Just over two years ago I met some young bloggers from Syria at an event to discuss media, globalisation and human rights. I asked how long they thought it might take to win the changes they hoped for and how long they felt they could keep up pressure on their leader. I distinctly remember a lively and articulate young woman saying, with smiles and great optimism, that they would keep going for ‘as long as it takes’ until democracy comes to Syria.
Two years later I wonder where she is and how she is; how the other positive young people are who I met then. Two years later my questions still remain – how long will it take for change to come and for how long pressure can be maintained? But I now have further questions – how many more lives must be lost and how can those of us who give a damn now make a difference?
The Syrian struggle is no longer primarily in the hands of social media activists but in the world of bullets, bombs and, it seems, chemical weapons. Reports suggest that a million children have been displaced and perhaps 100,000 lives lost. Such figures are hard to know for certain while armed conflict rages but we can be sure that the human cost has been unacceptable.
Neighbouring countries have taken in refugees, including Jordan – where Palestinians still live in camps and Iraqi people live, displaced by the western-led war there. I have faced the anger of Iraqi’s when working in Jordan – they were enraged at Britain’s role in the destruction that invaded their country: yet they were no fans of Saddam Hussein. This was personally tough to take – I had long opposed UK and US wars, from Vietnam to the Falklands to Iraq – but I fully understand the power of my nationality to provoke anger.
I loved visiting Damascus. The old city, its alleyways and wonky buildings, the shops and cafes were part of what I have always enjoyed about the flavour of the Middle East. Contradictions also abound – I hadn’t expected to see the posters of Britney Spears, with few clothes, adorning shop windows. Quirkiness, unpredictability and a strong sense of history shape the place but now that fascinating country is bathed in blood.
Our common humanity must mean that we should also bleed when such massive loss of life and such profound harm ravages a people. International law captures our obligations to each other in the idea of ‘responsibility to protect’. Little tested in practice, this principle is increasingly recognised as a framework to act against inaction, as grounds to secure the wellbeing of those failed by authorities close to them.
But the history of recent western led military interventions in the MENA region does not create a geo-political vacuum into which to plan another intervention. The legacy of these smell of haste, short-sightedness and a lack of legitimacy. The United Nations provides a crucial lynchpin for intervention – including, if it happens, international military action. To act without it really should not be an option. Supplying arms to a warring country, with their recipients unconfirmed and their journey in a post-conflict time unpredictable, is dangerous.
But to leave the Syrians to face continuing and massive dangers and further loss of life also cannot be an option lightly adopted.
Labour is right tonight to outline its opposition to Cameron’s proposal tomorrow, without further information from the inspectors. This debate will undoubtedly continue – as is does, let’s be sure to explore much more fully, and with safety and human security prioritised, the alternatives to military intervention.
Dr Purna Sen is Labour’s PPC for Brighton Pavillion