There is an illusion that often afflicts many people of all sides in the discussion of international affairs. We tend to believe, whether to attribute blame or to call for action, that we in the West can steer the world. In actual fact what we can do is rather limited. We are confined by our own humanity, and the vastness of the regions that concern us – their politics, their landscapes, their religious and social divisions and unities. But on the few occasions when we are able to act, and improve people’s lives, it is essential that we do.
Last year ISIL conquered Mount Sinjar, an area dominated by the polytheist Yazidis. ISIL regard polytheism as a particularly repugnant kind of infidelism. They separated the women and children from the men, making adolescents lift up their armpits so that they could check for hair, and brought the men into a field where they were made to lie down and were sprayed with automatic fire. The women and children were sold into slavery.
In Syria, this kind of story is a daily occurrence. The behaviour of Bashar al-Assad, for instance, while less spoken about, is equally brutal. His side’s strategy for the last four years of this conflict has been to eliminate as many moderates as possible and present himself as the alternative to ISIL. His barrel-bombs, which explode in clusters, have killed far more civilians and reduced far more cities to rubble. Many Sunni people in Syria (justifiably, it must be said) consider him a greater enemy than ISIL. If there has ever been one, Syria is a mark on the conscience of the human race. It has been one of the most brutal conflicts since the Second World War: 240,000 dead; 12 million forced out of their homes, half of them children; a mass exodus of refugees like the world has never seen before. Anyone living under ISIL lives in constant totalitarian horror. They live in a world of religious police, crucifixions and child-soldiers. The Free Syrian Army are all dead. The people of cities like Homs and Aleppo face horrific daily bombardment from the regime. The border between Iraq and Syria now only exists on maps, and nobody who once lived there has a home anymore. It is a human rights catastrophe, and it has been one for four years now.
On Friday morning Kurdish and Yazidi forces finally reconquered Sinjar. The area has been seesawing for quite some time, but we are told that this is the end of all that. If we believe them, then it is a major victory. It is also too slow, and in the winning of every battle and the flip-flop of every city more and more people suffer and die. The Kurds deserve our help. It is time we gave it to them. There should be an international, multilateral coalition which should intervene on the ground in Syria, with the aim of toppling both ISIL and Assad and bringing peace to the region, and Ireland should be a part of it.
It should be well planned out. It will probably involve years of occupation – maybe a decade, maybe a little longer – and it will likely be a huge drain on resources. An awful lot of soldiers will die carrying it out. It might well be called a violation of international law. But we have a duty to the Syrian people, and the Iraqi and the Kurdish and the Lebanese people, to carry it out, because our principles – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – are not “white people” principles, and do not stop being principles on the other side of the Turkish border. The best thing we can do for refugees and their friends and families left behind is to enable them to live a free and safe life at home.
The only way to move Syria into a post-conflict era is with full military intervention. Bombs from the sky cannot undo the territory or the structures of governance that ISIL and Assad have imposed upon the Syrian people. They also cannot win the trust and cooperation of the Sunni majority; a multilateral intervention, which includes Sunni countries like Jordan and Turkey, and which prioritises the removal of Assad, would be much more credible during any reconstruction. Ireland should take part: not just because of our obligation, but because of our value. Ireland has unique experience in post-conflict regions and consensus-building from Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and the Israeli-Lebanese Border. In human terms that means that our army and our civil service has people who know how to get two people who once fought to sit down in a room together. They know what drives a person to get involved in this kind of conflict. They have come into a lot of contact with Hezbollah. We are also a former colony, and a more credible set of soldiers to see at your town’s doorstep than those of Britain or the United States.
Our neutrality is not neutral. In fact, it is an extremely active and difficult position. It involves turning away from the victims of atrocities and letting the leaders of countries murder their own people. It means burying your head in the sand. It sometimes even involves flagrant violations of international law: it is against international law, for instance, to take a neutral stance on genocide, as Ireland technically did with Rwanda and Darfur. Sometimes staying neutral is the right thing to do, but not always. In matters of great suffering, and of great principle, we should take a side. It is better to sacrifice our neutrality than to sacrifice millions to save it.
Time to face uncomfortable truths
Many of the arguments against humanitarian intervention in Syria in some way or other orbit the idea that an intervention will radicalise the region: many people point to the Iraq war as an example of this. This argument gives us far too much credit. It’s unclear, for instance, which of the Iraq War and the Arab Spring radicalised people more. But it also ignores the truth. People become radicalised for all sorts of reasons, but high among them surely are poverty and the presentation of jihad as an attractive option. ISIL’s massive social media presence, their making people poorer by blowing up oil pipelines and forcing people out of their homes, and their ability to claim that their land is a caliphate – a claim that gives them far more ideological credibility than organisations like Al-Qaeda ever had – is surely a far greater radicaliser than anything we can do, and putting an end to all of that will surely reduce rather than increase radicalisation.
After the Paris attacks, many people denounced the West’s response as ignorant or even racist, pointing to a suicide bombing that had occurred in Beirut that afternoon. Many of the same people are always quick to remind us on any such occasion that the attacks have nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. They tell us that we must all check our respective privileges. It is time for those people to either offer a solution to the killing in Syria, or relinquish the moral high ground. It is time for us to face uncomfortable truths, because they have been facing us for years now. If we truly care about the Syrian people we should make it so that they do not have to flee in broken boats across the Mediterranean. We should do what is hard and save their lives.
As a people, we are sceptical whenever anyone tells us that there is an enemy we must fight, and given the events of much of human history, we are right to be. War is dreadful, and final, and often completely pointless. But this does not change the unalterable truth: sometimes, we must go to war. Even when we neither seek nor provoke it, even though we may not wish to, we must go to war anyway. Sometimes the other side will not stop murdering people until we do. Sometimes we have no choice. And sometimes war can be effective, when it is precise and properly executed. War saved South Korea from one of the worst regimes of all time and free trade made it an economic and democratic powerhouse. War saved tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people in the Balkans and helped to topple the genocidal Milosevic regime. And war, now, is what is required to save Syria.
Photo by Kenny Holston