I’m rather puzzled by the almost universal depiction, in the West, of President Assad of Syria as a uniquely brutal dictator who murders his own people.
Assad may be a brutal dictator, although there have been worse in the Middle East, but why should it be such an outrage – causing David Cameron to go all high-pitched and purple - that he kills his own people? Assad has been involved since 2011 in something which, when it started, looked like a righteous uprising but is now recognised as that bloodiest form of conflict, a sectarian civil war.
He faces an armed internal insurrection from several directions and, as a legitimate head of state, is expected, even obliged, to meet force with force because the overriding imperative of the modern state is to protect itself (as Mr Cameron repeats daily).
Abraham Lincoln felt the same and said that the central issue of the American war was not slavery but the preservation of the union – a cause that took the lives of about 200,000 soldiers and untold numbers of civilians, because deaths through starvation, cross-fire, forced evacuation and disease are inevitable in civil wars. It’s a matter of proximity; of neighbours fighting neighbours so that murdering your own people, whichever side you’re on, is hard to avoid.
This is true of the civil wars in Vietnam, the Indian sub-continent, Spain, Nigeria, Indonesia, the Balkans and countless other conflicts, which we, the British, find shockingly bloodthirsty only because, 600 years on, we’ve forgotten that the English civil war sent about 85,000 combatants and at least 100,000 civilians to their competing versions of heaven and hell.
Civil wars world-wide often have a religious component (and I think that should read ‘always’ unless anybody can think of an exception), which secular, western Christians, and especially Anglicans, who haven’t been at one another’s throats for some time, find difficult to grasp.
Anglican Mr Cameron, when he wanted to intervene in Syria before the rise of Islamic State, thought he could selectively bomb the ‘good’ anti-Assad rebels without facilitating the rise of the bad guys.
This would obviously depend on his belief that our intelligence services have a detailed and precise knowledge of factionalism in the Muslim world – a view which, following Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Bosnia seems so naive that there’s no reply to it other than ‘pull the other one.’ (Remember that Mrs Thatcher and Mr Reagan actively supported what was to become the Taliban during the Afghan war against Soviet Russia in the 1980s; their very expensive foreign-police advisors having failed entirely to spot where things might lead).
I wrote at the time of Cameron’s air-strike intervention in Libya that it didn’t seem to me to be a good idea to get involved in other people’s civil wars. I think that principle still holds – for evidence look at the bloody mess that is Libya no
w - although the exceptional savagery of IS may constitute a case for making an exception.
Still, the future of Syria must lie with the Syrians and why a British Anglican should think himself capable of sorting it all out using questionable intelligence and remote bombing campaigns certain - as in all civil wars - to kill non-combatants, including, indirectly but just as deadly, children on the shores of the Mediterranean, defeats me.