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Eoghan Rice / Trócaire

Senior Fellow John Slinger: Syria Needs Our Help, Not Pity

Original article published in The Huffington Post18th October 2013.

In a parallel universe, leopards change their spots, shun the family tradition of massacring their citizens, and give up power merely because of sanctions, criticism and the constrained admonitions of a former UN Secretary-General. In the real world, mortar shells really do rip apart the bodies of children who differ from ours merely in their misfortune to live in present-day Syria.

Kofi Annan’s exit, stage left, symbolises not the death of diplomacy, which never had more than a walk-on part in this tragedy, but instead the triumph of cynical, nihilistic realpolitik over all that is represented by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Remember that Annan, who now scolds the international community for “finger-pointing and name-calling”, presided over the UN’s most shameful recent ‘humanitarian non-intervention’ in Rwanda. His mission, no doubt embarked upon with noble intent, was doomed to failure once Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama acquiesced to the Russian and Chinese Security Council veto, gifting a protective shield to Assad as he trampled Syria’s civilians.
We must not allow leaders and commentators to conflate expressions of horror with those of shock. Death and mayhem are a sickening inevitability in a grand international game that appeases aggression and relinquishes the responsibility to protect. Tyrants not only make the news, they watch it. Assad understood that intervention to prevent human rights abuses and crimes against humanity is the exception to the rule and took the West at its word when it said it would not help the people of Homs or Aleppo as it had those of Benghazi. It is hardly surprising that he applied the first rule of dictators: continue until stopped.
We must challenge the claim that all Western intervention is cynical, exploitative neo-colonialism, or that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is the sole arbiter of legality, if not morality, by reminding that inaction is a form of action. We cannot use diplomatic legalese to vaccinate ourselves against moral responsibility for what ensues. For every so-called ‘disastrous intervention’ there are as many, if not more ‘catastrophes of non-intervention’. Indeed the former often only occur when the shame induced by the latter reaches fever pitch. Both sides of the argument, those in favour and those opposed to limited military intervention, must factor into their moral and practical calculation the possible negative consequences of their chosen path. Whilst intervening militarily in Rwanda might have led to greater bloodshed, no-one can deny that one million civilians perished in the absence of intervention. Because nobody has the benefit of hindsight, it follows that none have an exclusive claim to the moral high ground.
The civilians of Syria do not need our pity, our outrage, or further diplomatic missions. They need our practical help now. Those who doubt what even limited military intervention can achieve, should ask the Kurds of Iraq for their perspective. They only gained true respite from Saddam once the West had imposed a no-fly zone, and are currently petitioning the UK Government for official recognition that their prolonged persecution was genocide, lest the world forgets. Syria must not become a no-intervention zone, for malevolent regimes are watching the spectacle of our failure to act. We the strong have chosen not to come to the aid of the weak when we could have done so.

About John Slinger

John Slinger was a Senior Fellow at the HSC. He formerly worked for Ann Clwyd MP in the House of Commons, during which time he supported her in her capacity as the Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Special Envoy to Iraq on Human Rights, twice visiting Baghdad. He is on the Executive Committee of Labour Friends of Iraq.