are still the people we were,” he wrote two years ago.
Cameron’s humbling experience in Parliament, which summarily ended the élan of his summer holidays, has been given numerous interpretations. This, in turn, reflects the variety of factions on offer. For senior Tories, it is a sign of his shallow mind and breezy indifference to proper political process. Supporters of Cameron fret over Britain’s new isolationism. Others on the left praise a definitive end to the legacy of Tony Blair’s foreign policy, itself a manipulative media repackaging of a long tradition of British expeditionary wanderings over the globe.
Having decided to send the question of retribution against Syria’s regime to Congress, it now seems highly probable that US President Obama will confront a similar interweaving of incompatible antagonists — as will his last remaining ally, France’s François Hollande. My inbox already overflows with the caustic attacks on any US retaliation on Damascus from left-wing radicals (it would “quite probably lead to the kind of conflagration found in the last chapter of the Bible,” proclaims one), alongside a slightly more measured yet equally definitive rebuttal from the hawks of the Stratfor intelligence agency. The same agency whose email archives were plundered by Wikileaks in 2012 due to the company’s supposed role as a nerve centre for global corporate capitalism.
Against this sort of pan-ideological mobilization, touting an array of convincing facts, what can the interventionists offer? Naturally, they have the moral fire: Assad’s regime is an exponent of unscrupulous cruelty against its people. It turned to chemical weapons because they seem a logical and economical continuation of aerial bombardment of civilians — a practice that has been going on now in Syria for well over a year. The imperative to do something in the case of war where over 100,000 have died is crushingly obvious. Not to feel any such urge is to forsake all ethical influence over foreign policy.
But moving on from this first step of outrage is extremely problematic. The military possibilities of a strike that neither disperses chemical gases, nor decapitates the regime, are hard to envisage. More profoundly, mass mental scarring from the lies and duplicity of recent foreign expeditions has not healed, and the interventionists’ arguments are easy to pick off as a result. Why attribute such great importance to the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 if Israel has not ratified it, and Egypt has not even signed it — both of them key US allies? And is it really credible to believe even a sensitive liberal commentator such as The New York Times’ Roger Cohen when he argues that the worst case scenario following a “limited attack” would be “more of the same” in Syria?
Suspicion and distrust of the interventionists are readily available commodities: easy to imagine and believe. Yet the moral case for intervention will not disappear lightly. And so long as it does not, it is incumbent on the disparate parties that together oppose an attack to come up with something more than a fuzzy “diplomatic” or “humanitarian” alternative. What diplomacy, precisely, is possible with Russia or Iran? What must be given to these governments to convince them to support a real Syrian transition? What hope is there of using the UN as a vehicle until a major reconsideration of geopolitical responsibilities occurs to all five permanent members of the Security Council? And who will pay for it all?
The revenge on the ghosts of Bush and Blair is satisfying to many, but surely it is right to wonder at the sanctity of those who may forget the very word Syria once the military option is lifted from the table.